Industry Profile: Lily Kohn
By Larry LeBlanc (CelebrityAccess MediaWire)
This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Lily Kohn, senior licensing manager, Microsoft Corporation.
These are chaotic times for the music-game genre.
Harmonix was sold by Viacom to a consortium of shareholders; MTV Games, which had collaborated with Harmonix on "Rock Band," was shut down; and, just this month, Activision announced it will disband its "Guitar Hero" business unit, and discontinue development on the game for 2011.
An inglorious departure for a title once hailed as the first great game franchise of the 21st century.
There may be too many games competing in the music-game genre these days, but none of this means the genre is facing oblivion.
A host of new technologies are allowing companies to develop new, cutting-edge games
Last year, the Microsoft Corporation, best known for its Windows operating system and its professional productivity software, rolled out the new motion-based game controller Kinect for the Microsoft Xbox 360 that, along with Sony PlayStation 3 Move, is providing a heartbeat to the beleaguered music-game business.
Kinect is a camera-based motion detection system that translates users' gestures into in-game actions. By scanning with a camera, IR sensor and array microphones, Kinect can track full body motions. It connects up to a user’s Xbox 360, and a sensor bar sits under their television.
Kinect can control more than just games. Users can control menus by gesturing with their hands, and facial recognition will auto-log them into their Xbox profiles.
Microsoft reportedly sold one million Kinect units in its first 10 days of release.
Videogame metrics firm VGChartz estimated that 130,000 Kinect buyers worldwide purchased "Dance Central" in the first week of release on Nov. 4, 2010. That makes it the second-best-selling game for the Kinect controller after "Kinect Sports."
Another game, "Kinect Adventures," comes packaged with each Kinect unit.
In 2001, Microsoft entered the console market with the Xbox. Almost immediately Bungie Studio's “Halo: Combat Evolved” became the driving point of the Xbox's success. The “Halo” series would go on to become one of the most successful console shooters of all time.
Early on, Microsoft attempted to build consumer acceptance of the Xbox by aggressively touting its music capabilities; by marketing the product to music fans; and by developing music related products.
Among the company's marketing initiatives were tour sponsorships and gaming demos at concerts, and giving gaming systems to leading music artists. It also marketed the system at live-music events, including Lollapalooza.
At the annual E3 games exposition in Los Angeles in 2003, Jane's Addiction's Dave Navarro and Lollapalooza co-founder Perry Farrell sang "Love Shack" and "Red Red Wine" in a demo of the Xbox Music Mixer. As well, Snoop Dogg hosted the Xbox Live Ultimate Championship, and demoed the new game "Inside Drive 2004." Setting the technology standard in console gaming for the next generation, Microsoft introduced the Xbox 360 in 2005. Sony followed with the PlayStation 3 the following year.
Both were formidable systems that featured high-definition graphics, large hard disk-based secondary storage, integrated networking, and a companion on-line game play and sales platform, with the Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network, respectively.
During last year’s E3, Microsoft revealed the new Xbox 360 console—known as the Xbox 360 S or Slim.
Working at Microsoft’s headquarters in Redmond, Washington for 15 years, senior licensing manager Lily Kohn handles music clearance and licensing of all first party games, in addition to corporate videos, preloaded content and much, much more.
Kohn, in fact, has a hand in virtually every area of Microsoft’s music licensing work, approaching the record labels on its behalf and their artists, and the music publishers on behalf of itself, and their composers.
Kohn began her music career working at Capitol Records' publishing arm, Beechwood/Glenwood Music in Los Angeles. This was followed by a stint at Chappell/Intersong Publishing where she was an assistant to VP Roger Gordon, and licensing director Pat Woods.
She left Chappell/Intersong to work on "An Evening At The Improv" as a production assistant, handling music clearances for the A&E series.
After a few years of handling licensing for independent television shows, Kohn accepted a music clearance position at Columbia Pictures Television, and later worked in the same capacity at Warner/Chappell Music.
