“Music licensing works with music consumption patterns. The more Afrobeats tracks are consumed around the world through streaming and tour performances, the more demand for their placement in films and media productions.” _ Unique Oliver
By Fancy Goodman
At a time when Nigerian music is garnering both local and international attention, it has become important that artistes get compensated for their works. This is what music licensing guarantees: that the copyright holders of musical works receive such compensation. The bedrock of the protection of any musician is the copyright to their music, which ensures that they have exclusive rights to their intellectual property – the composition and recordings. Needless to say, without music licensing or copyright law, musicians are left exposed.
Unique Oliver is one to watch out for in the film-in-music space. He is the Music Licensing Lead & Music Supervisor at Spring Sound Music Ltd, where innovative services for film and media are provided. With a law degree, Oliver has garnered experience and created a name for himself in the music licensing space. He has helped protect the exclusive rights of Nigerian artistes as he works with filmmakers to place different music tracks in films.
He has also worked with Netflix’s music supervision team and made multiple music placements for Netflix Nigeria Originals such as Far From Home. Spring Sound Music is also instrumental in the original soundtracks to Prime Video Nollywood productions such as Gangs of Lagos and House of Secrets.
Oliver has also worked with the giant Nigerian record label, Mavin Records, where he was instrumental in syncing placement deals for several shows and platforms, such as the American sitcom series, Bob Hearts Abishola, and brands such as FIFA and WhatsApp.
In this exclusive interview, Oliver shares his journey. He speaks about how his law degree has helped him in music licensing for Nollywood films, and among many things, he shares insights on the relationship between Nollywood and the Nigerian music industry.
Your background in law is intriguing. How has your legal education influenced your approach to the music industry, especially in the realm of licensing and rights management for film and TV?
Copyright law is the bedrock of music licensing and music supervision. It’s very difficult to negotiate music rights without understanding the copyright and the rightsholders involved. It’s one of the reasons why every course on music licensing or music supervision has a chapter/module dedicated to music copyright law. It goes beyond picking any track and placing it in the movie. There are a lot of principles involved in deriving its validity from copyright laws to music international practices.
Could you share some insights into the creative process behind supervising music? How do you ensure the music enhances the storytelling in these productions? Are you given the script of the film, or how does it work?
The creative process depends on the project and what phase we are brought in. In the development stage, we are given the scripts where we spot on-screen performances (scenes where characters in the movie are singing a song). It is also at this point that we have an idea of the budget, which determines the kind of music to be deployed. A not-so-little budget can make us push the focus to original music only; an average budget can enable a mixture of commercial music, production music, and original music.
At the early stage of post-production, we provide editors with a playlist of songs that matches the picture, characters, and settings of the film for temporary placement till the picture is ready to be locked. We try to understand the director’s vision and quickly plug in the right music that reflects the sonic identity that the director is looking for in the project. There are also instances where the editor and the director select the tracks and we provide alternatives to the tracks in cases where the initial tracks cannot be licensed. Such issues can be budget-related, rightsholder disputes, and the number of parties involved in giving the approval, which may not work for the timeframe in the post-production schedule.
As an expert in a process that intersects music and film, which both represent culture, what would you say Nollywood and the Nigerian music industry need to do differently to properly represent Nigeria on a global scale? What would you also say we are doing very well?
Compared to the pre-COVID era, I will say the use of commercial music (popular music released on music streaming platforms) has significantly improved, and we believe it’s just going to get better as the demand for Afrobeats tracks increases in Nollywood. We have had instances of music use without clearance from the rightsholders in the past, but we have seen that drastically reduce. Key documents like cue sheets are now compulsory with some of the streaming platforms. (A cue sheet is a metadata document submitted to streaming/broadcasting numbers consisting of metadata of the music used in the project. It’s like an invoice for music composers and rightsholders to collect royalties from streaming companies directly through a music publisher or direct affiliation). These are best practices that occur in other territories that Nollywood is gradually embracing.
As Music Licensing Lead & Music Supervisor at Spring Sound Music Ltd., what innovative approaches do you bring to music services for film and new media, especially in the African creative space?
We leverage technology and AI to manage our process to ensure we move at a fast pace. Project management is very key to us, so we operate in such a way that the client has an idea of what is going on at every level of the music supervision process: from development to data sorting to contracts.
Beyond the creative placement of music, we have to sort out the necessary metadata of a track — the name of the artiste, the songwriter’s legal name, Interested Party Information and his Collecting Society affiliation — to facilitate performance royalty collection. We also do the same for the music composer as well. Also, we include the song IDs, popularly referred to as ISRC (International Standard Recording Code) for platforms with Xray features on-screen and platforms that create playlists on music streaming platforms. The Xray feature is the on-scene information at the left corner when you click pause on movie streaming platforms like Amazon. You can see the exact title of the track with the cover art.
What challenges has Spring Sound encountered since its inception, and how have you been able to overcome some of the challenges?
Understanding the best pricing and practices that work for Nollywood. Budget remains a factor in the selection of music, so we are consistently figuring out the best licensing solution for every budget framework while ensuring the quality is there. One of the solutions we have figured out is active partnerships with production music (music specifically created for film and media) companies across Africa.
You mentioned that your team leverages technology, what are the things that the tech structures put in place to make music licensing easy? Also, what are the things that are not yet in place that you would love to see?
