This article originally appeared on VICE US.
If the Netflix docuseries Cheer is any indication, there's a sense of acceleration to almost everything about cheerleading these days: physical risk, technical skill, personal celebrity, and financial reward. And the music is no exception. Gone are the chaste chants from the 1950s—modern cheer squads perform to rah-rah-sis boom-bangers that make even Jock Jams sound sleepy.
Over the course of 2 minutes and 15 seconds, the standard length of a college routine, today's cheer mixes flip through a dozen club tracks and soundalike covers of pop songs, propelled by cascading EDM drops, pump-up raps, and more laserbeam samples than one could ever count.
To an outsider, the result can be quite strange. There's one especially puzzling lyric in the mix for the Navarro College Bulldogs, the stars of Cheer: "Tastes like chicken!" It seems like a total non sequitur, a random shout—unless you read that it's about devouring their rival, the Trinity Valley Community College Cardinals.
But it doesn't really matter whether the crowd gets it. This music is there to motivate the team while they risk their neck in one of America's most dangerous sports. Carmine Silano, a former cheerleader and the founder of CheerSounds, one of a number of companies producing music just for cheer, puts it simply: "When you're in performance mode, the music supports you."
Though the songs aren't on Spotify, the cheer music business is endlessly fascinating. Independent artists navigate unusual rules and restrictions with creative pluck and technological innovation—all the while catering to the changing tastes of teenagers and the directives of a billion-dollar company, Varsity Spirit, which controls much of the industry. The end result is one of the most over-the-top styles in all of music—and, like the sport itself, it has evolved in near-total isolation.
One night in 1991, Mark Bryan was DJing the Marriott hotel lounge in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. "I was a budding beat-maker," he said. "Producing dance music was what I wanted to do." He'd been making connections to the nascent Baltimore club scene coalescing a few hours south, where DJs cut up drums from Chicago house and U.K. rave—but his lucky break, it turns out, would come from closer to home. Working the hotel front desk was a choreographer. He asked Bryan if he'd mix some music for a local club team's cheerleading routine, and Bryan said, "Sure."
By the early 90s, cheer music had already come a long way from the 19th-century sideline shouting matches that gave rise to the sport. Artsy cheerleaders were making bootleg pause-button mixes, cutting up snippets of Eurodance on an everyday boombox. But as cheerleading was becoming more technical, the music needed to be more precise. For a young DJ like Bryan, cheer mixes were an appealing creative challenge and a reliable source of income: every season, every team wanted a new mix, so there was plenty of work if you could get it. He started charging $50 a mix, which turned to $100, and more. Before he knew it, he had the makings of a business.
To help spread the word, he created a 2-CD set, jam-packed with 150 mixes, which he'd sell from a table at competitions. "I wanted my sound to become the popular cheer music sound across the country," he said. In 1999, that compilation reached the hands of Ray Jasper, the choreographer hired to create competition routines for the soon-to-be-classic cheer movie Bring It On. "When they filmed his parts," Bryan said, "they filmed it with my CDs playing."
During post-production, Bryan said, the Bring It On music supervisor failed to recreate the energy of his mixes—he heard they talked about bringing in Fatboy Slim—so they flew him to Hollywood to make new ones with songs from the movie's soundtrack. It was a personal best payday of $3,000 and an immediate calling card. "Oh my goodness," he said. "I could work with whoever I wanted. Victor from Top Gun [the winners of 12 World Championships] would fly up and stay a couple days in my house."
A few years later, a cheer music producer named Jody Den Broeder made the jump to the majors, creating official remixes for Lady Gaga and Rihanna. Bryan thought he might follow, hoping to turn the high-energy "cheer remix" into a recognizable dance music style. "I thought that that was going to be my ticket," he said. "I was going to get noticed—that was my whole goal. And I got noticed. I built up that whole thing, and it culminated with me getting sued by Sony Music."
Cheer music might sound like it's from another planet, but it's governed by the same copyright laws as the rest of the music industry. Cheer mixes touch on two sets of legal rights—performance rights and master use rights—which have to be licensed separately. Performance rights apply to a song's notes and chords. Gyms and cheer competitions pay performing rights organizations, like ASCAP and BMI, which in turn pay songwriters, for the privilege of playing their notes and chords in public. It's relatively cheap and easy: ASCAP licenses their entire catalog to a single-day cheer competition with 3,000 people in attendance for just $90.
