What the Hollywood Strikes Mean for the $2B Music Synch Business

With film and television production shut down for the foreseeable future, the Hollywood writer and actor strikes are ravaging all the businesses that touch the movie industry, from catering to editing to flower delivery — including music synchs. After generating $382 million for record labels and nearly $1.5 billion for publishers in 2022, the sector is beginning to struggle as the strikes proceed.

“That’s been quite a dark thing,” says Stephanie Diaz Matos, head of music supervision for writer-actress Issa Rae’s Raedio, a music company that includes a publisher and label. “We have several shows that, once the actors went on strike, they stopped production.”

Adds a music publishing source: “It could be bumpy if this goes on for a really long time.”

Since the Writers Guild of America strike began in early May — and the Screen Actors Guild joined earlier this month — labels and publishers report receiving fewer requests for pitching songs. “The amount of film and TV briefs I get have gone way down,” says Mara Kuge, founder and president of Superior Music Publishing. “Briefs for trailers [some of the most highly paid placements] have also been in more mild decline as well,” adds Jack Ormandy, co-founder and CEO of SILO: Music, a publishing, management and synch house.

The Writers Guild of America, East and West, represent 11,500 movie and TV writers and have been unable to agree on a new contract with Hollywood studios and streaming services over issues like higher compensation in the streaming economy, protection from the effects of artificial intelligence, more contributions to health and pension funds and improvements in workplace standards. Thousands of actors in the SAG-AFTRA union joined the writers’ picket line July 14 after negotiations broke down with studios over a new contract of their own.

While there’s hope the strikes could be resolved by the fall, some sources fear they could drag on into 2024, frequently citing a chilling quote from an unnamed studio executive in a recent Deadline article: “The endgame is to allow things to drag on until union members start losing their apartments and losing their houses.”

“I don’t know what that’s going to look like in three months or six months. I’m hopeful this will come to a resolution and [the striking actors and writers] get the benefits they hope for,” says Esther Friedman, senior vp of creative film and television licensing for Sony Music Publishing. “We felt it in the late-night TV shows. Those stopped right away.”

Synch revenue is a major, and growing, source of income in the music business. According to the RIAA, synchronization licensing — the right required to use music along with visual media — increased by 24.8% in 2022, and the synch business made up 26% of all publishing royalties, says the NMPA. Placements in studio film and TV projects can earn artists up to six figures, and prominent synchs can lead to even greater financial ripple effects after a show’s release. Perhaps the greatest recent example is Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God),” which catapulted to No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 after an appearance in Netflix’s Stranger Things repopularized the original 1985 single.

The strikes have shocked the multimillion-dollar synch system of movie and TV music supervisors sending briefs to music publishers and labels. “Usually, if we are not getting a ton of briefs, or it’s a slower time, we’re wining-and-dining clients, checking in,” says Jessica Vaughn, head of sync for Venice. “But it’s hard to justify going to music supervisors right now and being, like, ‘Hey, how are you doing, looking for any music?’ Because some supervisors might be out of work or about to finish up one project and not sure what they’re doing next.”

For labels and publishers, the key to surviving the Hollywood strikes may be diversification — many are looking to advertisements, reality and unscripted TV shows, documentaries and overseas films to bolster synch revenue. Also: video games. According to MIDiA Research’s 2022 study on music and gaming, the gaming industry earned $138 billion in 2020, and games make up a sizable portion of the synch business. After the Hollywood strikes, Ormandy hired a new employee at his company to focus specifically on video-game licensing. Adds Vaughn: “I see this as an opportunity right now to focus in on gaming. Some people overlook gaming, but it really is huge.”

For now, labels and publishers are focusing on shows and films made before the strikes that are in post-production, and will still contribute to the synch business in the short term. But it’s tricky. “You sometimes can’t finish episodes without your writers or actors because things like voiceovers need to be added in,” Diaz Matos says.

Plus, if the strikes drag on, actors won’t be available for crucial film and TV promotion. Because of this problem, some studios are beginning to push back release dates, including the Luca Guadagnino film Challengers, starring Zendaya, which has moved from its Sept. 15 release to April 26, 2024. Because synch payments are made around three to six months after the date of a film’s release, these delays will be a pain point for music licensors, even if the placement was completed before the actors’ strike. “Down the line is where you start to feel it — three to six months out,” says the publishing source.

Superior Music Publishing’s Kuge adds that synch revenue is known to vary widely quarter by quarter. “It’s very up and down regardless,” she says. “People who deal with the world of synch are so used to it that they’re not going to feel the effects too much unless the strikes drag on for two or three quarters straight — that’s the point when it starts getting past the normal ups and downs.”

If this kind of diversification helps synch departments withstand losses from the strikes, music supervisors — those who compile soundtracks for film and TV and act as the go-between for productions and licensors — are not able to wait as long. Most supervisors are freelance contractors, working on a project-by-project basis. Sources say a number of notable music supervision firms have laid off staff members, citing the lack of projects in the pipeline.

“I actually furloughed my coordinator yesterday. I have one project I think is going to get a waiver [granted by the unions to certain independent films] — once that goes back, I think I can get her back,” says Lindsay Wolfington, a veteran music supervisor for streaming shows such as Virgin River, Monster High and the upcoming movie Love at First Sight. “We’ve all had to figure out healthcare on our own. The bank account’s not fun to look at.”

Music supervisors are not unionized, but the roughly 150-200 of them who work at Netflix are awaiting a National Labor Relations Board decision on a union-certification motion they filed last October. They’re seeking representation with the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, and their demands overlap with those of the striking writers and actors: more reliable payment deliveries, cost-of-living increases and healthcare and retirement and pension plans. “The rates haven’t changed in years, and it’s the same with writers and actors,” Wolfington says.

Julie Glaze Houlihan, another veteran music supervisor who has worked on Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery and other hit shows and movies, predicts the strikes will cause pain for the music business. “Clearance is going to slow down, record labels and publishers are going to lose revenue because music isn’t being licensed. It is a domino effect,” she says. “Nobody wants this to go on.” But SILO: Music’s Ormandy is more optimistic. “Though COVID was completely different for many reasons, it was also a time when the film industry just stopped, too,” he says. “What I’m banking on is that we know how to weather a similar storm.”