Industry Profile: Seth Berg
By Larry LeBlanc
This week In The Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Seth Berg
Seth Berg figures he holds one of the best jobs in entertainment.
His company, South Bay Music works primarily with the estates of Frank Sinatra, Nat "King" Cole, Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson, and Peggy Lee in acquiring music synch rights for film, television shows, movie trailers, commercials, recordings and video games.
The Los Angeles firm also represents Paper Bag Records and Marquis Records, both in Toronto; Hi Records in Memphis; and Nottingham Hill Music Publishing, based in London, England.
As well, South Bay Music represents, a wide array of contemporary acts in the film / TV licensing world, including such band as Wintersleep, In-Flight Safety, Freakhouse, Players, and Hellogoodbye; and such artists as David Martel, Matt Mays, Dillon Campbell, and Matt Brouwer
South Bay Music also provides music supervision, music clearance and music searches for varied film and TV projects.
The affable Berg is a 15 year music industry veteran, with 8 years as the head of Film & TV Music at EMI-Capitol Records in Los Angeles.
He started South Bay Music Group in 2003 to provide artists, writers, publishers and record companies of all sizes targeted marketing focus for synchronization opportunities.
You handle licensing for the estates of such icons as Frank Sinatra, Nat “King” Cole, Dean Martin, Peggy Lee, and Ricky Nelson. You also represent Hi Records’ significant vintage soul catalog.
I like older music. I love the Sinatra material. I love Nat “King” Cole, Dean and Peggy. But I also love that ‘70s soul vibe. There is just nothing like that in the world to me. Hi Record’s catalog is fantastic. (Producer/artist) Willie Mitchell is so underappreciated.
You came to Los Angeles in 1993 to become a movie star?
I can’t say, even looking back, that I came here with fame and glory on my mind. There seemed to be a business here that thrived. I wasn’t quite sure what all of those credits were at the end of films and watching award shows I noticed that there were also people being thanked that I knew weren’t credited. So I knew that there had to be an industry here with all of these people. Acting seemed to be the easiest way to go.
I do have an unaccredited role in “The American President” and I did “Melrose Place,” “910210” and all of those TV shows back then. In “The American President,” there’s my shoulder.
Where are you from?
I was born in San Francisco. My mom and dad were divorced when I was 18 months old. My mom then headed back to Philadelphia--the roots of the family. I went to Penn State and majored in broadcast communications. I wanted to get into the entertainment field.
Why broadcasting if you wanted to get into entertainment?
I felt that broadcasting would give me onscreen abilities but it also taught me how to write. It was a good education (for the entertainment field). On camera, I was pretty good, and I had a lot of fun. I also worked on air at the radio station at Penn State. I was terrible. I realized that this was not for me. I was more of a writer
You could have been out in the boonies after college working in local TV.
I probably couldn’t have afforded to take a job at a local TV station, making $13,000 a year or whatever. Also, when I was getting ready to graduate, my (step) father was diagnosed with cancer. Being the oldest of five, I ended up staying home. My dad had some pretty serious bone marrow transplants. When he finished his treatments, I said “I’m going to Los Angeles and follow my dream.” I had known a couple of guys who had come out here.
What was your first impression of Los Angeles?
When I pulled off onto Wilcox Avenue from the 101 (the Hollywood Freeway). I noticed cameras up on the street. I’m 23 and I thought, “Oh sweet, they’ve got cameras on the streets.” Not realizing they did that because at night (the neighborhood) turned into “Escape From New York.” I remember hearing shotgun blasts and also hearing the cock of the shot gun. I lasted about six months there, then bounced to another place in Hollywood, and ended up down at the beach.
Going to work at CEMA Special Markets (renamed EMI Capitol Special Markets in 1997) was a temp gig in late ’94 or early ’95 to make some money while you were looking for acting jobs?
Absolutely. I tried to do both but it was tough.
Did you have representation as an actor?
