Pump Audio Keeps the Music the Music Flowing

March 2010 / Roll magazine

It used to be the mark of “selling out,” but in today’s recession-wracked wasteland that stigma is long gone. For indie musicians now, getting a song used in the background of a TV show or commercial is like striking gold, a well-deserved payday after years of flogging away for beer and gas money—if they’re lucky—in dark and dingy clubs. Ever wonder, then, just exactly how the music heard in so many big-paying ads and programs actually gets there? Well, believe it or not, much of it makes its way to those seemingly impenetrable Madison Avenue and Hollywood accounts via Tivoli, New York—through the auspices of the cutting-edge music-placement company Pump Audio.

Founded in 2001 by ex-Simpletons front man Steve Ellis, Pump Audio arose out of a realization that hit Ellis when, in one of the few bright spots from a sour record deal, one of his band’s songs was pimped by the label for a TV ad. Ellis figured that while most commercial and television projects had been using “canned” music that was being produced in-house, at the same time there was no shortage of struggling musicians creating “real” music who’d be more than happy to earn some serious coin by letting their songs work for them. Calling on his former band mates and other local musicians for material, Ellis began compiling a library of saleable music, established the Pump name as a direct licensing agent, and started pitching his inventory to potential buyers, along the way partnering with more and more artists and growing the company’s catalog. The big breakthrough came when Pump was tapped to re-score MTV’s “The Real World,” after which things quickly snowballed, leading to the one-time startup’s current spot as the world’s foremost independent music-licensing organization, with satelite offices in New York, Los Angeles, London, Amsterdam, and Melbourne and clients around the globe. Among its accounts Pump boasts Nike, NBC, IBM, Burger King, Mercedes-Benz, VH-1, Kellog’s, the BBC, CBS, Comedy Central, and more.

“The music industry has been dangling that carrot in front of young bands forever,” says Larry Mills, Pump’s vice president of marketing and partnerships. “[Most bands] start out just wanting to get laid or get famous, and then burn out after three years when those things aren’t cutting it anymore and they realize they need to make a living. [Pump] offers a situation that can actually become a ‘day job’ for musicians, one where they can still play club shows at night and during the day do something that really pays.” Under the company’s non-exclusive agreement Pump artists are free to work with other licensing firms and can bow out of the contract at any time.

“We’re lucky in that we have a great team that really knows the music—a lot of our people are musicians themselves,” says Heather Lazarus, who’s been Pump’s director of client relations since 2005. “Through our website clients can access our soundtrack tool, which contains over 35,000 mp3s; we also offer content via our PumpBox, which is an external hard drive we send to clients that holds about 33,000 CD-quality tracks.” While Mills works in the company’s Manhattan branch, Lazarus is ensconced in the renovated Tivoli barn that was once an alternative health center but now serves as the firm’s client-relations office. The music-cataloging wing is located across the street in a converted house where a crew of five processes the approved music submissions into appropriate categories (e.g., style, mood, genre, vocals, instrumentals) and readies it for client access; the department also retains several members who work remotely.

Ellis retired from in Pump in 2007, when the business was acquired by Getty Images. Although his company has taken some heat in the wake of the merger for changing its artists’ share from 50 percent to 35 percent of the take, Mills maintains that although the move was a difficult but necessary reality of its restructuring, it’s ultimately been a boon for musicians. “For Pump to support what we do within the framework of a big corporation we have to show more profit,” he says. “But at the same time being with Getty has instantly given us a global reach that we never had before, opening up markets that we’d never even dreamed of—which means that for artists the amount of places they can sell their music to now is almost endless. What I love most about my job is that I get to impact artists’ lives positively and directly every day. One musician even used me as reference to get a mortgage for a house. That made me feel great.”