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Songs for Screens: Inside Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s Seven-Figure Synch Boom

September 11, 2018

“It’s like ‘the gentleman’s f— you’ to all the people who didn’t stand by us,” says frontman Robert Levon Been.

For 20 years now, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club has enjoyed the increasingly rare slow-and-steady career path of the no-frills rock band. Without a radio hit or arbitrary EDM crossover collab to its name, the band otherwise known as BRMC is still able to draw packed crowds at large venues and earn critical praise. To wit: their latest release, January’s “Wrong Creatures,” eight albums deep into their run.

And for the past 12 months, BRMC has also quietly carved out a booming, seven figure-plus synch business for itself, securing high-profile placements across the whole synch spectrum: a long-running campaign for Jeep Wrangler, key scenes on the latest seasons of Showtime’s “The Affair” and AMC’s “Fear The Walking Dead,” films “A Kid Like Jake” and “The Game Changers” and video games “The Crew 2” and “Forza Horizon 3.”

For many rock bands over the past decade — Black Keys, Phoenix and Portugal. The Man among them — synchs have helped unlock the doors to radio and amphitheater tours that came more easily to their ‘90s counterparts when guitars were the sound of the day. And BRMC bassist-vocalist Robert Levon Been is the first to admit that his band was doing just fine in its earlier days, when it bounced across major labels like Virgin and RCA and kept its synch activity to a minimum.

“We always had this philosophy of only taking what we needed,” he says. “And back when we started, we usually made enough money from the record label to get by. But bands just have to fend for themselves now… I mean, you’ll get told a song of yours was played over a million times on Spotify last week, which is fucking incredible. But then you’re told you only make like $200 from that, so it still feels like we’re all just happily playing music on the Titanic.”

Having gone the indie route since 2008, currently with BMG/Vagrant for its last two albums, BRMC has taken the scenic route to embracing for its ability to hack the modern music industry economic system. Though its volume of synchs has dramatically increased over the past year (over 30-plus unique uses both domestic and internationally), the prioritization of context over cash has not. In 2012, BRMC even took the extra step of donating proceeds from a Miller Coors synch for a song called “Conscience Killer” to an anti-human trafficking organization, lest their devoted fans point out the potential hypocrisy.

Jordan Berliant, BRMC’s longtime manager at Revelation, says he and the band members have two common criteria when it comes to evaluating synch requests: “Is there any objection to the context, or the brand, or the scene it might be used in a film or TV show, and is it something that can bring positive exposure to the song? We tend not to make decisions based on the money, not that we’re the only decision makers, but we’re looking at things mostly in terms of the context and creativity associated with it.”

Been says the attitudes within the group have been even more divided. “I remember our first drummer, Nick [Jago], thought we were crazy for not accepting boatloads of money in the early days, and, on some level, he’s probably right, in hindsight. Pete [Hayes] might be the most sincere in a sort of hardcore punk ethos whereas once you’ve taken the money, it doesn’t matter. Leah [Shapiro] is probably more measured about it. And I just always insist on actually seeing and judging the footage first before agreeing to anything.”

The scrutiny has paid off across the band’s whole catalog. Not only has BRMC been able to promote current single “Little Thing Gone Wild” through promos for Fox Sports and a scene in TNT’s “Animal Kingdom,” fan fave “Beat The Devil’s Tattoo” has taken on a new life of its own more than eight years after its initial release thanks to high-profile uses by Jeep in the U.S., BMW in the U.K., AMC’s “Preacher” and multiple video game titles. As a result, the track has almost double the play counts of other songs in the band’s catalog on Spotify.

Charlie Davis, BMG’s senior director, marketing and commercials, credits the band’s true-to-its-roots rock for its current popularity among the ad-rock crowd. “BRMC’s music is raw and driving and taps into the rich tapestry of America’s musical history, while still capturing the landscape of 2018,” Davis says. “There’s been a trend in the past couple years of bands incorporating blues rock tropes, especially for synch purposes, but BRMC are the real deal and brands respond well to their authenticity, especially for automotive spots that require a strong driving pulse.”

Similar creative briefs frequently cross the desk of Bryan Chabrow, BMG’s director, marketing, film & TV music, who adds: “Our clients say they want something with some swagger, gritty with a nice kind of dynamic, rebellious, driving energy that’s got some attitude. The first thing we heard from the new record was ‘Little Thing Gone Wild,’ and I remember hearing the percussion and bass groove kick in and how excited I was to go back to the synch team and say, ‘Check out this new BRMC record.’ The track has that kind of call to action and badass vibe our clients really like.”

Such renewed interest in BRMC’s music finds Been and his bandmates on the positive end of the music industry karma wheel, while laying a foundation for the group to make “history for the future.” Been recalls nearly being dropped by Virgin after the band’s debut under-performed in the label’s eyes, and even songs like “Devil’s Tattoo” struggled to find an audience during their initial release. Offers Been: “It feels pretty good when the older albums and songs get recognition over time, because it’s like ‘the gentleman’s f— you’ to all the people who didn’t stand by us.”

Songs For Screens is a Variety column sponsored by music experiential agency MAC Presents, based in NYC. It is written by Andrew Hampp, founder of music marketing consultancy 1803 LLC and a longtime branding correspondent. Each week, the column highlighta noteworthy use of music in advertising and marketing campaigns, as well as new and catalog songs that Variety’s music editors deem ripe for synch use.