During his seven years in the Denver blues duo American Relay, guitarist and singer Nick Sullivan never thought about registering his songs with performing-rights organizations like ASCAP or BMI, nor did he bother to find a publishing company. Instead, the group settled for making money from gigs and CD sales.
In retrospect, Sullivan says, that was a mistake.
“I should have paid more attention when I was in the music-business class at CU Denver,” he says now. “People would tell me, ‘Don’t you remember they told you that music publishing is really important?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, but I want to be a rock star and give away all my rights to everybody.’”
Sullivan eventually did register those American Relay songs — but not until after the band broke up, in 2009. Over the past decade, he's learned more about licensing and its importance. And five years ago, he made it his job, forming Consonance Publishing with his friend Jeff Kanan.
The two met in 2010, working together at Macy Sound Studios. In 2013, they launched The Keep, a two-room, 1,900-square-foot recording studio, and two years later, they formed the publishing outfit. Sullivan says that nearly forty artists, most of them based in Colorado, are now their company's roster.
So far, 2020 has proved to be a tough year for their businesses, partly because the studio was closed for nearly three months during the early phase of the pandemic. Still, Sullivan and Kanan have made ends meet with projects from both the studio and the publishing company, including re-mixing and re-mastering the Flobots debut EP, Platypus; recording Brad Corrigan in Denver for the new Dispatch album, Phase 1; and mixing trailers for Stranger Things 4, Catch 22, Sound of Metal and The Secret: Dare to Dream. The company has also placed songs by local acts Safe Boating Is No Accident and Tana Victoria in the new Blumhouse Productions/Amazon Studios film Nocturne.
The companies' success didn't come easily. Not long after starting Consonance, Sullivan realized that it was hard making deals from Denver. “One thing we learned really fast is that pitching from Denver and trying to get [songs] in front of people in an increasingly competitive industry is really tough. We were lucky to find somebody.”
That somebody, who helped them land songs in Nocturne, is Gary Helsinger, senior vice president of licensing and creative at the Los Angeles-based company Spirit Production Music. A friend of Kanan’s, he used to work as a staff engineer at Westlake Audio in L.A.
With industry connections now intact, Sullivan says signing up with Consonance is a good deal — especially for artists who own the master rights to their recordings. Having songs registered and being part of a publishing company can make the licensing process, whether it be for film, TV, advertising or games, much easier.
“It's really just all of the fundamentals,” Sullivan says. “You can’t license a song until everybody signs off on it. You have to be very cautious about that and not cut any corners.”
Many of the songs in Consonance’s 500-track catalogue are easy-to-license tracks that have been pre-cleared with artists and are available for one-stop shopping. That makes it easier for people wanting to find music for their projects. If a music supervisor is in a pinch and needs a song for a TV show, working with Consonance is more efficient than dealing with major labels and big publishers who can take months to sign off on a contract.
“It’s so easy for people to license the music, and part of it is making it so the person on the other side is comfortable,” Sullivan says. “Like, ‘I can license this music, and I'm not going to worry about the bass player who never registered for ASCAP, and now he's really pissed off when his music is on there.’”
One challenge in music publishing is keeping databases up to date so it's easier to find the right song for any given project, notes Sullivan. Each track is labeled with keywords and by genres and moods. “They might say, ‘Send me something like the Lumineers,' and we’ve got to make sure our data aligns."
Friends in the music industry have cautioned Sullivan that it can take ten years before publishing companies see any profits. “What we've learned," he says, "is if you just focus on the administrative things, slowly but surely, things will happen.”
Since Sullivan and Kanan have the recording studio in addition to the publishing company, they’ve been able to repackage songs as short clips and instrumental bites. That makes pitching to ad agencies — like Denver's Cohn Marketing, which is using tracks from Denver acts Solid Ocean and Creature Canopy in its Way to Go campaign — easier. And all of that helps Colorado ad agencies keep their music picks local, a boon for the city's music economy, which currently lacks many homegrown licensing and recording options.
“Part of the work we do with artists is to cultivate them for the marketplace,” Sullivan says. And while making a profit off of CD sales is a thing of the past and live-music income has dried up during the pandemic, bands still have plenty of options for income, including royalties from film, TV, games, ads, video streaming and social media.
That's the kind of money that keeps coming in even when a band is on hiatus.
“What I love about this business is that you do a lot of work up front, and then you let it go out into the world,” Sullivan says. “And then you might see a check in the mail come in.”
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