"Seeing Katie Morgan pole-dancing topless to 'I Like It, I Love It' was certainly not what I had in mind when I made that song, but when I see it, it works." Rapper Lyrics Born is talking about having one of his songs licensed for use as background music in the show Sex Tips 2, hosted by the one-time adult-entertainment star turned wannabe actress. For an artist like the Berkeley-based Lyrics Born, who prides himself on making "progressive" hip-hop, and who has remained on the independent level throughout his 15-plus-year recording career, licensing songs to TV shows, movies, videogames, and for use in advertisements offers a vital revenue stream. These days, it helps fund the art.
With physical CD sales declining and digital sales failing to pick up the slack, licensing has emerged as a key part of any new artist's paycheck. It's something Lyrics Born has been savvy about longer than most. His portfolio includes one-off songs for underground compilations (the OM label's 1997 Deep Concentration), Diet Coke and Nokia ads, and tracks featured on the TV shows Six Feet Under and Gossip Girl. It's a strong selection, although he admits, "I think I got really lucky in the beginning. The label manager at the time just called me up and said someone at Diet Coke was interested in licensing a song."
Today, those calls are more common — something Lyrics Born credits to hip-hop's audience having matured. "Fifteen years ago, they were licensing grunge bands," he says, "but now hip-hop fans are the music supervisors and have jobs and roles where they can take the music places it's never been." In doing so, independent artists have been afforded a rare chance to compete with their financially privileged mainstream counterparts. "You have to understand, I've never had a multimillion-dollar promotional campaign, and it's virtually impossible to play the game at radio," he explains. "This is the one area where the playing field is level."
While the licensing of a song usually brings money and a profile boost to an artist, Lyrics Born also sees a creative side to the entire process. He says that whether or not he accepts an offer depends on its usage (in his case, whether it's going to be "artistic" or "serve any meaningful purpose"). But once accepted, he likens the procedure to that of remixing. "Seeing how someone else interprets your song is the fun part," he enthuses, while camped out in a recording studio sifting through remixes for the vinyl version of his upcoming album, As You Were. "When I'm making a song, I'm looking at it one way, but then it gets used in an application I never would have thought of. Like, if a movie uses one of my songs, I always think, 'That's not really my best song!' But I'm not gonna argue with the director's vision. They put it in a different context — that's exciting and entertaining."
Lyrics Born benefited from an early induction into the licensing game, but he warns that there's a fickleness to the process. It should be seen as an unexpected bonus, not an artist's main focus. "Some cases pay well, like they'll put a new wing on your house, but other licenses will barely buy you a sandwich," he says.
So his goal with his latest record, which features collaborations with pop singer-songwriter Francis Starlite (of Francis and the Lights), self-proclaimed "wonky pop" artist Sam Sparro, and the Honor Roll Crew's Trackademicks, is to make something "that will keep myself interested." For Lyrics Born, the licensing payoff only comes after he creates something he feels truly passionate about.