Selling In: How Universal Is Enlisting Rising Artists for Ads and TV

New label Block has 500,000 completed tracks ready to be used in commercials. But will it make their creators a star?

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Levi Lennox, a young British hip-hop producer, has more musical ideas than past and present clients such as Wiz Khalifa and YG have ever used. He takes the excess ones to a new record label, Block, working with unknown, unsigned pop singers to produce tracks specifically for use in commercials, TV shows and movies.

The U.K. label occupies a lucrative corner of the record business known as "production music," in which companies maintain huge song catalogs for commercial use. Block's parent is Universal Publishing Production Music, owned by Universal, the world's biggest record company, and it has more than 500,000 tracks compiled on albums with titles like Emotional Indie Songs, Bling Bling Hip Hop and Trapped on the Dance Floor.

The new Block albums are R'N'B, Attitude, Urban Rhythms, Uplifting and Pop, and the idea is to work with rising producers such as Lennox, Alan Sampson and Tiago to release tracks with hot beats, contemporary credibility and star-power-by-association. (Tiago has worked with Rihanna.) "It's not somebody sitting in a garage at home with a keyboard hammering something out," Gary Gross, the production-music company's worldwide president, tells Rolling Stone. "These are real artists creating authentic urban music for our clients to use."

Block, which launched last week, is one of many labels that are part of companies making new music and selling it to advertisers and Hollywood studios. Often called "library music," these releases date to Lalo Schifrin's famous themes for Mission: Impossible and other TV shows and Johnny Pearson's 1970 "Heavy Action" track for Monday Night Football. Today, this type of music is big business — APM, one of Block's competitors, regularly places tracks in movies from Fast 7 to Gone Girl, and its Latin-EDM anthem "Scorcher 60" will be familiar to anybody who has played Call of Duty: Ghosts.

Block is trying to distinguish itself from the faceless and occasionally dated music used in many shows and ads. "A lot of these producers will go into a session and they'll end up with 90 percent of the work that's never used by Rihanna or someone like that, so it just sits there," says Jeff Greenfield, co-founder of C3 Metrics, which measures advertising effectiveness. "Imagine going in on a pitch for Honda, and you have an original piece of music for a hot artist — you're going to get those people in the room excited."

And with CD and download sales dropping in recent years, and artists complaining about low royalty payments from streaming services, this type of commercial music has become a more important way for artists to make a living. "Production music was seen as a second choice to mainstream commercial music. That's really changed," says John Clifford, UPPM's general manager in the U.K. "It wasn't the sexy side of the industry, but we're getting people who, once upon a time, wouldn't have been involved in it."