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5 Minutes with... Ian Neil

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Sony Music UK’s director of music for film and TV on his life-long eclectic musical tastes, the concept of ‘selling out’ and the artist that he believes should be bigger than Ed Sheeran

5 Minutes with... Ian Neil
Ian Neil might not be a household name, but he’s almost certainly worked behind the scenes on things that you’ve enjoyed. Using his research expertise, knowledge of and ties to the music industry, he’s paired music perfectly with the films, TV, advertising and video games we all love.

In an illustrious career he’s placed artists such as from Lighthouse Family to Groove Armada to Smash Mouth on TV and films including Kick Ass, Red Riding and Kidulthood.

Now he’s Sony Music UK’s director of music for film and TV, where he’s placed music for John Lewis ads, The Inbetweeners and Kingsman: The Secret Service.

These are just the highlights of Ian’s credit list. Impressed by the breadth and depth of his influence, LBB’s Alex Reeves caught up with him to find out more.

LBB> Firstly, how's life and work, several months into Covid-19?

Ian> It’s mostly been fine and we’ve all got used to this being the new normal. But it’s not normal is it? I do miss moaning about my travel into work - I assume South West Trains have had time to fix all their problems permanently now for my return!

LBB> How has Sony Music had to adapt in the area you work in? 

Ian> Sony Music has been great in terms of people working from home and communicating with staff about prioritising their well-being and fully understanding we are all in the same boat. We know it’s going to be a more challenging year and everyone has to accept that. Well perhaps not so tough for Amazon, as my oldest daughter is making Jeff Bezos much richer.

LBB> Let's go back to the start. Where did you grow up and what were your musical tastes like through the years? 

Ian> I grew up mostly around Hackney when it was not trendy. It was grim to be fair and I rarely go back. But as they say, you can take the boy out of Hackney, but you can’t take Hackney out of the boy! 

I grew up loving the early ‘70s music from glam rock to pop to reggae, soul and the punk and New Wave (I hate that term New Wave though!).

LBB> How did you end up in your career? Was there a breakthrough moment?

Ian> I went and worked in a record shop after quitting my earlier career so it started there I guess. The breakthrough moment was doing a week at Jeff Wayne Music who worked for advertising agencies finding and licensing music. This was early ‘90s so it was all in its infancy. 

LBB> When did you first get into music supervision and what were your early thoughts on it?

Ian> After working on ads at Jeff Wayne Music, I got a further taste at Universal helping out on early Michael Winterbottom films and a few other small UK indie film projects. Naturally, I thought working on films was cooler than adverts, but then I realised they did not have the budgets advertisers had to spend on music!

LBB> What have been the biggest shifts in the landscape since then?

Ian> First and foremost the growth of the business. I think the area has grown 10 or 20 times since those days. Reliance on synch for income and exposure has gone hand-in-hand with the growth. But we are now in a place where supply very much outstrips demand, so it’s a fine balancing act.

LBB> What have been the biggest moments in your career, leading up to your role as Sony Music UK’s director of music for film and TV? 

Ian> I worked at Universal Records and Warner Chappell Music before Sony, so both were important in terms of career advancement. Being involved in the Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels soundtrack was a defining moment.

In terms of advertising, I’ve probably been involved with thousands of campaigns over the years and worked with many artists and writers. I arranged a re-recording with Prince Buster for a Levi’s ad back in the day and we recorded at Rak Studios. That one just came to me in a flashback moment and I have many fond memories.

LBB> And what are the main things that preoccupy you in your role today? 

Ian> Staff, labels, artists (frontline and catalogue), overseas deals and US unions, micro-licensing and more things you can get done in a normal day. But then it’s not a normal job and we don’t live normal lives anymore do we?! The explosion of music on TV shows has been the most exciting development over the last few years and long may that continue.

LBB> What recent work are you most proud of and why? 

Ian> In the last few months my team has pulled in a number of synchs for London Grammar and a couple of nice ones for Tom Odell who I am very fond of. Tom did two covers for us a few years back, one for John Lewis [below] and one for Sony Bravia and they have amassed nearly 90 million streams. He is a true talent and a great songwriter and in my opinion should be bigger than Ed Sheeran. 

LBB> Can you talk a bit about 'selling out'? Particularly when it comes to using music in advertising, that's always been a credibility factor. I mean, I write about advertising full-time and artists have definitely gone down in my estimation when their tracks got used for advertising the wrong brand. How does this concept play into your work at Sony? And what are your thoughts on it?

Ian> This was a thing when I first started out, when a number of acts would not license to brands. I was also a snob about that originally and was often happy when some acts I loved said no to brands. But I recall when I was at Jeff Wayne doing a deal for Joy Division for a bank and I thought that actually, if the money was useful for Ian Curtis’s family, then who are we to judge? Not only is it an important part of artists’ income stream, the exposure it can bring to a new audience can help enormously. We are also finding that some of the brands that are maybe not so obviously “cool” do some of the best work out there - check out some recent KFC or Ikea ads during the last few years to name but two. 

LBB> With the vital revenue stream that live touring provided artists severely throttled by coronavirus, what role do you see licensing music for ads, TV, film and games playing in making sure music stays a viable career? What shifts have you seen and where do you think it will lead us?

Ian> Like I said earlier, it has been a vital part of an artist’s income stream and will remain so. That said, some acts get no real love in advertising but do well in film or TV. It’s different strokes for different folks. For all the promotion a label or publisher can do, it’s down to the song - that hook, that chorus or that key lyric. People who work in synch know it when they hear it and so do our clients (sometimes!). Too many songs get banded around as “synch friendly” when they simply are not. So maybe it’s rocket science and people in synch hold the answers to the universe and just as importantly know what works and does not work for Love Island! 

LBB> Personally, what keeps your engines stoked? As someone involved in the business, do you make/play your own music?

Ian> I’ve never played music, never wanted to be a musician, maybe missed a trick back in the day with A&R. That said, I was told a few weeks back by my daughter I don’t have a bad singing voice, so maybe it’s not too late! 

I got into listening and consuming music at around nine years old, it became an obsession and it’s like air and water, you need it to survive every day. So, to make a hobby into a 30 year career is something I am very grateful for. 

I do wish I had a time machine though. I just watched the ‘Laurel Canyon’ documentary on Sky and wish my parents had been in the Byrds or The Mamas & The Papas or Buffalo Springfield. In fact, I wish my dad was Neil Young! 

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Sony Music UK, Mon, 21 Sep 2020 15:06:52 GMT