I was starting to get some parts. So everybody said I had to get an agent. So I got an agent and suddenly I wasn’t working like I had been working. I had to take a temp job in the sales department at CEMA. I was brought in to put together a data base to co-ordinate activities of the different departments.
There was no communication between sales and the operations divisions or with the legal department. Sales would close a deal; operations would manufacture and ship the deal; and legal would do the contract for the deal. But nobody knew when to stop manufacturing for the deal. It may have been a three year deal or, perhaps, the units were capped. Of course, those were the days you could throw anything into a jewel case and sell boatloads.
So I went into the old (recording) contracts, took CDs off the shelves and put them on top of those contracts to make sure product had been manufactured, and created a data base.
You soon became assistant to Eddie Lambert, the founder of Film/TV Licensing for the EMI/Capitol Special Markets Division. And you began to handle licensing on your own?
Eddie gave me a lot of rope either to hang myself or make a great lasso. Eli Okun, who ran the special markets division, was phenomenal too. Both gave me great opportunities to expand.
Did you have any idea of what you were getting into?
They tried to explain what (licensing) was about. I had no clue. It turned out to be one of the greatest jobs, ever. I was dealing with two great loves, movies and music. And nobody in either one of those businesses knew where (our department) sat (n deals). The record label looked at us as film people. When we’d go to the film studios, we were music people.
At that time their special market division was considered as a cash cow providing ancillary income for the company?
Absolutely. Because we were 41% profit margin, that’s how they looked at us. We boosted (margins on) record sales. Nobody at our record labels looked at us as being a (separate) market. They didn’t look for us to get a Meredith Brooks or the Dandy Warhol track placed. They looked at what we did as a way to boost their own numbers at the end of the year.
It wasn’t until Bruce Kirkland decided to launch EPROP (EMI-Capitol Entertainment Properties) in 1997 that there was pressure on the department. What he did was pretty revolutionary at the time. Take your huge assets and focus a lot of attention on them. Centralize all of your ancillary business so everybody is talking with each other.
[In a move to boost catalog sales, EMI-Capitol Music Group North America established EMI-Capitol Entertainment Properties to market the group's catalog and develop new product initiatives. The company, headed by its president Bruce Kirkland, employed over 130 people. The average number of personnel employed by U.S. major labels in their catalog and special marketing departments then was around 60].
Our department then started to get pressure early on (as part of an album release campaign). Record sales were beginning to collapse at that point. We had presidents of (affiliated) labels asking how we were going to help recoup their artists. We were being looked at as a miracle worker division. The record company would release an album and say, “Go get us a commercial.” We were the first (special products department) at the majors to be pushed like this. None of the other major label (special products departments) or (affiliated) publishers were then getting that type of pressure.
EMI was up for sale and was looking to boost its bottom line?
Absolutely. And we never had the luxury of having a (television) network or a studio attached to us, like Warners with AOL and with Warner Bros. Network. By then I had become manager of the special products department. When Eddie Lambert resigned in 1999, they gave me the department to run as director. In 2001, I became vice-president of the department.
By the 1990s much of the music recorded by Capitol Records in the ‘50s and ‘60s hadn’t been out in the market for some time.
That’s very true. With more resources, I was now able to do different things. In the mid-‘90s, Capitol did the 26-CD series “The Ultra-Lounge” (representing the American club scene from 1950-1965). Many of the tracks had been off the market for years. Only the first few albums in the series sold well. The rest of the catalog, we used as (licensing) samplers.
We did some great things, including the Gap commercial with “Jump, Jive, An' Wail” with Louis Prima. Louis Prima’s “His Greatest Hits” album was about to be deleted from the catalog. We were able to get the track placed in a Gap commercial and do hundreds of thousands of dollars in licensing business on a global campaign.
The Beatles’ catalog was off limits?
