Splitting his time between Los Angeles and Montréal, Jeff Waye started Third Side Music (TSM) after years of running the famed independent electronic music label, Ninja Tune. Third Side Music is now celebrating its tenth year and has made a name for itself by securing high-budget sync placements for hundreds of independent and experimental artists in every genre. Jeff and his team are bonafide music nerds and they wear that badge on their sleeves with pride. Relationships mean everything to them, and they bend over backwards for their clients, their artists, and each other in order to uphold that belief. This is one of the many reasons why TSM has been able to expand the audiences and incomes for so many amazing independent artists over the years.
Notable artists include: Basically everyone making innovative music these days — Badbadnotgood, Bonobo, Flying Lotus, Auf der Maur, The Cinematic Orchestra… see for yourself!
Licensing and sync isn’t necessarily known for being super kind to indie musicians out there, why is that?
Publishing in general, Jesus. The music industry doesn’t really have an honest history. I’ve worked in promotion, in distribution, I worked for labels, and it was probably only like three years into running this company before I felt like I had any grasp on all the various aspects of publishing, and I’d be full of crap if I said I had a 100% grasp on it now… Which is why I partnered with a lawyer, but there’s a ton of different revenue streams, a ton of stuff to understand, it used to be a fraction of those but the internet has exploded all sorts of new revenue that hadn’t previously existed. It’s a hard industry to navigate without experience which lends itself to people taking advantage of you all the time. Indie artists have that particularly bad. I’ve got stories…
It’s probably easier than ever now for content-creators to steal people’s music without them knowing about it…
Well yes, and on the flip side of that, it’s probably easier than ever for people to find out about their content being used — say, on some weird Russian website that jacks your music. It will show up on a message board somewhere or someone who knows someone will post about it, you know?
I saw Colin Stetson play in Austin a few years ago, and he blew me away. I tracked him down and did a deal with him the next day. We ultimately got his music in Twelve Years a Slave. It was nuts, getting one of the most amazing avant-garde talents into an Oscar-winning film.
Can you talk about that moment of change, in the music industry when everything started to fall apart?
Back in the early 2000s, when I was at Ninja Tune, it was such an odd time, we all could read the writing on the wall and see that the music industry was totally upending itself, but nobody really knew where it was all going. I remember we were putting out Kid Koala’s second record, and we had a meeting where we talked about the budget, like, “how much are we going to put forward for touring, advertising, etc., based on how many copies we think we’re going to sell. Well, we did sell 55,000 copies of the first record, granted there was a Radiohead support tour involved so lets lop 15,000 copies off the top right there. Subtract some figures based on this new music economy where people are downloading everything, so let’s budget for 20,000 copies and see what happens.” We would get to the end of the campaign and realize we’d only sold 10,000 copies and be like, “sh**.” So we lost a bunch of money since we budgeted, conservatively, on 20,000. You can still make money on 10,000 copies, but only if you know that that’s your ceiling. Nobody knew how to plan for anything anymore so it was super tumultuous. Back then, had we not started to diversify to sync licensing for our artists, we would’ve gone out of business.
You know, you have two bad months with your distributors and you’re wondering where you’re going to get your payroll from next month to pay people, and then a $200,000 car commercial walks in the door, and it’s like, oh that’s where!
Look, I grew up on punk, lo-fi indie rock, and hardcore, but I was running an independent electronic music label, the fact of the matter was that Amon Tobin was not held to the same standards of “selling out” as your average punk band. So we could actually move in those circles without criticism most times. We started to plant our roots and get our artists situated within the spheres of sync revenue early, and by the time everybody else caught on to the fact that this was a very viable revenue stream for independent artists, we were already 5-6 years ahead of the curve.
Amon Tobin for Lincoln MKX
Did being ahead of the curve with Ninja Tune inspire the start of TSM?
We were ahead of the curve, but only in the sense that we knew who to talk to, how the process worked, and how to negotiate the parameters of deals and write up contracts. We still didn’t really have the right catalog for this stuff, because we were working in a pretty narrow genre. So I thought, well this is just stupid, why are we sitting here just hitting delete on every request we get for rock music, country? Time to rebrand, and take this in a different direction and sign new artists. And that needed to be carved out of a new company.
So yeah, we just tried to get the best of the best of each genre, the best artists we could find, and a lot of them obviously came from Ninja Tune since those were our favorite artists in the world, but we also then have this amazing catalog to leverage to producers and music supervisors looking for anything. Like, we knew what they needed all of a sudden, faster than they did.
There’s something about cracking the mainstream code of a perfect track sometimes. And the weirder, more avant-garde it is, the cooler it feels… It feels like we’re winning when we get to put really interesting music in front of people who don’t even know they’re listening to something interesting.
Was the transition from Ninja Tune to a more open indie sync company difficult?
No it was pretty easy. The thing with the sync world is that music supervisors are looking for good music, but they’re also looking for people who have their stuff together, since most of this all happens on the fly. Like if this editor is cutting a film trailer on Friday, realized they couldn’t get the song they had in there, needs a really fast replacement… they ask, “what company do we know that can get this done and back to us before packaging the scene on Sunday night?” So a lot of it was just having the right reputation.
I mean, having the catalog is one thing, but knowing the space is also really important, the music-nerdiness of it. If you get a brief looking for something specific, you can’t be the company that sends them a bunch of stuff they weren’t asking for, but that doesn’t mean you can’t send them four tracks totally on-brief and a fifth track which is like, “if you thought about going the other way with it, here’s something totally different.” We’ve been really good about keeping a great rep with our clients over the years, I sometimes think our tagline should be “Third Side Music: 10 Years of Not F***ing Up.”