Following several years in casting film and television show afterwards, Kohn then joined Microsoft in 1995.
What response do you get telling people you work at Microsoft?
It depends if they are a PC or Mac person. A lot of Mac people really like to tell me how inferior our products are. I don’t understand why they think they can do that or what they expect me to say.
There’s a degree of mythology about Microsoft and its employees.
I think there is. Microsoft is one big company, but it’s seems like it’s made up of a bunch of little companies. There are so many niches here for different talents. So I guess it remains a mystery for what we do.
How big is your department?
The music supervision and (music) licensing department in Redmond (Washington) is five people. We handle the licensing for North America and this side of the world. We have two licensing people in a London who handle Europe and that side of the world.
What is the extent of your licensing duties at Microsoft? Do you oversee the licensing of music for Microsoft's new Windows Phone 7 operating system?
I do. The music supervisors curate the selections along with the creative team for pre-loaded content on Xbox 360, and we did that for Windows phones. We also license and curate music for corporate and marketing videos for E3; or if someone is going to a convention; or if someone is doing a keynote speech; or if we have a booth, and we are demoing a product. We might have a video that goes along with the demo. We handle that music licensing as well.
Do you get a sense of accomplishment in seeing a game completed? In some cases, you worked on a game for years, and then you see and hear all of the elements together.
It is really a great feeling of accomplishment, I have to say. Some of these games we do work on for a year or two. With my role, I don’t always see the game as it is being made, and coming to fruition. And, sometimes I do. But when you have a complete, and you see it, and you play it, and you know that you had a part in making it, it is a really good feeling.
I was in the Microsoft Retail store recently and I was looking up on the monitors and I saw “Kinect Sports" and "Kinect Adventures" and I just felt really proud I had pretty big role in getting those games to market. It almost seems corny but it was a real feeling of accomplishment.
Are you courted by labels and music publishers to get you to use their music?
I am probably not as courted as the music supervisors are. They are the first line before the music is used.
On a game, you often work with a huge team. It’s like making a film.
It definitely is. There are people who have their specialties, and they work on different parts of the game. Then it all comes together. But there are so many people. I have seen the credits on many games, and they are lengthy. It is like making a television show or a movie, where everybody has a role, and they have to do it well.
On a game is there a project leader or an executive producer?
The music supervisor works with the executive producer. They settle on the music. Meanwhile, they get input from you?
That’s roughly how it works. There’s the music supervisor, and the executive producer, and there are people on the game’s team that are in charge of audio. They all work together to come up with what the music is that needs the vision of the game. I give input on that, as far as what is clearable, and what isn’t—my best guess. They work from that. Then it comes back to me, and I secure the rights.
You are the golden retriever that has to retrieve the music for licensing?
Exactly. I prefer standard poodle (as a description).
At what point are you first involved?
I am brought into (the process) pretty close to the beginning. Each game has a different budget, different time lines, and different musical needs. So I’m there in the beginning, along with the music supervisor, to advise the team on how much time we need to clear the type of music they want, and approximately how much it is going to cost. Certain artists they are probably not going to get. We don’t waste a lot of time on music that we can’t get. So we collaborate, and have a list of music that mostly is going to clear.
Who do you negotiate with?
In most cases, we use original masters that were made famous by the original artists. So, I usually clear the music licensing with people at the record label, and publishers. If it’s an emerging artist who isn’t signed with a label, I will negotiate with their manager. They will usually have a manager. In very rare cases, I will negotiate with the artist directly.
Who did the negotiation for Microsoft's single-use license of "Start Me Up" by the Rolling Stones, which it used as part of its launch campaign for the release of Windows 95?
You know, when I started working at Microsoft, and even now, when I tell people I work at Microsoft and that I do music licensing, they always ask me if I negotiated the deal for “Start Me Up.” Alas, I did not. It was negotiated, I believe, by the advertising agency.
Do your team and other developers have realistic expectations of what music will clear?
