Songwriter U: Understanding the Sync World, Sync Keywords and Writing for Sync

Over the last 5 years, there has been a growing interest in understanding music licensing. How do I get my songs into a TV show?  How do I write for sync?  There have been more conferences geared toward music licensing, artist showcases for sync, and even more events and panels featuring music supervisors. While the sync world has peeked everyone’s interest across the US, and perhaps even around the world, Nashville sure seems to understand what works best. 

You may not know that several of the most synced artists are actually Nashville-based songwriters. Names like Ruelle, Sam Tinnesz, and Zayde Wølf are becoming more recognizable… but what about Fleurie? Danger Twins? Unions? UNSECRET? (Want to write for sync? Look up all of those names.) These are all songwriters who make (and have made, for years) a very healthy living from music licensing, but are far from touring artists or household names. So how do they do it? What is their ‘sound’? What is it that makes their songs so syncable? And how can you learn from what they are doing? 

Let me just start by saying that in my experience, if you are writing something that is not authentic to you, it will show. Do not try to simply copy what another artist is doing; it will not sound genuine and will most likely not resonate. Authenticity shines. However, by studying what is working and incorporating that into your writing, you will not only grow as a writer, but also increase your chances of landing a placement.

Despite how often it may be misreferred to, “sync” is not a genre in and of itself. There are dozens of genres of music that may work well for sync, and they may be nothing alike. Just because Lizzo and Leonard Cohen both get licensed a lot doesn’t make their music similar. “Sync music” is a misnomer, as it can be pop, rock, alternative, folk, soul, hip hop, or any number of genres. That said, there are surely commonalities in lyrical themes, and sonic trends that do make certain artists and types of music more syncable. 

Instead of focusing on genre, let’s talk about a few common sync keywords

Cinematic

Nashville’s sync golden girl, Ruelle, has been in the top 10 of the Top Sync Artists for the past 5 consecutive years, and doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. Her sound is one of the most iconic ‘sync sounds’ that we see artists trying to emulate. As Tunefind writes, Ruelle’s songs are “full of intense urgency and ethereal mystery, something rare in pop, but perfect for dramas full of emotion and turmoil.”  Yes: intense urgency + ethereal mystery. Songs like this are a combination of beautiful instrumentation, arrangement, songwriting, and vocal performance… both haunting and epic. Most often piano with layers of strings, the expressive vocals float on top with an echo-like quality. The key to this style of writing is the build in the production, oftentimes almost orchestral in arrangement. Songs that don’t build will not find the same level of success —especially in promos and trailers—as Ruelle and other Nashville-based women in this lane like SVRCINA, Fleurie, and Galleaux. These songs often have very sparse open sections with minimal instrumentation that allow the vocal to float, contrasted with huge epic backends. The songs have to build… and build more… and then build even more. Lyrically these songs can range from a multitude of big universal themes—from love, loss, and heartache, to struggles, battles, and even the end of the world. Play around with what comes naturally lyrically, and then work with a producer who can really bring the power instrumentally. 

Bombastic:

…Or Confident. Last year, Nashville-based newcomer Rayelle dominated the sync space, landing herself at the No. 4 spot of the most synced artists of the year. (Lizzo was No. 1 on that list—a clear example of how this sound is massive right now.) With a confidence-inducing pop sound that blends elements of indie hip-hop and high energy rock, Rayelle’s sound would most likely be tagged by music supervisors as “bombastic pop.”  One of the notable factors of this sound is that it pumps you up, both sonically and lyrically, inspiring confidence. These songs are fun fun fun! They are explosive, eclectic, and uptempo. They are audacious and have attitude, with tracks that build and get bigger and bigger. These songs are also great for editors to cut to, meaning they’re rhythmic and often have stops and starts. These can be pop leaning, hip-hop leaning, or rock leaning, or most often a combination of the three (the pop+rock+hip-hop cocktail)—the commonality being confidence (again, both lyrically and sonically). They’re equally great for a Samsung commercial (Rayelle “Get Dat”), a network promo (Ruby Amanfu “Fantastic Like Magic”), or in a show like DC’s Stargirl (Danger Twins “Girl’s Gotta”/ “I Could Get Used to This”). And of course the queen of confidence is Lizzo. Put on your highest heels and walk that walk!

Swagger:

This is foot-stomping, high-energy rock. It is Imagine Dragons meets The Black Keys, fitting mostly into the alternative genre. Sonically, these songs are electric and in-your-face, while lyrically they inspire us to follow our dreams and fight for what we believe. The biggest players in this space are based here in Nashville—Zayde Wølf and Sam Tinnesz. (Even Barns Courtney was in Nashville the year that he rose up in the sync scene.) Dustin Burnett (a.k.a. Zayde Wølf) talks about “making music that helps listeners to push through and overcome life’s challenges.” Similarly, Sam Tinnesz says he writes about “love, adversity, and the ongoing battle between good and evil. The lyrics are weighty and personal, but the music itself is larger-than-life, full of cinematic pop anthems.” While not all the songs in this style are lyrically inspirational, it’s a great place to start if you’re wanting to write in this lane. But don’t get caught up in the emotion… remember these songs are the sound of feet stomping on the stadium bleachers, the clang of chains falling… an epic-ness that evokes heroism and victory. 

