It was through pure serendipity that Ed Robertson wrote the Barenaked Ladies's biggest song. After improvising a tune about the universe's origins at a Los Angeles concert last decade, he found out a couple of big-shot TV producers were there. Their names were Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady and they were dreaming up a show about physicists.
They needed a theme song and approached the band. Mr. Robertson, on vacation, wrote a 28-second draft in the shower at his cottage, soon finalizing and recording it. The Big Bang Theory made its debut in September, 2007. The show has been among television's most-watched for a decade and, despite the success of hits such as If I Had $1,000,000 and One Week, Mr. Robertson says the show's title song has become both the most popular and financially lucrative in his band's nearly 30-year career.
"Film and television have always been a great addition to what you do," Mr. Robertson says from the cottage where he wrote the song. "I guess it's just becoming a larger slice of the pie – if a band is able to land a placement in film or television, depending on the level the band's at, it can represent a significant portion of their revenue."
Toronto's Barenaked Ladies first blew up in the 1990s, when CDs were king. But music sales have since collapsed and streaming services such as Spotify have replaced some, but not nearly all, of that revenue. Bands such as Mr. Robertson's have made up for lost sales in large part by touring. As the fall TV season begins – including The Big Bang Theory's season premiere later this month – getting music on a TV show, film or commercial is becoming an increasingly enticing revenue stream for musicians and the businesses that back them.
As streaming-video platforms keep adding new, original shows and films on top of traditional broadcast channels, the opportunities to license music increase as well. The International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, the recorded music industry's global lobby group, reports that in 2016 Canada brought in $7.8-million (U.S.) in "synchronization" revenue for artists and labels from using music in TV, film, ads and video games.
While that represents less than 1 per cent of total revenue, it's a 32-per-cent increase over the previous year, signalling growing attention for recordings' revenue stream. Meanwhile, SOCAN – which collects royalties for songwriters and music publishers in Canada – says more than a third of all of its royalty revenue comes from TV sources.
The music industry is taking advantage of this trend on nearly all fronts. Every year, for instance, Canadian industry groups bring together film and TV music supervisors for a "Canadian Music Café" during the Toronto International Film Festival. Later this month, music supervisors from shows such as Atlanta and films such as The Big Sick will gather to see performances by artists including Keshia Chanté and Polaris-Prize-nominated Lido Pimienta.
"It's about building relationships with publishers for their entire catalogues," says Margaret McGuffin, executive director of the Canadian Music Publishers Association, which helps run the event.
Since opening in 2005, Montreal's Third Side Music has become a specialist in synchronizing and licensing music for television, film and trailers and recently opened a permanent Los Angeles office to better broker relationships.
"What started out as something that's natural in the film-making process – a director has a vision and a song fits that vision – has turned into a very lucrative area for revenue in the music industry," says Natalie Cervelli, Third Side's head of creative licensing, advertising and trailers. "Album sales are down nd they're starting to see it's a good area for exposure for those artists."
Third Side has helped Juno-nominated Toronto electronic band Blitz//Berlin get music onto the show Killjoys, as well as trailers for The Girl on the Train and 50 Shades Darker. The band members have long associated with punk – a genre that has long tried to distance itself from "selling out" art by licensing it, specifically with advertising. But member Martin Macphail says the band's trailer work has helped make music a full-time endeavour.
"It's been quite the career boost," Mr. Macphail says. "There's still a line" when it comes to projects the band accepts, but working in the film world "feels much more like a collaborative artistic process."
Sometimes collaboration can bring huge returns. Miranda Mulholland points to Chris Isaak's song Wicked Game, which was slow to gain popularity until David Lynch's 1990 film Wild at Heart made it a hit.
Hiring a representative to get your music on film and TV can be expensive, says Ms. Mulholland, a fiddler and label owner – but she still does it, because when a song gets placed, "it can make a huge difference" financially.
The world is even shifting for people who design scores for film and TV. Ari Posner, who's worked on shows including Anne, X Company, and Flashpoint, says that upfront fees for scoring work have been shrinking, but that royalty payments, like through SOCAN, have kept his career sustainable.
Mr. Robertson is thankful for what the Big Bang Theory theme has done for the Barenaked Ladies's career. "I think it's introduced the band to a whole new generation," he says.
The band has always been open to music placements – One Week appeared in several movies and a commercial – but he admits the science sitcom theme came as a stroke of luck. "The Big Bang Theory comes on the heels of many, many at-bats."