Editor's note: This story has been updated to include news about the partnership between Musicbed and Sun Record Company.
Music used to be a side gig for Zachary Kuykendall.
The native North Texan, who began playing music in high school, earned degrees in music production and audio engineering, but like many artists felt he needed a backup plan, something to pay the bills. Kuykendall was on his way to becoming a social studies teacher when he heard about Musicbed, a company that could turn his passion into a paycheck.
Based in Fort Worth, Musicbed's bread and butter is licensing music from indie artists to filmmakers, nonprofits and corporations. And in an era when listeners pay next to nothing to stream tunes, the company is also dismantling the idea that up-and-coming bands must settle for pennies on the dollar. The company represents 600 artists, some of which bring home six figures.
Two and a half years after signing with Musicbed, Kuykendall is one of the success stories -- a full-time musician who was able to relinquish his position as a substitute teacher, move to Nashville and support his family on a single income. One of his tracks recently landed in a Pei Wei commercial.
"It's weird. When I think of professional producers, I think Quincy Jones," Kuykendall says. "But I guess technically if [producing is] all I'm doing to make money, that is my profession."
The need for more music
CEO Daniel McCarthy hatched the idea for Musicbed out of necessity.
While working at a ad agency in Fort Worth, he was constantly challenged to find songs that conveyed the emotional message of his clients' video spots. Sites that offered stock audio -- known in the industry as "music beds," get it? -- were continually underwhelming. One day while searching for appropriate background music for a National Geographic project, McCarthy had enough.
"I guess like anything, you think you can do it better," he says. "At the time, I had a buddy who could use $2,500 and he could make something way better."
In 2011, the company launched with 35 musicians whose music was available online for filmmakers to sample and pay to use for projects such as indie movies, commercials and wedding videos. Turns out, McCarthy wasn't the only person in need of a service like this.
Since opening, Musicbed has served more than 170,000 clients, including Nike, Samsung, Sony Pictures and Lamborghini.
Slots among the talent roster are also highly coveted. Musicbed currently licenses for more than 600 bands, which net $1,200 per month on average, according to company stats. The top 10 percent earn six figures per year, McCarthy says, and the highest grossing artist in 2014 made more than $700,000.
On Jan. 25, Musicbed announced a partnership with Nashville's Sun Record Company, home to rock legends Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison, to make 1,100 tracks from the esteemed record company's catalog available for licensing.
Demand has driven the operation to new heights, too. McCarthy doubled his staff last year and moved to a new nine-acre campus in north Fort Worth, which includes offices, an outdoor terrace and state-of-the-art studio that's also a performance venue.
McCarthy attributes the growth to the accessibility of filmography. Infinitely more people are creating video than just five years ago, he says, and all that content needs music. The "highly curated" quality of Musicbed artists is also a driving factor, says Josh Read, vice president of marketing. Selection has become so competitive, Musicbed only accepts the top 1 percent of band submissions. What exactly do curators listen for?
Choosing music is "so intangible. Our guys, at the end of the day, have to get goosebumps when they hear it," McCarthy says.
"It's not that it's just a good song -- it's a good song and its going to help a filmmaker tell a story."
Ian Eshelman, creative director for video at online home decor retailer Wayfair, heard about Musicbed through a group of producers in the Northeast. When he began using the service for television and YouTube commercials, Eshelman was "blown away" not only but the selection of songs, but the quality and the ease of access to licensing.
Musicbed "democratized that experience for us. We no longer felt finding music was the Achilles heel of our process," Eshelman says. "The quality of music is something I haven't found anywhere else."
What's in it for music lovers?
Musicbed is largely an industry service, catering to professionals rather than the general listeners, but there are several ways music lovers can get a piece of the action.
Every month, Musicbed hosts small studio concerts called "sessions" that are free and open to the public (though an RSVP is required), as a way to connect with the local creative community, Read says. There's usually a food truck and beer and wine. Folks crowd into the aforementioned studio space where a Musicbed artist performs for 30 to 45 minutes. The show is filmed and then distributed as marketing material. In November, the folksy Zach Winters from Oklahoma stopped through, performing "Fernweh (Shore)."
That session is viewable for the first time today on GuideLive:
If you can't make the drive, Musicbed's website functions as a free music database, rife for discovering new artists. All you need is to set up a log in to access thousands of songs by up-and-coming indie bands.
So you're in a band...
So you're in a band and looking for a cut. The first thing Musicbed wants you to know is that you deserve to have the time to concentrate on making music. That's why it's so fulfilling to see indie artists "go from three jobs to two jobs to one job," McCarthy says.
But getting in the door isn't a piece of cake. Selection into Musicbed's network has become so competitive, Musicbed only accepts the top 1 percent of applicants. Even Kuykendall, the composer who recently relocated to Nashville to pursue music full-time, experienced rejection at first.
Not every band makes enough to pay their bills, either. Richard Carpenter, who plays keyboard, guitar, and sings backup vocals in Dallas band Air Review, says Musicbed taps a revenue source to which the band wouldn't otherwise have access.
"The great thing about the Musicbed is, all these little licenses with wedding videographers and nonprofits, we wouldn't see any of that money," Carpenter says. "It's helped, but it's nowhere near the level of what it would take to support one person."
Still, McCarthy maintains that one of his company's goals is to make music a sustainable and profitable career.
"For the longest time, the middle class of music didn't really exist. You either made it -- like made it -- or you were in poverty," says McCarthy.
"We're trying to get [musicians] on their feet... being able to quit some of these jobs that they're spending 60 hours a week just trying to make money, and allow them to make space to actually create art."