808s and heartbreak: What happens when your song gets played on Love Island?

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Like hayfever and the rising price of a Flake 99, ITV2’s Love Island has become something of a staple of the Great British Summer.

After being cancelled in 2020 due to the pandemic, Love Island UK is back – again, with a new crew of single islanders looking for love in the villa. While the ratings for the current series aren’t matching up with past seasons, the show still pulls in viewers by the million. Every weeknight plus Sundays, viewers tune in to see what the impossibly toned twenty-somethings have been up to the day before – or what the show’s producers have orchestrated for our collective entertainment.

In recent years, the programme’s soundtrack of sultry, sunny house music has become a fixture of the hot months too. Thanks to Shazam (the song-identifying service now owned by Apple), ‘second screening’, a Spotify tie-in, and the daily draw of appointment TV, the show has built a reputation for breaking new tracks that fit the series’ aspirational aesthetic.

According to the number crunchers at Shazam, DJ (and former Geordie Shore cast member) Joel Corry still holds the record for the most in-app song searches in a single day in the UK. That was in summer 2019 – the last normal one we had – when his track Sorry notched up 41,000 searches on the app during an episode of Love Island, surpassing all previous records set by the show. In the same year, a two-year-old acoustic cover by Manchester-based singer Lusaint pipped Ed Sheeran to the top of the Shazam charts. “Not quite sure how this has happened,” she wrote on Facebook at the time.

People working on the show talk about the “Freya Ridings effect”, in reference to the singer-songwriter’s catapult into the UK Top 10 after her ballad, Lost Without You, featured during a pivotal moment in the summer 2018 series. Already this year, hip-thrusting house track Black Magic by Berlin-based producer Jonasu has crept into the UK Top 40 after featuring in the show’s return episode.

The official Love Island Spotify playlist – maintained by the streaming company, alive to the ability of the programme to drive people to its platform – is helping to extend the lifespan of these Shazammed moments too. Everything, a sickly-sweet piano pumper by mashup duo Switch Disco, has enjoyed a 185% increase to its daily streaming numbers since being added to the official Sounds of Love Island playlist, according to a spokesperson from Spotify.

The process of getting music onto the show is relatively straightforward, and made as streamlined as possible by a team working under tight deadlines to deliver the show six days a week for two straight months. Tracks are collated as a team effort, with producers, execs and music specialist staff on the show all contributing to an evolving “wish list” of songs to use. Broadcasters like ITV pay for blanket licenses, which let them use any music that’s registered with PRS and PPL – the two main collecting societies in the UK that gather and distribute royalties to artists registered with them. Actually clearing the music – that is, making sure that the show has all the right licenses required to play certain songs, including those that sit outside of blanket licenses – is the responsibility of the music supervisors.

Love Island 2021

The two music supervisors currently working on the show are Lora Gape and Pretti Hanumara. They estimate that the music used falls into a rough 50/50 split between music they discover themselves and songs that are pitched directly to them. Pitches are made via established routes, like meetings with labels and publishers; though, increasingly, they say, music is sent via more desperate and even invasive avenues like LinkedIn and social media DMs.

Most of the music comes from signed acts. A trawl through the playlists from previous series suggests that a large majority comes from artists attached to major labels and publishers, who employ their own teams of ‘sync’ pluggers whose job it is to land spots on TV shows, adverts and movies (the latter two can be more lucrative, as each track is licensed for use individually). Roughly 15 percent of the tracks used, say Gape and Hanumara, come from unsigned acts.

And while for the most part the music fits a certain formula – creamy, luxe house music, with the occasional heartstring-tugging ballad or dramatised cover version – there are opportunities for more leftfield choices, particularly to soundtrack challenges and comedic moments. Think In the Belly of a Shark by Watford hardcore band Gallows which cropped up a few years back, during the Baywatch-themed challenge Babewatch. For relatively unknown artists, landing a Love Island sync is a big deal. Shazam scans rocket, streams spike, and the signals that this data sends to music industry bods can occasionally amount to a career break.

“Just the idea that your music gets heard by millions simultaneously worldwide is insane. It’s very powerful” says Jonasu, real name Jonas Kröper. He’s since pushed back his album plans to let Black Magic, which was originally released in December of last year, continue to build. Equally, he’s under no illusions about the real sustained impact of a one-time TV spot. “I can’t retire now just because of this,” he says, laughing.

It is, after all, a spike. When songs dip in popularity, they’re removed from the Spotify playlist. Converting these transient moments into genuine sustained fandom is a much greater challenge. Another artist whose band has landed syncs across TV, advertising and at least one major Hollywood movie tells me that, while the royalty money has proved a lifeline to his band, chasing syncs can be damaging.

“I’ve fallen into this trap in the past, that when you do get that sync on that one track it’s very tempting to start chasing it – and that can actually strangle you and your expression, because you start writing very formulaically. You have to be really aware of what getting sync does to you as an artist,” he says. In this particular case, the band own their master rights, so take home the bulk of the money paid out for syncs. Other artists will see a far smaller share, as the pie is divided between label, publisher, management and more.

These mostly obscured machinations of the music industry can amplify the tension between an artist’s agency and desire to make art they believe in, how they want to be perceived, and their need to pay the bills. Typically, artists won’t have an advance heads-up on their music being used on TV if it’s covered by the blanket license, though they can usually control whether it’s being actively pitched or not to specific shows.

“Sync is so good for us, because it gives us the income we need to be who we want to be. But then at some point we’ve got to leave it behind to make authentic work that we believe in but that isn’t necessarily sync-friendly, right?” this artist adds. “Politically and spiritually I’m actually dead against taking sync, but as an actual working artist who wants to get ahead and make work and keep on doing it, if you don’t take that occasional 30 grand it’s like, ‘Fuck, I’m going to have to go and get another job’, and then that’s less time for me to do what I love doing. I think it is really important to see sync as a means to an end, and the end is to express yourself how you want to express yourself and have the space to explore.” Ultimately, artists need to weigh up the benefits of having their music (and, sometimes, themselves) fed into the likes of the Love Island industrial complex.

“It’s just promotional for me as an artist,” says Jonasu, “I think I gain more from it than the show does. Nowadays you have all these apps or whatever that show you the numbers of how many times people have listened, and it’s all so abstract. But if you see somebody dancing to your music then it’s like, ‘Ah, this is why I’m doing this.’”

Jonasu lives in Berlin and, as a result, isn’t afforded the delights of ITV2 on his channels – but he has had friends messaging him about the spot. “The messages I got were like, ‘I saw your song on Love Island!’ And then, in brackets, ‘shamefully,’” he says, laughing. Will he be tuning in in the future? More laughter. “I might give it a try.”

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