Here’s How Apple Has Dominated Sync Licensing for Two Decades Running

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An exterior shot of an Apple Store. Photo Credit: Laurenz Heymann

From the way placements come to fruition to the number of opportunities available to artists, sync licensing has changed dramatically in recent years. Amid this evolution and related transformations throughout the wider music and visual-media spaces, however, Apple’s sync relevance and influence are as strong as ever.

The following was created in collaboration with Songtradr, part of a broader partnership focused on the sync licensing space.  Be sure to check our ongoing coverage of this fast-growing sector here

Nearly 21 years have passed since Apple released the first iPod, and the 15th anniversary of the iPhone’s debut will arrive at June’s end. A multitude of Apple devices and far-reaching music industry changes later, though, the Cupertino-headquartered company remains popular to say the least, having generated $19.82 billion in Q1 2022 just from services (including Apple Music and Apple TV+), which surpassed 825 million subscriptions.

Beyond these all-time-high income and subscribership totals, a growing stable of memorable song placements attests to the continued relevance of Apple on the sync side. An abundance of multibillion-dollar companies have spent (and are spending) substantial sums to try and leave a mark in advertising and cultivate a reputation for breaking the hit songs and artists of tomorrow. 

But admittedly, few have come close to matching Apple’s sync success – generally and in terms of jumpstarting the careers of promising up-and-coming acts. 

Jet, for instance, placed their now-famous “Are You Gonna Be My Girl” in the 2004 iPod “silhouette” spot. 18 years later, the track, as the Melbourne-based group’s most popular release, has 406.39 million Spotify streams and 131.26 million YouTube views (on the official upload) to its credit.

Meanwhile, Grouplove’s “Tongue Tied” complemented a 2011 iPod Touch advert and is still the Los Angeles-based band’s highest-charting and most streamed song (643.79 million Spotify streams and at least 70 million cumulative YouTube views). 

Even Apple-placed tracks that haven’t made as large of a pop-culture impact are benefitting from a boost in fan interest. Suzi Wu, for example, lent “Eat Them Apples” to an iPhone 12 commercial, and the work is, predictably, the London native’s best-performing Spotify upload. 

These and an array of other Apple placements have led many – in the music community, advertising sphere, and elsewhere – to speculate as to the precise reasons behind the company’s longtime prominence in sync. 

Now, Digital Music News has sat down with Breanna McFarlane, director of creative sync licensing at Songtradr, to analyze Apple’s sync significance, zeroing in on four particularly noteworthy placements to determine their broader strategic importance for the company. 

Apple Makes – Not Chases – Trends and Hit Songs 

Song: “1234” (2007)

Artist: Feist 

Commercial: Apple’s 2007 iPod Nano spot

Amherst, Nova Scotia-born Feist (full name Leslie Feist) released her first album in 1999, but it wasn’t until the arrival of her third solo album, 2007’s The Reminder, that she achieved global commercial success. And this commercial success was driven by the exposure that came with placing “1234” in Apple’s 2007 iPod Nano advert.

Featuring the music video for “1234” playing on the iPod Nano, the 30-second spot shows fans retrieving Nanos in succession, leaving behind a different-colored device each time. 

The commercial’s visually appealing nature isn’t the only thing that resonated with viewers, for the Grammy-nominated “1234” became Feist’s most well-known and highest-charting track after helping to market the Nano. Moreover, the song spurred meaningful results for The Reminder and other components of Feist’s career. 

That Apple licensed the little-known (at the time) song reflects the company’s longstanding commitment to indie and emerging acts. Placing tracks from throughout the music landscape, including current and future hits alike, enables Apple to find the perfect songs for its products and their campaigns, thereby keeping its image synonymous with cutting-edge art

The company then positions itself to make hits instead of chasing them, as was the case with the placement of The Ting Tings’ “Shut Up and Let Me Go” in a separate but similarly high-energy “silhouette” spot, unveiled this time in 2008. 

“Shut Up and Let Me Go” released on the Salford-based duo’s debut album, We Started Nothing, which received double-Platinum certification from the BPI. And with 53.81 million Spotify streams and millions of YouTube views (including across several fan-uploaded lyric videos), the Apple-placed song brought attention to both the album and the act. 

“I know personally I get a lot of requests where people say, ‘Give us somebody who is on the verge. Somebody who is ready to take off,’” McFarlane told DMN, indicating also that clients often call for artists who craft quality music for dedicated supporters but haven’t yet caught on with the masses. 

