Watch a few Netflix titles back to back and you’ll notice a common theme: They tend to be peppered with good tunes. Stranger Things made waves for its brooding electronic-Eighties score; the rom-com Someone Great cast a Lorde song before it cast any actors; and Taylor Swift, Beyoncé, and Bruce Springsteen have all dropped concert films on the video-streaming service in recent months.
Netflix’s obsession with highlighting music is not some happy coincidence — it’s an aggressive, targeted strategy. “We see ourselves as the enabler of a creative process,” says Dominic Houston, Netflix’s head of music. “Our whole philosophy is, ‘How do we enable the creative team, the producer, and the showrunner to deliver their vision?’”
Houston’s 30-person team divides its time between commissioning original music and brokering licensing deals, clearing 50 to 80 pieces of music per TV series. In 2013, when he joined the company from a career at AOL and Last.fm, Netflix was mostly distributing shows produced by third parties; within a few years, it began producing and owning its own content as well — and thinking about how music fit into that model. Houston hired studio veterans to secure relationships with artists and composers and to convince the music industry Netflix could help build its future.
As traditional music sales continue to slip, artists and labels are looking at sync licensing — the usage of music in other media such as film, TV, advertising, and games — as an -increasingly lucrative money pot. Global sync revenue grew 5.2 percent in the past year, according to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, and 14.6 percent in the year before that. Netflix’s music team has had an outsize role in that growth. “A lot has shifted,” Houston says, hinting at more original ventures in music for Netflix down the pipeline. “We’re now the producer and the distributor, and we’re building teams across the world.”
The labor-intensive original projects pay off. For each original Netflix production that becomes a hit, the streaming service wins another batch of loyal subscribers and a new crowd of artists vying to get their music into Netflix shows. While the company doesn’t release subscriber numbers, outside metrics clearly demonstrate its sway on the music business: When Netflix put Harry Nilsson’s 1971 song “Gotta Get Up” into its 2019 show Russian Doll, for instance, streams of the song spiked 3,300% on Spotify in a single week.