Yes, tech structures like similarity tools have really made music selection and, ultimately, licensing, easier. If we hear a song that we know is not affordable by the filmmaker, we can find a replacement track in less than 60 seconds with the similarity tool. We also have repertoire search platforms that enable us to track respective rights owners. We would love to see artistes, songwriters, and producers being more intentional about this data as most times we do not have accurate information when we carry out a repertoire search to identify who wrote this song, who produced it, and the company administering the songs.
With your law background, what are the things that the legal climate of Nigeria has put in place to make music licensing easy?
Apart from having a law background, I have been in the creative space for a while. I even tracked guitar for songs for years before pivoting fully into the music business.
The New Copyright Act 2022 gave clarity to some music licensing best practices, particularly the laws that ensure that broadcasters pay royalties to music authors and composers. Before the Amendment, the law was silent on that, so it was not a normal practice for composers to get royalties after a placement in a movie. However, with the existing law and technology/streaming platforms, music composers and authors who provide the right information receive royalties from the broadcasters through what we call a Collecting Society affiliation. We have seen a few of them earn a few thousand for months (and sometimes a year) after the project first aired.
While working with Mavin Records, you were involved in sync placement deals for major brands like FIFA, WhatsApp, and the American sitcom series Bob Hearts Abishola. How do you navigate tailoring music to resonate with diverse audiences while aligning with brand narratives?
It happens both inbound and outbound. Back then, we received briefs from music supervisors, so we pitched music in the Mavin catalogue that fit the brief. Most of the project rollouts also had creative sync to film and brands in mind. The marketing team’s campaigns triggered inbound requests for the use of the music for film and brands. Inbound request involves filmmakers reaching out to use a popular track discovered based on label marketing activities. Popular songs making waves or have made waves in the past usually drive demand for their use in films.
What would you say is the difference between licensing music for film/TV versus licensing for games or other media?
Having worked on both sides, the rates and negotiating are usually different. We worked on a mobile game last year and we worked with similar negotiation terms we’d use for Nollywood, except few adjustments on the royalties rate and the minimum guarantee. Creatively, it is pretty much the same thing, but unlike for film, you are dealing with fewer stakeholders and the focus is more on the audience interaction with the music for foreground usage. This especially applies to music game apps.
Your work on Netflix’s Far From Home showcases your expertise in music placement. How do you select music that not only complements but elevates the emotional resonance of a particular scene or story arc?
There are a lot of instances where we use the characters and setting of the movie to determine the kind of music that can complement the picture. For instance, if you are telling a story of an old character, we’d consider the kind of music he listens to. If we want to talk about a freedom fighter, we are not skipping Fela, and if we want to talk about the city of Ibadan we are not skipping an Ebenezer Obey song. It’s more about the song that is capable of enhancing storytelling in that particular scene.
With your experience at Mavin Records, how do you perceive the evolving relationship between the music industry and streaming platforms, especially concerning licensing and distribution?
The music industry and the film streaming platforms keep getting better. Last year, we had an event in South Africa for music supervisors and music-in-film practitioners across Africa, the Middle East and Turkey. There, we aligned with Netflix’s best music-in-film practices. When we work on Amazon original projects, we have a music supervisor’s handbook as well. This makes alignment easy on the expectations for both the streaming platform and the music industry. Music and film streaming is here to stay and the subscriber count keeps increasing. One of the moments we’ve really enjoyed is people watching a movie and checking for the track on music streaming platforms.
What are the differences in your process between working for studios such as Greoh and Film One versus streaming platforms like Amazon Prime and Netflix?
Streaming platforms are also production studios, so the difference is the increased number of stakeholders and diverse expectations. Working for a commissioned project by the streaming company simply means you will be aligning with the streaming company’s legal/business affairs department; creative and production department; music marketing; music services team (responsible for the trailer); soundtrack album, and music for social clips. With streaming platforms, you would also have to deal with the general music team for stuff like music licensing reports, music cue sheet submissions, music Xray submissions, etc. It’s just more stakeholders to align with.
African music genres, especially Amapiano and Afrobeats, have been gaining more recognition on the global stage. How do you envision the future of African music’s influence on international film and media productions? Also, how has this global recognition of music affected licensing, especially with foreign projects?
Music licensing works with music consumption patterns. The more Afrobeats tracks are consumed around the world through streaming and tour performances, the more demand for their placement in films and media productions.
Lastly, what advice would you offer aspiring music licensing executives and supervisors aiming to break into the film and TV industry, particularly those interested in showcasing cultural diversity through music?
It’s a new field and there are very few in the space so there is less barrier to entry, but there’s demand for understanding the game of music supervision and the skill set. It’s creative but requires a lot of understanding of music culture, negotiation and legal knowledge, project management and interpersonal skills because you will be collaborating with a lot of people with unique music tastes. While it is easy for a DJ to spin any song and play at a party, the use of commercial music in film is quite different due to the complexities attached to music licensing and rightsholders.
Fancy Goodman is a Nigerian film writer. Following her participation in the Inside Nollywood Film Journalism Fellowship in 2022, she was launched into film journalism. Passionate about sharing the stories of African filmmakers, her works have been featured on platforms such as What Kept Me Up, The Film Conversation, Inside Nollywood and Film Rats Club. She was selected by Sundance Film Festival as part of the 2024 Press Inclusion Initiative team. When she isn’t writing, she is either seeing a film or reading. Catch her on her Instagram and Twitter @thefancygoodman.