Yes, the Beatles’ catalog was off-limits. Many things were off limits. But it depended on the time period too. George Thorogood wasn’t interested early on in (licensing tracks). Sinatra was much more protective. Tina Turner and Bonnie Raitt were protective. Yoko (Ono) wouldn’t approve tracks from John Lennon’s catalog until the Wes Anderson movie [“Oh Yoko” by John Lennon was licensed for “Rushmore” in 1998]. We did go to Yoko on the John Lennon catalog if requests came in, especially if it was non-profit or involved gun control.
I recall cringing over a Sunkist commercial from the 80s that used the Beach Boys singing "Good Vibrations" with different lyrics. But people aren’t surprised today when their favorite pop song turns up in a television commercial.
I have never seen a backlash to it. People in the (music) industry, and super fans of music, are the ones that get angry. The exposure just doesn’t seem to hurt.
What you don’t want is an artist making a stink with their music being used for a commercial or film, even if it is a non-consent situation (where the artist doesn’t hold publishing or master rights).
We had an issue with Sheena Easton. Our UK company put “Morning Train,” [her 1981 hit] which was a non-consent song, into a Burger King commercial. Nobody bothered to check that she was on the board of PETA [People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals]. When it aired, she freaked, and rightfully so. It was terribly embarrassing. That was the type of stuff I learned quickly to avoid.
Why did you leave EMI in 2003?
When EMI made its last round of changes, I felt that I was on shaky ground. I started to think that maybe, there was an outside role for me doing sync licensing.
Good timing considering EMI’s fortunes shortly afterwards.
I have always been very lucky with timing.
Are you shocked by what has happened since to EMI?
I think what they have done in the last couple of years has been fantastic. With Terra Firma Capital Partners coming in, they now have the right people in management, the right deal makers. Only time will tell if its too little too late. But I think they seem to have it down right. At least in the United States. I hear that in other territories they might not have.
The estates of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Nat “King” Cole were your first clients. How did you come to represent them?
When I called Bob Finkelstein from the Sinatra estate and explained to him I was thinking about going out as an independent rep, I asked if he would consider using me. He said, “Yes. Let’s have lunch tomorrow.” Within a few days, I had the Sinatra estate as a client. Dean Martin’s estate was then being handled by Mort Viner. He passed way before we could finalize a deal but Bob Finkelstein took over Dean Martin’s estate and that made it easy. Then I called Ralph Goldman who then was handling the Nat Cole estate. We really got along so a deal was made.
[Nat “King” Cole recorded over 150 charting singles on the American pop, R&B and country charts, a staggering record that remains unbroken by any other artist ever signed to the label, which led to Capitol becoming known as "The House That Nat Built."]
Labels generally hold masters rights to tracks. In some cases, they own publishing rights. You have to clear those rights to license an original track. Where do the artist rights you also represent come in?
Pretty well any (U.S.-based) contract pre-1978, unless it was re-negotiated, was silent on synchronization (rights). It did go back to artists when we got into DMCA [The Digital Millennium Copyright Act in 1998]. By then, the big guys, Nat, Frank, and Dean had re-negotiated (their record deals) and got consent (clauses for synchronization rights in their contracts).
These estates tended to have bad management in the ‘70s and ‘80s. They didn’t audit (record companies). It wasn’t until the ‘90s with the advent of the CD that their representatives really began to audit. Instead of settling for cash they would settle for cash and enhanced rights. The families had moved (old) management out and realized some things hadn’t been done for quite a period of time.
With licensing opportunities, you deal with different labels and different publishers. What is your role?
I view myself as a facilitator. I make sure that the publisher knows that the artist wants this (deal) done and let the record company knows that this (deal) needs to be done. Because of my relationships with these (labels and music publishers) over the years, we pretty much get it done. We aren’t bullies. We advise and try to facilitate the deals.
What are the opportunities for licensing music by your big name clients?
The nice things is that with many of my artists we have global recognition. So we are able to go out to agencies in Canada, the former Soviet Union, the Middle East, and Latin America and my clients are recognizable names. It is better to have a global market to go out into. You can survive off of a half-dozen or dozen sync placements. You probably would never get that volume if you were stuck in one territory.
