Tune in to a hit reality show these days and you’re likely to hear a trend: songs extolling the empowered, girlboss lifestyle, from artists you’ve probably never heard of. While the reality landscape was once soundtracked by top 40 hits on shows like The Hills, today’s content takes a different approach, relying heavily on music libraries with no-name artists and custom scoring to fill the silence. The reason? Complicated, and expensive, music licensing rights and a growing industry of made-for-reality-TV tracks.
Selling Sunset was among the first to get attention for its music when it debuted on Netflix three years ago with songs that creator Adam DiVello knows the internet has joked are all about “work, work, work and sell and high heels and dollar bills and earn-that-money.” DiVello, also behind The Hills and Laguna Beach, says “it was a whole different world” scoring those shows, which ran on MTV — a network that had licensing deals for artists’ music videos, which meant the programs could use songs without having to pay extra.
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Cut to 15 years later — when reality shows are now TV staples because of their low production costs and big audiences — and DiVello has embraced library and custom tunes, saying, “The music we get, it’s not very expensive. There are more lesser-known artists and people trying to break in.”
Music companies like Vanacore and Atrium work with shows to supply these songs, offering both an extensive collection of their own music for every genre, style and mood and custom offerings if there are specific ideas in mind. While licensing hit songs can run in the five- to six-figure range, music companies can do entire episodes for a fraction of that cost — sometimes in the low thousands or even hundreds per episode, depending on the work. The trend is to splash out on a couple of big, tentpole songs per season and fill the rest of the show with less expensive material.
“Hit songs have a potential to connect in such a really cool and personal way and can make things very intimate,” says Vanacore vp creative services Lee Vanacore, “but having some custom score, sometimes it could be a much better price to get the same emotion. Beyoncé I’m sure costs quite a bit of money to license, so we could write a lot of music for that.”
The Kardashian family’s new Hulu show goes this mixed route, having licensed a Bruno Mars track and a handful of other hit songs in its first season while relying on indie artists and Vanacore’s library for the rest. The show was seeking “pop, hip-hop and indie, with a really strong emphasis on women-empowerment vocals,” says The Kardashians executive producer Elizabeth Jones, adding, “The library music, there’s so many that we could choose from, whereas licensing music, the cons would be the price and having to get the artists to sign off and agree. And sometimes that just doesn’t happen.”
While some cooking, competition and dating shows have always relied on music libraries, the rapidly expanding reality TV world has increased the need for and focus on the soundtrack — and improved technology has opened up new opportunities for up-and-coming musicians to get their songs onscreen.
Ben Hochstein, music supervisor on The Kardashians, says he used to get all his show music from touring artists and bands; now it’s frequently through musicians who are specifically creating for TV and film and selling songs to music companies. “Sometimes you can’t even tell,” Hochstein says. “I’ll play this one from Universal Records, I’ll play you a song these people made in their home studio, tell me the difference; a lot of times you can’t.” It sometimes even works better, he says, with the quicker tempo and more generic lyrics needed for reality TV.
“When showrunners or directors either can’t afford a song or maybe the song denies placement, I’m like, there’s a lot of music out there, we can definitely find more,” he adds. That search is extensive; fellow Kardashians music supervisor Greg Danylyshyn says that out of every 100 to 200 songs he searches, he finds one to two winners — and each episode could feature 10 to 20 song snippets.
Using smaller, original songs also provides a benefit when it comes to long-term rights, which now that shows live on streamers for the foreseeable future, are a big part of the equation. DiVello notes that though The Hills was able to acquire top-tier tunes when airing on MTV, all of that music has been switched out now that the show streams on Hulu.
“We didn’t have the music for perpetuity, we just had it for a certain amount of time, so it had to be changed out,” he explains, since it aired long before the streaming wars and networks at the time were unaware of the second lives their hit series would have. DiVello recalls a key moment in the show where Rihanna’s “Umbrella” was played, saying, “The song so encapsulated that moment so perfectly, and was so poignant for that scene and it was so emotional to me. When you watch it now, it’s a completely different song.”
It’s much cheaper to license hit songs short-term than to pay for in perpetuity, confirms Hochstein, so some shows that solely care about the broadcast and less about the long-term streaming experience are willing to make that deal.
“If I decided, ‘Hey, I’m only gonna license stuff for three years, or networks do like one year or 18 months, I could probably get like five, six times amount of songs for the same budget,” he adds. The Kardashians has committed to long-term rights, though, and with original music, shows can secure songs in perpetuity while still maintaining that low cost.
Atrium CEO Josh Young, who works with 700 artists worldwide to fill his company’s library for such shows as Temptation Island and Love Is Blind, also is quick to note that sometimes smaller music isn’t valued enough, especially when compared with the rates top artists receive.
“[Networks] will have a needle-drop budget of $100,000, but they don’t want to pay more than $2,000 for a music library. So they’ll go and pay $80,000 for a Justin Bieber or Lady Gaga song, and meanwhile, the rest of the music in the show is going to be on a super strict budget,” says Young, noting that at that rate, artists in the library may be making less than $100 a song. Some companies even ask to use his library for free. “I think more shows are geared toward the music library because it’s easier to clear. And I’m seeing a lot more artists go toward music libraries, because the quality of the music libraries is getting better — [but] production companies don’t want music that sounds like a music library. They want high-quality music, but they don’t want to pay for it.”
This story appeared in the July 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.