For the music industry, December used to be about the race for the Christmas No 1 single. Now there's a new race – to secure the music in the biggest TV Christmas ads.
Music synchronisation – having songs placed in ads, TV shows, films and games – is well established as a way to generate significant fees, but it's also a way to promote new artists and revive catalogue songs. It's a huge shop window where millions will repeatedly hear your music and, in the UK, and no shop window comes close to the John Lewis Christmas ad.
Its combination of big-budget production, heavy rotation in the weeks before Christmas and an artist covering a well-known song in a elegiac fashion has only recently become established as a hugely influential marketing and sales opportunity for the music business. It is now effectively the UK's less glitzy and razzamatazz version of the high-velocity music syncs that play during the Super Bowl in the US in February.
Last week Lily Allen's cover of Keane's Somewhere Only We Know was No 1 in the UK, benefitting from a multi-million pound campaign that saw John Lewis book an entire ad break during the X Factor to premiere the animated video.
Rich Robinson is VP of syncs for UK and Europe at Warner Music and was responsible for placing the music in not just this year's John Lewis ad but also in last year's ad, featuring Gabrielle Aplin's cover of The Power of Love. He has also secured placements this year for Wizzard (in Sainsbury's Christmas in a Day ad series), Michael Bublé (for Iceland), Rod Stewart (for Tesco) and, most unexpectedly, Bronski Beat, whose delicate song about coming out, Smalltown Boy, is currently being used in a Boots ad.
Watch All John Lewis Christmas Ads 2007-2013
"We did that deal but the agency very much knew they wanted that track and they came to us to license it," says Robinson of the decidedly non-festive Bronski Beat selection. "It does seem like an odd choice if you know the song and the sentiment [behind it]. But their choice was that musically as a soundbed it really works with their visuals."
The pitching process for the John Lewis ad is about finding an artist for a track that has been pre-selected by the department store and its advertising agency. "Every year we have worked with them they have come to us with the song already," Robinson explains. "They have the creative idea and know the song they want to use. So it's about the artist and getting the right sound and feel for their creative."
Sourcing the music for the John Lewis ad and other Christmas ads often happens in the summer. "It's weird listening to Christmas music in August," Robinson notes of the long lead times involved.
The pitch for the John Lewis ad is open to multiple record companies, but knowing the right people can be key. "My understanding is that a lot of that work is done on a personal relationship," says Ben Perreau, founder of Synkio, a new company that links composers, music publishers and labels with those looking to use their music and aims to streamline the sync process.
That is something Robinson confirms. "Some of the smaller labels will pitch in artists and we are quite fortunate in that we have worked quite closely with them [John Lewis] before and are able to sit down with them and play them the music and make them aware of our artists," he says.
The John Lewis campaign is now the holy grail of UK ads overall – not just Christmas ones. "Companies like John Lewis and their agency have decided to create this event every year," says Perreau. "They are landmark pieces of content in their own right. Lily Allen is relaunching her career at the moment and the first position point for that was her appearance in the John Lewis ad."
The competition for placing the music in this ad is fierce as it is, for Robinson, comfortably the biggest TV commercial of the year. "There is no other ad that has an ad to announce it just being on air," he says of the enormous marketing and promotional muscle involved, and why its creation is very different to a standard ad at another point in the year. "Because they have had so much success, they are very conscious about getting it right so they work very hard on it. On some TV ads, the music is very last-minute. It varies hugely but often they shoot an ad and they have two days to clear the track. That happens quite frequently."
The Lily Allen track was available to download at midnight on the day the ad aired, repeating the process employed with the Aplin song in 2012. "We decide that with John Lewis," he says of the marketing that follows the ad's first screening.
Reading on mobile? See Lily Allen's Somewhere Only We Know video here
This is all a relatively recent phenomenon but its impact is such that it's now a key calendar event for the record business – alongside Valentine's Day and Mother's Day – where it can reach as wide an audience as possible. "It's become an important part of the business for artists to get more involved in things like this which are landmark opportunities to further their career," suggests Perreau.
With it being such a high profile event and a proven route to sales success, everyone is looking a slice of the action. "It seems to me that that is a relatively recent thing," says Robinson of the phenomenon of the big budget, music-based Christmas ad. "I have worked in this area for quite a while and this year felt like it was more competitive. I think other advertisers have upped their game in terms of the music they use at Christmas."
While no one will confirm the exact sync fees involved, the knock-on effect in download sales (more than 229,000 for the Lily Allen single so far) alone delivers an early Christmas present for everyone involved.
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image: © John Lewis