Since I’ve worked with these people for a while, the expectations have gotten a lot more realistic. On some games, the vision is to have more obscure songs that people haven’t heard of or they are not hearing on the radio every day. Some games, you want popular recognizable music. It really depends on how the music is being used, and what the concept of the game is.
For licensing unrecognizable music, the licensing fee would be lower.
It really depends on the budget, and on how the music is being used. The fees range all over the place. With unknown or emerging bands, the fees are going to be lower than a household name artist, but we do pay musicians and publishers for their works. We don’t do gratis licenses and say, “This is promotional for you.” We feel that these artists should be paid for their work. We don’t like to operate like the 800-pound gorilla that some people think that we are. I like to walk away from a deal where both parties are happy.
Publishers and record companies are more prone to licensing music to games today. More so than 15-20 years ago, there is now a template for this business.
I believe that there is, and I think that the record companies and publishers are a lot more comfortable with video games than they were in the beginning. That is completely understandable. You have something brand new, you don’t want to make mistakes, and you want to make the most money.
(Even now) you want your artists represented well. You want to make sure that they are in a project that isn’t going to…let’s just say that you put them in a project that is worthy of them, their stature and their art.
I think that the music industry has been more open to having their music in video games for awhile. As long as I have been doing this, I have really had a lot of co-operation and collaboration from the majors and the indies alike.
Are there concerns of placement of music in games?
It really depends on the game. Usually the theme of the game or the title is written by a composer. How the music is used in the game does vary from game to game. In a racing game, (music) can be used in background as you are racing; and some times in the user interface when you are looking at menus. Of course, music-oriented games like “Lips”, you are singing along to the music. It is front row in the game.
Music for games like “Halo” were done in-house.
Yes, we did. We hired composers to write original music. There wasn’t third-party music in those games. But there have been plenty of games that I’ve worked on for Microsoft that have a lot of third-party music—like the “Project Gotham Racing” franchise (developed by Bizarre Creations); the Forza Motorsport” franchise (developed by Turn 10 Studios); and we did a sing-along game called “Lips” (developed by iNiS).
We just did some successful games for the new Microsoft’s Kinect technology. “Kinect Sports” (developed by Rare) had a lot of third-party music. “Adventures” (developed by Good Science Studio, a subsidiary of Microsoft Game Studios) that is bundled with the Kinect has third-party music “Alan Wake” (developed by Finnish studio Remedy Entertainment) had third party music.
[“Alan Wake” was reportedly the third most pirated Xbox 360 game of 2010, being pirated 1.1 million times. The game's score is composed by Petri Alanko. The soundtrack prominently features the song "War" by Poets of the Fall from the band's 4th album, “Twilight Theater.” Additionally, “Alan Wake” also features two songs, “Children of the Elder God” and “The Poet and The Muse”, which were written specifically for the game and are performed by Poets of the Fall as the in-game band "Old Gods of Asgard."]
If you are using a theme, and it’s an instrumental, would it be created in-house?
Microsoft owns a music publishing house?
We do have a music publishing company in-house which I started because I had a background in music publishing. I said, “We own a lot of the game music. We really should start a music publishing company.”
Microsoft hadn’t done that before?
Nobody had done it before here. I did it about 10 years ago. I really started doing it when games started coming around (and being popular).
In 2009, the music-game industry slowed down. Too much value, too much music, too many games, too little time - a fair assessment?
Ummmm, I think there might be a little bit of truth to that, but I think that we want to have competing games. I think that competition is what the free market is all about. But, I am probably not the best person to ask that (sales) question to.
MTV/Harmonix's "Dance Central" and Konami's "Dance Masters" for the Kinect have done well.
There’s also the “Crackdown” franchise. We did “Crackdown” version 1 (in 2007) and version 2 came down last year (in July, 2010).
New motion-based game controllers like Kinect have revitalized the market. It’s pretty cool too.
I think so too. I know that it sounds biased, but I think that Microsoft puts out a lot of good products. As far as changing the gaming world, I think that Kinect has really done that and it is a lot of fun to play. It’s good exercise for people who don’t like to exercise because they are, actually, having fun. We really hit a home run with Kinect.