Does it bother you that YouTube has so many clips of your clients and they don’t pay for the sync rights?
That doesn’t bother me. The public domain issue bothers me more than seeing a snippet of an old show on YouTube. All that (airplay) continues exposure for these artists..
Film soundtracks are practically extinct. But even in the ‘70s and ‘80s, films studios never prioritized the sound recordings when they were spending $40 million on marketing their releases.
As a licensing guy (at a major label), I never cared for the soundtrack. Film studios wanted to do them because they wanted top line music at a cheaper cost. For getting that music cheap, they would give the rights to exclusively use their marketing material to the record label. But that came at a huge cost. We would have to do reduce the record company’s percentage because the artists wouldn’t do it.
A music track may sell a film but music rights holders are rarely compensated significantly.
You may not see the end result today. But what’s the worst that happens? The worst is that nothing happens (with the music track). License for film and you are going to get a piece of this money that comes in. Maybe the catalog gets revived and artists get all of these ancillary uses.
Hot Chocolate’s 1975 hit “You Sexy Thing” was licensed in 1997 for “The Full Monty’” as almost a give-a-way. They gave it away for a couple of thousand pounds. That exposure did nothing but produce massive amounts of back end uses. Hot Chocolate is still touring on the back of that “Fully Monty” use.
[Following “The Full Monty” "You Sexy Thing" was heard in several more films including, “Boogie Nights,” “Bicentennial Man,” “Rat Race,” and “Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo.” In 1999, "You Sexy Thing" played in Burger King TV commercial while the camera examined a Double Whopper. Hot Chocolate disbanded in 1986 but are now making live appearances in the U.K. and Europe.]
Can’t I make the same argument for exposure as a film music supervisor for a Frank Sinatra track?
Frank is bigger than that. For us, it is not necessarily about going out and selling records. It is about keeping his brand alive.
There doesn’t seem to be much synergy still in licensing music for film and TV.
Why do I get a request for a promo (commercial) from ABC-TV but I can’t get that same song in the TV show? Or why do I get a trailer for Frank Sinatra but not for the film? I don’t believe in being half-pregnant. I’ll say, “Here’s our fee. You can take all of the rights—trailer; soundtrack, and film rights--and you pay me one lump sum. I don’t care where you go to get the payment to me.”
You deal with many contemporary acts but you don’t have the same ace card with licensing their music as you do with the veterans.
There aren’t any real (artist) holdouts anymore in licensing. So the licensees can get anything they want for the most part. So to rise above the fray, you have to be so specific in what licensees are looking for. You have to really know these artists’ catalogs.
It’s a lot more back end business with new acts than what you might think. Sinatra sells himself. I don’t need to go out and say, “You have to use this song.” Frank moves his own ships. The smaller guys, you have to be more flexible in terms of price. And the more people out there (seeking to get music placed) the price goes down.
You do a lot of licensing for video games. This is a field that includes different pay-out levels for music rights. Are the game companies open to negotiating ancillary rights?
They pretty much are only interested in the game. That’s what their job is.
Now there are these music-based games and players are then specifically searching out and downloading the music they heard while playing the game.
The godfather of games (including music) is “John Madden Football” [developed by Electronic Arts Tiburon for EA Sports in 1988].
Electronic Arts has the math figured out. You try to get an extra $500 out of them and they’ll tell you they know they will sell 25 million of their video game. And for every game sold, they’ll explain, that six guys play it. The average sit time for games is three hours. The average life of the game is 72 hours. If you get one rotation of your song for every hour of play, you get 500 million spins on your song.
Sitting in their office with “gold” records from artists you have never heard of on the wall, your eyeballs pop out hearing those numbers. You say, “I’ll sign.”
Seth Berg can be reached at: Seth@Southbaymusic.com
Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess in 2008, Larry was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-89. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record. He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, the London Times and the New York Times.