Anthemic:

These are the songs that make you want to go on an adventure, open up the map, put the top down, and hit the road. Nashville-based Ben Rector’s song “Brand New” is a perfect example of this. These songs are uplifting, hopeful, feel-good, heartwarming, and positive. Lyrically, these songs are also inspirational but in a very different way than the swagger songs—far more heartfelt and emotional pop/rock—hand claps, not foot stomps. Songs about risking it all, achieving dreams, pushing the limit, being in it together, going for it, etc. These are the songs that couples put in their wedding videos that symbolize both ‘forever choosing you’ and ‘embarking on a new adventure together.’ These songs are family-friendly, uptempo, and have a feeling of inclusion. Just like our cinematic category, these also need to have a build, and get bigger as they progress. WALK THE MOON, American Authors, BANNERS, and so on. This category is also huge in the non-lyrical vocals, with all the ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs.’ That post-chorus ‘oh oh oh ohhh’—if done right, is sync gold.

Speaking of ‘oohs’, let’s take a moment to talk about non-lyrical vocals, sometimes called vocalese. Adding a pre- or post-chorus section of ‘oohs’ or ‘ahhs’ can often work really well to lend emotion to the song. This can be done in a slower epic cinematic song to create more tension or build, or in a fun anthemic song to make a hand-clapping singalong section. Non-lyrical sections of songs often allow for more of the song to be woven through the show, film, or trailer without overpowering or distracting from the dialogue. They can also make a great build in a trailer or promo, stretching almost montage-like while more of the story is revealed.

We touched on this briefly earlier, but one of the biggest differentiating factors about songs that work well in sync is the intentional synergy, or intentional juxtaposition, of lyrics and tone. Massive pop hits may be fun danceable songs, but with deeply heart-wrenching lyrics. Think: Lauv. Songwriters, and especially listeners, may not even be consciously aware of this contrast. When studying the songs that resonate the most in the sync space, that is not common. If a song makes you feel good, the lyrics say the same. If the song is sad in tone, it is also sad lyrically. While this is not always the case, when it is not, it is done intentionally to highlight that juxtaposition of tone and lyrics. Examples of that might include unique covers.

Speaking of lyrics, songwriters often mistake sync for being vague lyrically, but that is not necessarily true. Shows and movies are already telling their own story, so songs that are story-driven or lyrically specific will naturally be harder to place because they may conflict with the story being told visually. Lyrics with broader, universal themes can translate into many different types of shows and films, but still have to have emotional depth. The song still needs to make the listener feel something. Don’t be afraid to really explore and express yourself; people want songs that feel genuine and authentic.

And lastly… Alt R&B.

Not necessarily a genre or a keyword, but I wanted to add this in since it’s probably my personal favorite. Honestly, I don’t know if “alt R&B” even accurately describes the sonic lane I’m referring to… As Rolling Stone says in an interview with Labrinth, “I feel like you have your own genre,” and that may be true. (And Nashville is not where it’s at… we look to the UK on this one.) “Still Don’t Know My Name” by Labrinth, “Chainsmoking” by Jacob Banks, “Retrograde” by James Blake… you know the sound (hopefully). Songs like this somehow seamlessly blend the deepest of heart-wrenching, emotional lyrics with a sexy, weed-filled party vibe high. Not quite as ethereal folk as Novo Amor or Haux, but with similar emotionally-captivating vocals. These songs have elements of hip-hop, gospel-orchestral, electronic trance, soul, and more, and yet are somehow indescribable. Nashville-based James Droll channels some of this with his lush brooding vocals over glitchy alternative tracks. These songs are extremely authentic, and this is the only category we’ve talked about where explicit lyrics work. (Clean lyrics, or at least clean versions, are important when it comes to syncability.) Labrinth says, “it feels semi-magical but semi-crazy and semi-psychotic.” There you have it. 

Collaborating with writers and producers who understand sync themes is key, and sync-focused songwriting camps are extremely beneficial for this. These retreats tend to be for more experienced writers and producers since the environment is intense and fast-paced, but they are great because they allow writers to bounce ideas off of each other, ask questions about music briefs, and work with producers who have experience building tracks for sync. At Anacrusis, we host quarterly sync camps where we invite top songwriters, artists, and producers to write for current brands and projects… alongside music supervisors. By inviting the music supervisors as well, the songs can be more tailored both lyrically and sonically in ways that we couldn’t have known from simply reading the brief; Plus, we are able to put our writers in the room with the decision-makers, which is a huge advantage. Sync camps and focused songwriting retreats can be very rewarding, resulting in dozens of placements—We’ve even had some songs licensed and used that very same week.

For the songwriters reading this article, I hope this gives you a bit more direction and some new artists to dig into. These few keywords are just the tip of the sync iceberg. I hope you will take creative freedom within each category and continue to strive to find your own unique voice. 

Want to dig in and research more on your own? Some of the best resources online are Tunefind, IMDBPro, and iSpot.tv, as well as the Guild of Music Supervisors’ numerous resources, including their podcast. I would also recommend attending The Nashville Film Festival this October, with programming both virtual and in-person.

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