'Idol' music means making the right deal

Before a song ever gets onto the show, it's up to the music supervisor to clear the air first.

Song license negotiation for Fox's "American Idol" might not be brain surgery, but it can require the skills of a true diplomat. Not every pro cares to hear his or her muse-inspired classic squatted on by, essentially, an amateur.

Most of today's songwriters have the right to approve what are called "synch uses" before their publishers can license the tunes out. Show reps won't cite specific artists who've turned "Idol" down -- after all, they might change their minds later on. But once each season begins airing, "Idol's" music supervisor returns to artists who've initially said "no" -- and often, they're pleasantly surprised.

There's no secret formula to the selection process.

Early on, the top 24 contestants submit five to 10 songs they'd like to sing, and the music supervisor adds those titles to a list assembled from audition footage of songs that might make it on the broadcast. The supervisor also includes some songs that might be right for a particular contestant or the show. Then the supervisor rushes to get as many rights -- synch and online -- as possible from publishers. But no song gets a preferential payment; "Idol" pays the same fee to each publisher, based on the number of seconds used.

For "Idol's" theme competition, the music supervisor is in his or her element, finding some of the best songs that fit the category. This part of the show is what really tests contestants' singing abilities -- the narrower the theme (songs from Rod Stewart's oeuvre, for example), the more challenging it is for each contestant to adapt the tune to his or her style. The supervisor suggests that contestants visit AllMusic.com to find recordings of songs they can listen to.

And then there's the licensing of master rights when the show uses an artist's direct recordings, which can catapult the artist to the top of the charts, which is what happened to Daniel Powter when his "Bad Day" was used in Season 5. Record company executives watch closely for their shot in that case.

As did Warner Bros. Records senior vp strategic marketing and TV marketing Lori Feldman, whose attention tweaked after top 12 contestant Chris Sligh sang the song "Typical" by the band Mute Math this season. The judges talked about why Sligh picked such an atypical song for "Idol," and the back-and-forth banter got her to pick up the phone.

"If this guy stays on the show," she told show reps, "that's his song when you do the profile on him. I suggest you clear 'Typical' right now as a master, so you can have use of that in his profile."

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