Did you try out Kinect while it was in development (and was dubbed Project Natal)?
I did. It was really fun to do. I played a little bit of “Sports” and I played a little bit of “Adventures.” It was a really fun feeling to be on the ground floor, and be able to play it and see what it was all about before it was available to the public.
Why did Microsoft hire you in 1995?
They were starting the first version of a (music) multimedia encyclopedia called “Music Central.” They had somebody here that was doing music licensing as well as video licensing and images. But when you work on a version of one project with a lot of music you need someone to devote the whole day, every day, to it.
At that time, I wanted to move to the Pacific North West. So I was pursuing Microsoft relentlessly. I happened to be at the right place at the right time. I was hired and I took on the music clearances of “Music Central.”
[“Microsoft Music Central” was a music encyclopedia on CD-ROM that was produced by Microsoft as part of the Microsoft Home range. The software featured a selection of biographical articles from the Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music along with album reviews from Britain’s Q magazine. The software included still images, video clips and online updates.]
At the time, Microsoft was quite small.
It was much smaller. I wasn’t here in the day when (Microsoft co-founder) Bill Gates knew everybody by first name, but it was much smaller than it is now.
How many clearances did you do for “Music Central?”
I think I started off clearing 200 or 300 songs. Yes, that is why they needed someone full-time on it. This was really in the infancy of multimedia. A lot of labels and publishers were a little leery of it. So, there were a fair amount of denials. We ended up with about 120 music clips in the encyclopedia.
At the time, there was a nervousness in the music industry over third-party use of music.
It seemed to me that the music industry still had post traumatic stress disorder from agreeing to buy-outs on videocassettes with movies, and did not want to make the same mistake in multimedia. But, I think that it all worked out rather well. There’s a kind of delineation between what kind of multimedia product warrants a buyout, and what warrants an ongoing royalty. The latter of which in games is where music is the game.
The labels had also earlier watched MTV build a business on—what they saw—as their backs. They didn’t want to build up another industry without being adequately paid.
I know that with record labels and publishers, the thing that they like to hear least when approaching them for a license is, “This is promotional for you.” I think that is the residual effect from MTV videos.
How was music used in “Music Central?”
We would have an article on an artist, and have a 60 second clip just to give an example of the artist’s music.
So you were going after a lot of hits?
We were going for a lot of hits. We ended up with a lot of good music. Sometimes, I am surprised by who gives me the most trouble, and who is easy to work with. For “Music Central” we were able to license a Dolly Parton song that she wrote and published. I remember when the license came back fully executed, it was with her signature on it. She watches every part of her business, as she should. I was very impressed by that.
Did your background in music publishing help you in your new job?
I did know a lot of publishers and record company people once I started doing licensing. But there were people I knew from publishing from my jobs in the publishing industry. So I would say yes, it was a help. It very much helped in really teaching me how to go about doing all this.
In 2001, Microsoft entered the console market with the Xbox, touting it also as a jukebox and a movie player.
It ended up becoming a bigger entertainment system than originally anticipated. You can download music to the Xbox hard drive, and connect it to speakers, television, whatever, and have a whole entertainment system with it.
With the Xbox, games had Dolby Digital 5.1 technology—a significant change in sound quality.
Absolutely, and there were better visuals than in the past. The first game that I worked on here was “Project Gotham Racing” (released Nov., 2001 in North America)
[“Project Gotham Racing,” developed by Bizarre Creations, and published by Microsoft Game Studios in 2001, quickly became the second best-selling game for the for the Xbox gaming console after “Halo: Combat Evolved.” Its kick-ass music soundtrack was—and remains—cutting-edge, including tracks by the Chemical Brothers, Chevelle, the Yo-Yos, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Timbaland & Magoo, Sir Mix-A-Lot, Stereo MCs along with more mainstream fare from Eve 6, David Lee Roth, and Iggy Pop.]
