Industry Insider: 411 Music Group CEO Kristen Agee

We chat with composer and CEO of publishing / sync licensing company 411 Music Group, Kristen Agee to learn what artists can do to best get synced.
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Kristen Agee

Publishing and sync licensing is a topic that generally makes people’s eyes roll over. The end product can be fascinating and career changing, but the nuances can be exhausting. For artists though, having a good publisher that also gets sync for your music can be a game changer with additional revenue and public opportunities. We chatted with the CEO of one of those companies, Kristen Agee, who heads up LA-based company 411 Music Group.

The company provides synchronization licensing, custom score and publishing administration for artists with a roster that includes work for Undercover Boss (CBS), Chrisley Knows Best (USA), 24 Hours to Hell and Back (Fox) and the trailer for the final season of Game Of Thrones. We chat about what artists can do to help their chances of getting a sync, the value of a publisher and much more.

She is also a key part of a collaborative album that combines the talents of numerous composers titled The Light and Dark: London. The project brought together a number of composers including Brian Carr, Steve Edwards, Benji Merrison and Hospital Records Drum & Bass DJ Keeno and was produced by Kristen Agee. The project arrives November 15.

How can an artist best present their music so it has the highest chance of getting a sync?

This is sort of a multi-part answer. First of all, the music needs to sound good. A song needs to be well structured, have a high production quality, ideally have a build, be lyrically relevant and, in theory, general enough thematically so that it works in a variety of scenes or storylines. For example, an ideal “love song” for sync is one that could apply to a boyfriend/girlfriend, mother/daughter, friend/family member, etc. You can’t always write this way, but we focus on what works for sync. It’s not meant to stifle creativity; it’s meant as a launching pad. Remember that music is used in media to support the picture. If the music is distracting in any way, it needs to be edited to provide a storyline and enhance the mood, not interfere with the dialog or action of a scene.

The second part of this is how to submit your music to a publisher, sync agent or music supervisor. There are books written about this question, but in a nutshell, as a publisher and sync agent, I like to see:

  1. A short email (and when I say short, I mean SHORT)
  2. A very quick “about” you, which ideally highlights what you’re looking to do. For example, “I’m an artist looking to write for other people,” or “I’m a composer looking to submit one-stop music to your production catalog.”
  3. The music you’re submitting in a streamable link. Some people like to stream and download the music. I personally do not download anything until we are in the asset delivery phase.
  4. A rights breakdown of the songs you’re submitting. This doesn’t need to be super detailed in an intro email, but if someone writes and says “Hi, my name is x, and I’m a composer looking to have my 10 one-stop trailer albums represented in sync on an exclusive basis for the world, I’m the sole writer and own 100% of all rights…” I know exactly what they want and what I can do with it.

Is there a difference in the type of music you try and sync for commercials with TV and movies?

Music use tends to be different by territory as well as by media. A lot of ads look for inspired, uplifting, or building underscore and songs that motivate people. Others have a high-tech, solution driven sound that is synth-led and thought provoking. Other brands have a badass sound and look for empowered, cool, swagger music. Brands also have to be careful with whom they align themselves with. They may need to do background checks on artists and have awareness of how their brand is being represented by the music or artist.

TV shows need a lot more music and have more space to fill. A lot of TV is either scored to picture, “scored” with a library or cue packages, and/or license songs. Most shows do a combination of these.

Films are typically scored to picture and supplemented with licensed songs and library. If a soundtrack is being released, sometimes film studios will go to artists to have custom songs written for the film soundtrack. Lyrics are typically important in these instances. They are usually not too on the nose but will allude to the theme or concept.

What do you look for in music and artists you want to sign?

We do three things: production music, commercial artist music, and custom music. We are a music publisher, but our focus is on synchronization and creative. So, really, we don’t need hits to work on sync. We need music that works well to picture. We also need a wide variety of genres and niche categories/regional specific music. If an artist is looking to have a career as an artist and potentially upstream to a label or sign a publishing deal with us, we have a lot more to evaluate and consider before signing. We work with a lot of composers and writers who are just looking to write. It really comes down to the music, what the artist wants, and whether we can make it work for our clients.

What is an example of an artist that at first struggled to get placements, but then something clicked for syncs?

I’ve worked with a lot of writers over the years that are amazing writers. I’ve just worked with them to shape their writing style to write specifically for TV/promos/games, etc. and build their music in a way that allows more flexibility in the edit. A few years back, we signed the music of an indie singer/songwriter called Whim. Her song, “Small Infinity”, was used for the end title on one of the last episodes of New Girl on Fox with Zooey Deschanel. Whim went from less than a thousand plays on Spotify to hundreds of thousands of plays in a short amount of time. Fans started hitting her up every day wanting to hear more music and let her know they identified with her songs. 

We’ve also been working a lot with the artist Cupcakke. Her songs are explicit and traditionally too vulgar to use in sync, but people love her and have been licensing her music a lot. She’s been dealing with some personal issues recently, and I really hope she bounces back because she is very special and so talented.

What is one thing an artist looking to take on a scoring gig should do if they don’t know where to start?

I’m an advocate of discovering your strengths and filling in the gaps. If you’re great at producing music but don’t write lyrics, work with a topliner or vocalist. If you’re a songwriter but don’t know how to record, pair with a producer/engineer. The first step is sometimes the hardest, so don’t be afraid to try, ask questions, and work with people who can help further your career, and ideally you, theirs. If you want to write, I recommend pairing with a team like 411 Music Group who will help you with the business side, collect your publishing, pitch you as a composer or work with your songs and start generating revenue. It’s difficult to focus on both the business and creative side effectively, so try to focus on what you’re good at, genre-wise, as well. Don’t try to do every genre. It’s good to hear everything you can do, but I’ll typically narrow and get to know each person’s best genre. That’s what I end up going to them for. Also, you must, must, MUST deliver. You can be the most talented writer in the world, but if you can’t deliver, we can’t work with you.

How do you manage doing business as a music entity in China given their strict censorship?

We have offices in LA, London, Switzerland and are direct in a few territories. Everywhere else, we have publishing partners and agents with local entities who work our music. Like in most territory, our Chinese sub-publisher handles all of the licensing, any restrictions and legalities of the territory.

How did you get your start in the music business?

I started as a full-time writer and moved into the business side. I grew up playing classical violin, got into guitar, bass, sound engineering, and used to record and collaborate with different writers and artists. I started putting people and albums together, signing music rights, building a catalog and 411 just kept growing from there.

How do you factor in artist’s conduct outside of music when A&Ring vs being impartial and just caring about their catalog of music?

As I mentioned above, this definitely comes into play with ads or bigger overall licenses and brand alignment. For me, I want to work with people I like, trust and believe in. And, again, I cannot stress how important it is to be able to deliver and be proactive. An artist can be amazing, but if they don’t show up to sessions or deliver their music on time, or aren’t in communication, it really makes it difficult to work with them long term. I like to build long-lasting relationships with our clients and writers. Usually, if you have a feeling about something in the beginning, you’re probably right. We give people a chance, but sometimes if you know something may go a certain way, 98% of the time you’re right.

What type of people/specific qualifications do you look for in potential employees at 411?

We’re a close, tight-knit team. I really want to work with a diverse group of people with different strengths and opinions. At the end of the day, I also want to work with people who I like and enjoy being around. You have to have a level of flexibility, self-motivation, and autonomy yet be able to accept working as a team. I have our interns sit in the office with me, bring them into our meetings and ask what they think. No one person is more important than another in our organization, and I like to allow for everyone to have a voice.

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