Master use rights are a bit trickier. They concern what happens to a copy of a song recording, which is typically owned by a record label. You can't edit a song and sell it in a cheer mix without the label's explicit permission, and fees can start in the thousands of dollars, in the unlikely event that permission is granted at all. That's where Bryan slipped up, and he wasn't the only one.
"Defendants sell, distribute and commercially exploit customized 'mixes' of popular sound recordings for use in cheerleading competitions that include Sony Music's copyrighted sound recordings without any attempt to obtain the requisite permission," read the lawsuit, which the record giant filed in 2014, against Bryan and another professional cheer music producer, Thomas Locklayer.
At first, Bryan didn't think it was real. "In my mind, I'm part of the underground music industry," he said. "I'm from the dance world. That's what we did: we remixed. I always thought I was promoting these artists. I had artists reaching out to me, wanting me to use their songs." He hoped a lawyer would represent him pro bono, to make it a case about fair use and transformative artistic expression, but found no takers. So he hired a bankruptcy attorney and settled.
Sony is powerful, but in cheerleading, they're no Varsity Spirit. Varsity sells uniforms, runs training camps, and hosts competitions, from the neighborhood level to the sport's marquee events: the National High School Cheerleading Championship, College National Championships, and, for private club teams, the World Cheerleading Championship. There's no better measure of cheerleading's growth in the 21st century than the company's valuation. In 2003, a private equity firm bought Varsity's parent company, Varsity Brands, for $131 million; in 2018, they sold to another firm for a whopping $2.5 billion.
Varsity sets the rules for just about every cheer competition in America—either directly, through events hosted by their subsidiaries, or indirectly, through the sport's non-profit national governing body, USA Cheer. The current president of USA Cheer is the current president of Varsity Spirit, and about half of their Board of Directors have positions at Varsity properties.
In 2016, after the Sony suit, USA Cheer issued new music guidelines, which Varsity immediately adopted, circulated among coaches, and even explained in a helpful 17-minute video. "All routine music may only be covers of popular songs or original compositions," the new rule said. What's more, USA Cheer created a list of "preferred music providers," who are the only approved source of those covers and originals. These aren't record labels, but some 200 independent cheer music companies with names like Muscle Mixes Music and MyFitJam, which sign agreements to properly license their work and grant teams the right to use it. (Mark Bryan, whose cheer business is still going strong, is on that list too.)
Nowadays, every team, at every cheerleading competition in America, must submit a paper copy of their music license or face disqualification. "To our knowledge," said USA Cheer's executive director Lauri Harris, "no cheer team has been found liable for copyright infringement, we think partially because USA Cheer elected to implement the new Music Guidelines."
Varsity even has a formal policy whereby a team can challenge the validity of another team's license. The challenger has to submit a check for $100 to St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital. If they're right, the check gets torn up. If the challenge is in vain, the donation serves as a penalty.
In Netflix's Cheer, there's always a melancholy sense of the future looming. As the championship approaches, the escalating pressure stems partly from the knowledge that it's all about to end: there's no professional cheerleading league for athletes to join after college, and soon graduates will face life without a highly structured team of literal cheerleaders to support them. In the cheer music industry, that makes athletes-turned-musicians twice as compelling: Not only do they deeply understand complex choreography; they've found a way to stick close to the sport they love.
Patrick Avard, the founder of New Level Music, is one such artist. He got into cheer 25 years ago, performing on one of Georgia State's first co-ed high school teams. "We got made fun of," he said, over the phone from his company's studio in Atlanta. "No one thought it was cool to be a guy cheerleader back then." A teammate showed him how to edit songs in Sony Acid, and when Avard's college team won nationals in 1999, it was to a mix he made. Today, he's still on a winning streak: the reigning college champion Navarro Bulldogs—the stars of Cheer—are one of Avard's elite clients.
During the mid-2000s, Avard began offering music production workshops to share his process with other cheerleaders and coaches. That lasted a few years, until the demand for his mixes outpaced the demand for his workshops. So he turned New Level into a management company and took on his best students. Today, New Level represents 15 producers all over the country, including Avard, and is responsible for a collective 2,000 mixes every season. Cheer teams choreograph their routines to a generic practice track the company creates every year and mail in a video of their performance. Then New Level sends back a mix tailored to their specific moves.