Your name is on a lot of games.
One of the many nice things that this company does is, that for everybody that are an integral part of shipping a product, you get a little award for the product that you stick on your plaque. So, I have many of those (awards) from working on so many games, and from working on so many reference products in the early days, like (the digital multimedia encyclopedia) “Encarta.”
Were you familiar with music publishing before previously being hired at Capitol Records’ publishing arm, Beechwood/Glenwood Music?
Most people not in the music business don’t understand music publishing. I certainly didn’t before I got into it. You hear a song on the radio, and you are familiar with the artists, and you buy a record. You assume that the artist is getting paid. A lot of people don’t stop to think that there’s a composer who wrote the music and there’s an owner (publisher) there. Once you explain that, people will go, “Oh yeah, that makes a sense.” I didn’t know what music publishing was when I applied for a job with Beechwood Music.
Did you work at the Capitol Records Tower in Hollywood?
An interesting part of the story is that I was looking for a job in the mid-70s in the Los Angeles Times, and read that Capitol Records was looking for secretaries. I thought, “I like music. I’m going to apply there.” There was an opening in legal at the Tower, and the job in the publishing division was at a little bungalow on Yucca Street at Ivar (about a block away from the Capitol Records Tower at 1750 North Vine). I was very fortunate that I was offered both positions, but I had to choose (between them). I thought that The Tower might be more fun because it’s the Tower. But this was in the days before computers, and I thought, “I am just going to be in the legal department typing agreements all day. That doesn’t sound like too much fun. At least this publishing job sounds interesting.”
There was a fork in the road there, and I made the right decision. Music publishing just sounded interesting, and I really did take to it. I was there for a couple of years. Then EMI (consolidated its publishing interests) and I went over to Screen Gems-EMI for a bit
You later joined Chappell/Intersong Music Group as an assistant to VP Roger Gordon, and licensing director, Pat Woods.
That was one of the happiest times in my career. It seemed to be before music became such a business; where so many companies have since merged. The companies then weren’t so big. It didn’t matter what your position was in those days at a publishing company. You knew all of the composers. You heard all of their demos. They would bring in new songs. Everybody would get excited when (a song) got recorded. Everybody got excited when (the record) started going up the charts. Everybody was really a part of everything that went on in the office. Those were just incredibly fun days.
Chappell/Intersong had its own in-house studio.
Yes, we had a studio in the L.A. office where people would record demos. At the time, Marvin Hamlisch and Carole Bayer Sager were signed to Chappell-Intersong, and they would come in all of the time to do their demos.
It was just an exciting time in the music business. We were in the Motown building (6255 Sunset Blvd.), and Polygram Records was there. There were shows to go to every night, and artists to discover that became huge. It was a very fun time.
You learned about licensing from Pat Woods at Chappell/Intersong.
I was interested in licensing. So I assisted Pat Woods, and picked her brain on anything I could. She was also very generous. She was a great help to me when I had questions.
Pat was the Queen of Licensing.
She still is. She is at Warner/Chappell now (as VP, Licensing) and she is still the Queen.
How long were you at Chappell/Intersong?
I was there for about three or four years. I left to work (as a production assistant) on the (A&E) television show “An Evening at the Improv.” That was a lot of fun also, and I learned a lot about music licensing. Not only did I do the licensing for the musical acts—that was easy because that was scheduled and I knew what to do—but I also had to sit in the audience, and make sure that I wrote down anything the comics did, if they burst into song or whatever. Then I would have to go back to the office and attempt to clear it.
Comics like Gallagher and Robin Williams performed on the show.
Also Jerry Seinfeld, Richard Lewis and Jim Carrey—a lot of those (comic) guys back then. I worked on that show for a couple of seasons.
Did you find doing music clearances on your own difficult?
It was a much easier business back then. When I was working in television music clearance, the standard rights that we asked for was five years, world free for TV. It was really pretty easy.
Plus people were known to be helpful within the publishing world.
