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Where indie music meets mainstream media

Pump Audio licenses songs by indie musicians to TV, ad producers. The musicians can make money, but retain ownership of their work.

For those who produce commercials and television programs, finding the right background music is essential. And for the musicians who make the music, having their work used in a commercial or on a TV show soundtrack is a nice, sometimes lucrative, bonus.

Pump Audio, an online service that specializes in cataloging music by independent musicians and marketing it to producers, aims to make the path from indie recording to producer as smooth and speedy as possible. The company, based in New York's Hudson Valley, also has begun offering its service to amateur video makers who use the Internet to showcase their work.

Steve Ellis, founder and CEO of Pump Audio, knows what life as an independent musician can be like. A British singer and guitar player, he moved to the United States in his early 20s and landed a record deal with an independent label in Atlanta.

He recorded his music but it was never released, so Ellis moved to New York to pitch the recording to other prospects. It took three years before he struck a deal with a major label, which initially wanted him to ditch his band and eventually dumped the entire group without explanation.

That was enough for Ellis, who was then 28 with a wife who had been patient about their financially lean circumstances but also wanted to have children and a stable life.

A plan emerges
When he managed to sell a song for use in a local cable commercial and got well paid for it, his business idea was born. The first Pump Audio customer was MTV, which at the time either went through the complicated and expensive process of buying music rights from famous artists, or used music recorded specifically for use as background in TV and commercial productions.

"It seemed odd that people were getting paid to make fake music when there were millions of people like me who made real music but had no market and nowhere to go," Ellis said. "It was pretty obvious to me that if you could take this huge supply of music that was already being created every day in every country and every style, do a little filtering and then provide it to this producer across the table from me, we would have a business."

And a business he has. From that first MTV contract, signed in 2001, Pump Audio now sells music to all 16 MTV channels worldwide as well as to Comedy Central, NBC, VH1, CBS, ABC, FOX, Discovery channel, and advertising agencies like Saatchi & Saatchi. Pump Audio markets itself to musicians through publishing rights organizations, music events and other Web sites, and markets to producers via production-industry events and publications.

Each customer is equipped with a piece of hardware called the PumpBox, a pocket-size hard drive that contains more than 65,000 CD-quality songs ready for use, ranging from driving hip-hop to ukulele standards. The hardware works on any platform and can be shared on a company network.

Mining songs from the PumpBox
The PumpBox also comes with a software search engine designed to find the right tune for a specific video sequence. The software factors in criteria such as genre, mood, tempo and key instruments, and gives the client an opportunity to narrow down the search while listening.

You never know what someone is going to like with a video. Some think a romantic moment goes best with classical music; others think it's death metal.
-- Steve Ellis, founder and CEO, Pump Audio

The Pump Audio catalog is regularly updated with new submissions from independent musicians who send their songs to Pump Audio in the hope of earning some extra money. Submissions come from all over the world. Not so long ago a small brown parcel landed in Pump Audio's mail bin with the first entry from Kazakhstan--a heavy metal number.

"There is a lot of angry rock out there," Ellis said. "You never know what someone is going to like with a video. Some think a romantic moment goes best with classical music; others think it's death metal."

Music from Pump Audio has been used to help create the desired effects in commercials for brands such as Nike, Kodak and Mercedes Benz. On Monday, Pump Audio began offering a version of its service to a new market that Ellis believes has great potential: people making their presence known in the world of online amateur video.

The company has launched a new Web-based tool, called the MyPump Soundtrack service, to meet the musical needs of rookie Internet video makers and help them stay on the right side of copyright law. After creating a login profile and linking his or her video file to the MyPump software, the video maker can synchronize the video with music from the Pump Audio catalog.

A client searching for the perfect background tune, for example, can run the video against a backdrop music from any of several different genres (rock, pop, drama, electronic, world, classical, blues, hip-hop and others) or subgenres (alternative rock, roots rock, hard rock, metal). The music also can be searched according to the mood it conveys (up/positive; aggressive/edgy; down/dark/melancholic; laid back/groovy; quirky/wacky/silly, among others) or it's tempo. When the perfect piece is found, it can be edited into the video file.

After clicking "sync and submit" the video creator pays for the music--which, because it is being used in a noncommercial, amateur video, costs about 99 cents a song--and receives the completed, musically enhanced video file. The company hopes to eventually strike alliances with video sites that would allow Pump Audio to integrate its MyPump program into partner site Web pages.

The main criterion for songs accepted into the PumpBox is decent sound quality. It takes neither a flat belly nor bulky biceps to get discovered.

Ellis thinks that as video-related sites look for ways to make money, video commercials using Pump Audio-type material in their soundtracks will become more widespread. And as search engines present more local advertising, they will help drive the market for relatively cheap, easy-access music.

Another promising market: TV networks that have started producing content exclusively for the Web. Pump Audio recently got the contract for all the background tracks in the CBS broadband channel Innertube series "Greek to Chic" and "BBQ Bill." One half-hour episode can contain up to 50 pieces of music, some shorter than a second.

Today Pump Audio has 18 employees companywide, with staff in New York, Los Angeles, London and Amsterdam. All except one of these employees are longtime musicians who bring a perspective to the business that is important to the way the company treats its contributors, Ellis said. "It is fair, which is unheard of in the business of music. It is a contract with an artist that I would have agreed to sign."

Every dollar is split 50-50 between Pump Audio and the musician, in a nonexclusive agreement that allows artists to keep copyright and publishing rights to their music. "They are free to pursue all the other opportunities they may have. We don't try to own and control them. If we make money off their music, they make money. If we don't, they lose nothing."

How much the creator earns depends on how the song is used. Global commercial use costs more than noncommercial or local use. A tune used in a major TV commercial can haul in tens of thousands of dollars, while two seconds in the background of a TV show might yield something like $10.

Nobby over Jimi
The music doesn't need to be a hit to work in a specific context, Ellis said. The main criterion for songs accepted into the PumpBox is decent sound quality. It takes neither a flat belly nor bulky biceps to get discovered.

"The beauty of our market production is that nobody cares how young or how beautiful you are. What they care about is that the piece of music works for the moment they try to synchronize it with," he said.

Ellis loves telling the story of how Nobby Reed, a blues guitarist from Georgia, beat both Jimi Hendrix's "Foxy Lady" and the Commodores' "Brick House" to the contract for a Crest toothpaste commercial. "The concept was older people at a party, a woman walks in and three gentlemen go, 'Look at that beauty,' and 'Do you think they're real?' And they are talking about her teeth." All three songs were indeed amusing in the context of the ad, Ellis said, but the Hendrix and Commodores songs, famous as they are, tended to overwhelm the ad's message. So the ad producers picked a tune by Nobby Reed.

Although there are happy stories to be told, Ellis says that most Pump Audio artists don't get rich. One woman got her song into a Kodak commercial and managed to make a down payment on her house, but there are no promises of fame, glory or glamour.

"We have been through the process of not making any money and being promised a lot of stuff," Ellis said of the working musician's plight. "We like the idea of actually creating revenue for our artists, not the promise of fame and riches. They tend not to materialize, those promises."