Around the time of the lawsuit and rule change, Avard made the decision to go 100 percent original—to not use any cover songs. "I felt like our writers and producers were talented enough to make music as good or better than anything we could license," he said. Their work still sounds like contemporary cheer music, a hyperactive EDM-rap collage, but every snippet is original, and in many cases personalized. A recent mix for the Woodlands Elite Captains, for example, includes a nautical themed verse rapped sort of like Nicki Minaj: "Scrub the deck and walk the plank / Now be mad ‘cause your ship sank." No cover song can give you that.
Original music opens up new business opportunities. With a separate company, Level 77 Music, New Level licenses their songs to film, TV, and radio. And this January, New Level became one of the first two companies to license cheer music to Varsity TV, a paid streaming service that broadcasts competitions.
The TV deal fits alongside a larger strategy for raising brand awareness: New Level posts every song it makes on YouTube, a fairly new practice for the industry. "We want our music to be played in as many places as possible," Avard said, "because that's our window display." As interest in cheerleading as a spectator sport has grown, he added, teams like having their music online, so fans can show up at their competitions ready to sing along.
A bespoke soundtrack by an industry leader isn't cheap. A single New Level cheer mix can cost several thousand dollars, more than the recording budget for most indie rock bands' entire albums. Though music isn't technically part of the competition scorecard, "overall effect" is, and for teams with means at the top of their sport, working with New Level is the high price of winning.
Most cheerleading teams don't have that kind of money, though. They've got public school budgets and, regardless of the pressure to stand out, require a more affordable solution. That need helps explain the latest phase of cheer music's evolution: technological disruption.
When Carmine Silano started CheerSounds, he wasn't just a former cheerleader—he was a former cheerleader who'd studied computer science and music business in college. "I would literally leave a class on music licensing, walk over to practice, and they'd be playing cheer music," he said, from his office in Melbourne, Florida. "And I'm like, ‘There's absolutely no way they got clearance for this."
In 2005, with a friend, he started making music for their team. Today, his company, CheerSounds, has almost 20 full-time employees, many of them also former athletes. "On one hand," said his CheerSounds bio, "we're a medium-size record label that creates music to license to the spirit industry. On the other hand, we're a software company that has a music-making website."
At CheerSounds, in-house producers and a wide network of session musicians record originals and covers of artists like Lizzo and Tom Petty. A secondary company, SongsForCheer, licenses that music to other cheer musicians, and CheerSounds uses them to create mixes for 1,400 teams a year. But Silano said custom mixes are actually the smallest part of the business.
CheerSounds's big innovation is 8CountMixer, a web app. Picture a visual grid divided into rows of eight beats, the classic count for cheer choreography. Onto that grid, users can drag and drop songs remixed to the common cheer tempo—150 BPM—and trimmed to the hook or chorus. Teams looking to personalize their mixes further can access a catalog of drum beats, sound effects like whips and camera flashes, shout-outs for a long list of team mascots, and a selection of short raps. You can even perform a simulated vinyl record stop.
Behind the scenes, using metadata that CheerSounds producers assign to the audio stems that make up each track, 8CountMixer computes which elements of which songs to fade in and out for the best transitions. The system is easy to use, with the potential for infinite variations. Perhaps more importantly, it gives teams the opportunity to create their own USA Cheer-certified mix for less than the price of a standard Ableton Live license: a single 2-minute-15-second mix starts at $285.
Surveying cheer music's recent history, it seems like things are coming full circle. Back when cheerleaders were DIY-ing their own mixes with the rudimentary tools at their disposal, professional DJs like Mark Bryan helped bring a more serious music culture to the sport. After legal demands called for a change of course, artists like Patrick Avard made cheer compositions original, and more lucrative.
Today, in some bedroom or basement, the new avant-garde of cheer mixing is probably in the process of being born—Silano mentioned, for example, a growing demand for vocalists doing drag. But future artists have to start somewhere, and that's how 8CountMixer gives hope. Cheer music has always been about creativity in the face of constraint. Now, for the kid on the team with an ear for music, the dark art of the cheer mix is, once again, in their hands.