'Turn Down for What': Inside the Big Business of Stadium Music

Wesley Mann

Sporting arena tunes — with bells and whistles — are enjoying increased licensing revenue.

This story first appeared in the July 25 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

More than a century has passed since Jack Norworth wrote "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," in 15 minutes on a scrap of paper during a train ride to Manhattan, and Albert Von Tilzer composed the music. Dodger organist Nancy Bea Hefley has played the song at every home game for 27 years and still hasn't tired of it. "It doesn't bother me," says the 78-year-old, who makes $42,000 a year while the players she serenades make upward of $20 million.

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Still, music programming for sports arenas has come a long way from the days of fans wearing straw hats on bleachers, according to Fred Traube, head of his Watertown, Conn.-based Pro Sports Music Marketing company, who works with major labels and artist managers to promote music to pro and college ballparks. "Rock 'n' rollers have taken over the [baseball] stadium," he says. "There's nonstop music, pinball noises, flashing lasers. … The owners can't control if their teams lose, but they can make sure the crowd is entertained." With ticket prices soaring, sports arena programmers like Dieter Ruehle, Staples Center music director for the Kings and Lakers, combine keyboards and recorded music (modern rock for ice hockey; top 40 for basketball) to provide an end-to-end experience for fans, with such diversions as the Kiss-cam, Flex-cam and Dance-cam. "When I started this in 1989, there wasn't even a video board," he marvels. "Just a public-address announcer and organ." And BMI senior vp licensing Michael Steinberg says blanket licensing of the performing rights organization's catalog to sporting venues represents a fraction of its annual $1 billion annual revenue, but that total has doubled over the past decade.

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With record labels pressed to get onto fewer radio slots, in-game promotion can be big business. Traube, a former promotion executive at Atlantic and Geffen -- who got his start turning then-Seattle Mariners rookie Alex Rodriguez on to Baha Men's "Who Let the Dogs Out?" -- says picking the right song for a sporting event isn't that different from programming a hit on the radio. "It's active and encourages crowd participation," he says, pointing to DJ Snake and Lil Jon's "Turn Down for What" as a current favorite.

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Pop music in stadiums motivates not just the fans but also the players, says L.A. Dodgers center fielder Andre Ethier, whose "walk-up music" -- which plays when he strides to home plate -- has included Lorde's "Royals" and "Team." He says: "Music has the ability to put you in a mood. A song can pump you up, focus you and get those emotions flowing with a lot of positive energy to what you're trying to do out there."

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