There’s something about cracking the mainstream code of a perfect track sometimes. And the weirder, more avant-garde it is, the cooler it feels for us that we get to do that. We had the Suuns’ “2020” in a Nike commercial with Kobe Bryant, and it was perfect. It’s now in the new trailer for Ant-Man.
Suuns for Ant-Man
Speaking of which, I was super surprised when going through your roster, to see that there is a ton of really nice avant-garde, boundary-pushing artists in there and that it’s not a sugar-coated group by any means. What are some successes in being able to push this stuff?
A great anecdote for that is when I saw Colin Stetson play in Austin a few years ago, and did what I expect most people do when they first see Colin, which is to wander up to the stage and say, “where are all the pedals?… Oh… there’s none at all.” So he blew me away. I tracked him down and did a deal with him the next day. We ended up getting a bunch of great placements and scoring gigs, and ultimately culminated in him having music in Twelve Years a Slave, and his track is in one of the key scenes in the movie. It was a little bit nuts, getting one of the most amazing avant-garde talents into an Oscar-winning film and one of the biggest films of that year.
We were joking a few months ago, I met with him to give him yet another huge royalty check and said “you know what, man, when I signed you five years ago I had no idea we’d be able to do anything with your music, I just knew I had to work with you. And here we are!” So yeah, it feels like we’re winning sometimes when we get to put really interesting music in front of people who don’t even know they’re listening to something interesting.
I’m always surprised when we get stats we can see how many people used Shazam to find out what underground songs are playing in the show. Ultimately then, those bold choices get imitated and then weird music becomes the new norm.
I think people make bolder and bolder choices these days, and every time those choices get made it sets the standard for television, film and advertising to get more interesting. You know, The Blacklist is a pretty massive mainstream NBC show, again, we’ve had Colin Stetson, Suuns, Alice Russell, loads of artists featured — which is a big deal, it sets the narrative for the whole show. And I’m always surprised when we get stats we can see how many people used Shazam to find out what underground songs are playing in the show. Ultimately then, those bold choices get imitated and then weird music becomes the new norm.
Have there been major changes in the world of sync licensing over the years?
I think the big change is that everyone’s doing it now. But it’s very much gone from a seller’s market to a buyer’s market. Music supervisors used to have trouble even finding enough music to license, and now that’s completely flipped, so the client is in charge of a lot of the fees and terms at this point. You used to just have a handful of clients and now the amount of content that’s out there that needs music, it’s exploded exponentially.
It’s not about chasing one to five big paying car commercials, which it kind of used to be, these days you add up enough smaller sync projects, from $1000 to $5000 per year, and you’re able to make sure every member of your indie band walks away with a decent revenue to supplement album sales and touring at the end of the year.
+ Read more: Musicbed is revolutionizing how filmmakers find music for their creative project with a simple, sleek online system. Find out more in our Entrepreneurship in Music interview with founder, Daniel McCarthy.
There’s an interesting tidbit in your FAQs about charity pricing, does that reflect a sliding scale value of the content you’re offering for licensing?
Yeah, well, some people are new and don’t have the budget yet, but might in the future, and you also need to be open to working with charitable causes, because as a decent human being you should be. So there is a sliding scale with regards to pricing. But at the same time, there’s work going into everything we do, and of course the artists put in tons of work so we need to maintain a level of integrity that values the music as best we can. Look at it this way, on an average awesome album, there’s only maybe three songs that have the potential to be sync hits, so if one of those becomes iconic you can’t just let it go to someone else for $500, the song needs to uphold its market value. But that still leaves like eight really good songs on the album that you could do for a much lesser fee, without affecting the market value of the hits.
We have what’s called an “Easy Clear Catalog,” so for people without a huge budget, we tell them, “listen we can’t license you any hits for your project, but if you need good quality music here’s a list of 100 songs you can choose from.” Non-negotiable terms and rates, but they’re cheap.
Flying Lotus for Apple Music
What separates you from your competition?
I don’t feel like I sign artists, I feel like I go into business with them, and I think that’s the fundamental difference. I don’t feel like I have ownership or copyright over their work, or that I’m collecting their assets, I just feel like I’m in 500 different business relationships with other artists. And it’s an independent way of thinking, but then again, I also feel like punk rock and DIY are now marketing terms. And they’ve almost lost their meanings. But we’re self-financed, self-owned, but still big enough to get some of the major indies in major commercial productions, so it’s a conundrum really.
The weird thing for me is how some music translates or doesn’t translate in the sync world. Like, Odesza for example, just sold out Red Rocks and they sell massive amounts of records, but we can’t get a sync license on them to save our lives. On the other hand, The Heavy (whose song “How You Like Me Now” has been in just about every ad and TV show in the last two years), they are one of our most synced bands ever, but they’d probably play for less than 500 people if they came to town. Just because music supervisors like something doesn’t mean the album sold.
Why did you decide to call the company Third Side Music?
I have a running theory that the third side of every live album is the best side. Side three is where the band can just totally let loose and do crazy stuff, because then you’ve got side four to bring it all home. Side three is usually totally off the hook, the hits never make it to side three. It literally has nothing to do with the company, but I’ve always wanted to call something Third Side Music, and I guess it does speak to the sheer amount of nerddom that’s behind this place.