The first time I called Al Kohn (then VP, music licensing at Warner Brothers Publishing, and not a relation) to license a song, I said, “I am working on this show. I have a little bit of background in music publishing, but I haven’t done music licensing before. Can you help me? Can you walk me through what I need to know?” He did. He’s always been that generous man who shares his knowledge. But I think that he also appreciated that I wasn’t pretending to know more than I did. I was just very open and honest with him.
That’s the way I’ve always done business, always. My real personality is not different from my work personality. I just try to be open and honest and friendly. It not only works and establishes long term relationships that help me in my work, but it makes my work more fun.
Then you went to Columbia Pictures Television to do music clearance and licensing for their shows.
I did “Hart To Hart,” “Fantasy Island” and “Designing Women.” I was the one that negotiated the rights to use “Georgia On My Mind” as the theme song for “Designing Women.” I also negotiated “Harlem Nocturne” as the theme song for “Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer.” There were also the soap operas there, like “Days of My Lives” and “The Young and the Restless” that I worked on.
Did you hang around the studio, and watch productions?
I did. We were on the Warner Brothers’ lot at the time. It was really fun eating in the commissary every day and seeing all of the actors there. There were the Warner Brothers’ shows. I didn’t work on them but we were on the same lot. So I used to see the cast of “Murphy Brown” and other Warners’ shows in the commissary. After that, I went full circle, and went (back) to Warner-Chappell and did licensing for television.
Then you decided to do a career change. What brought you to that realization?
I had gone to Kenya on a photo safari. People say that it changes your life. I can’t explain how or why, but it did. I sat there on the Serengeti—or was it the Maasai Mara—and said, “I want a career change.” I had always been interested in casting. When I was at Columbia Pictures Television, my office was down the hall from the casting group, and I had befriended them. Casting was something that I had always wanted to try.
How did you go about seeking work in the field?
I called the friends that I had made in casting, and told them that I was interested in casting. I apprenticed for quite a few years. When I was at a point of beginning to cast roles myself I questioned if I really wanted to do this for a living. Music was always my passion. I really wanted to go back to that.
Did you cast many shows?
I was not the name casting director in any shows but I cast some smaller roles for some shows. I worked on the (1993-1994 Fox TV) show “Flying Blind” with Corey Parker and Téa Leoni that was really wonderful. But, it didn’t have the right time slot (running only from Sept. 13, 1992 to May 2, 1993). It was brilliantly written, and it was a lot of fun to work on. I worked on Henry Winkler’s last comedy series “Monty” (on Fox TV in 1994). He is the most delightful person I’d met in show business.
I was the casting associate on an Oscar-winning short film called “Lieberman in Love.” It starred and was directed by Christine Lahti. I’m pretty proud of that. I don’t have my own Oscar, but I did work on an Oscar-winning short film.
[A short story by noted Canadian novelist and short story writer William Patrick (W.P.) Kinsella, "Lieberman in Love” was the basis for the film. The Oscar win came as a surprise to its author who, watching the 1996 Academy Award telecast from home, had no idea the film had been made and released. Neither was he listed in the film's credits or acknowledged by director Christine Lahti in her acceptance speech. A full-page advertisement was later placed in Variety apologizing to Kinsella for the oversight.]
When placing music in games, is it similar to casting for film or TV?
It really is.
You are looking for context, really.
With film, you are looking for what this character is about and who can become this character, and who can deliver the lines and be believable.
With music, you are doing a similar thing.
You are. You are taking a song, the feel, the genre. You feel how it should be performed when you think of what artist could do this song, and have a hit.
Do you miss the music business or do you feel that you are still in it?
I feel like I’m still in it. I really do. I deal with a lot of incredibly nice people from the labels, and at the publishers. I can’t think of anybody off hand that I don’t want to work with. I don’t really deal with any crabapples anymore.
Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess in 2008 as senior editor, he 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, and the London Times. He is co-author of the book “Music From Far And Wide: Celebrating 40 Years Of The Juno Awards.”