“I think brands want to stay relevant. They want to feel like what they put out there is fresh and current,” she continued, pointing out Apple’s influence on the way other brands approach music in advertising. 

There’s extra risk – and extra reward – associated with attempting to set new trends as opposed to operating within the framework of what’s already in vogue. 

Apple Spots Put Songs Front and Center, and Music Is An Integral Part of Apple’s Brand 

Song: “New Soul” (2007) 

Artist: Yael Naim

Commercial: First MacBook Air spot

French-Israeli singer Yael Naim made a major splash in the U.S. after “New Soul” supplemented Apple’s first commercial for the MacBook Air. Steve Jobs is rumored to have personally selected the song, which remains Naim’s most popular stateside single and most streamed release (134.96 million Spotify streams). 

The optimistic and engaging track suits the straightforward spot at hand – consisting of a MacBook Air being removed from a manilla envelope and opened. And on this front, McFarlane acknowledged the importance of “hitting the ground running” with music in advertising.

“Especially in an ad, you only have a few seconds to engage the customer. A track that is upbeat right away, and has those punches and builds too, definitely goes a long way when you have such a short window,” she said. 

“New Soul” certainly grabs listeners’ attention out of the gate, and tellingly, it’s chiefly the beginning of the song that plays during the Apple ad. The same is true of a number of the company’s other sync placements – including some of those mentioned above as well as Anna of the North’s “Dream Girl,” minus about seven seconds of instrumentals at the outset and with a slight modification at the spot’s end. 

The point signifies a notable contrast to the many non-Apple spots that feature various portions of songs (or even omit their vocals). Significantly, no shortage of the latter ads, instrumental-only commercials from VRBO, Samsung, Suave, and Target among them, succeed in bringing to life their respective creative visions. 

But Apple advertisements put their music front and center, embracing the essence of songs to resonate with consumers. An additional example lies in the close connection between song lyrics and the direction of efforts like the 2022 Apple Card spot (featuring Big Boi’s “Chocolate”) and, way back in 1999, a commercial for the iMac (complemented by The Rolling Stones’ “She’s A Rainbow”). 

This bold tendency to tie the appeal of adverts directly to the appeal of music has undoubtedly played a part in Apple’s decades of influencing sync and turning tracks into hits. 

Apple’s Hardware and Platform Are Inherently Interconnected

Songs: “Chitty Bang” (2022) and “I Look Good” (2020) 

Artists: Leikeli47 and O.T. Genasis

Commercials: Separate iPhone 13 spots (Leikeli47 and O.T. Genasis)

Gauging the total commercial effect that Apple ad placements will have on Leikeli47’s “Chitty Bang” and O.T. Genasis’s “I Look Good” is difficult, for the tracks made their way into the spots in question earlier this year. The majority of the previously mentioned placements helped artists to secure a variety of awards and career opportunities – including future sync deals – months and years after the fact. 

However, it is possible to gain a sense of the early post-placement performance of “Chitty Bang” and “I Look Good.” The official YouTube uploads of the Apple spots containing the songs boast 9.25 million views (“Chitty Bang”) and 6.27 million views (“I Look Good”), and both videos’ descriptions contain links to the songs on Apple Music. 

While the placed tracks aren’t the most streamed projects from Leikeli47 and O.T. Genasis, the impact of the Apple adverts is also clear in different areas. Fans have used the Apple-owned Shazam app to identify “I Look Good” over 565,000 times, for instance, and north of 203,000 for “Chitty Bang.” 

The interconnectivity of Apple’s products and platforms represents another contributor not only to the company’s business success, but to the results it delivers artists. 

“I think Apple is just so easy to use,” said McFarlane. “It makes it really, really easy for people to go on and get an idea of the top songs an artist has, find their albums super quickly, add to playlists – all of that is very easy. 

“Especially for us in the sync space, we get a lot of, ‘We want to find similar artists to Drake.’ And with that, I can just Shazam, and then Shazam will lead me to Apple because they’re connected. So when I Shazam something it automatically goes into my Apple playlist, and from there I can open up the artist on the Apple app and listen through to their album, get an idea of the music they have, and find similar artists that way.” 

Fans’ ability to utilize Apple products and apps to identify, stream, and save music – not to mention find alike works – fuels the company’s sync relevance. Other multinational brands with strong commercials and carefully placed songs simply aren’t one-stop resources for music.