Leonard Cohen's voice featured in hit TV shows, violent video games after his death
When it comes to getting permission to use Leonard Cohen's music, Ubisoft's bloody Assassin's Creed trailer gets an enthusiastic green light, while ads, pornography and even the Montreal Symphony Orchestra don't fare as well.
Since his death in 2016, the late Canadian singer's gravelly baritone has been popping up everywhere from highbrow Montreal art exhibits to the end credits of the hit American TV shows "Billions" and "The Americans."
None raised more eyebrows than Ubisoft, which chose to feature the title track to Cohen's final album, "You Want it Darker," on the trailer for its latest version of its violent game franchise, whose target audience was born decades after the singer wrote many of his greatest hits.
While the process of obtaining song rights is a lengthy and complex legal process, the final approval falls to Robert Kory, Cohen's longtime manager and the trustee of the late singer's estate.
The Los Angeles-based lawyer says he considers a variety of factors in making what he calls an "esthetic determination," including whether the proposed arrangement suits the spirit of the song and whether it will expand the singer's audience.
"My role is to have more people encounter Leonard Cohen, because if they encounter Leonard Cohen they're going to find to something deeper and ultimately something that will uplift them," he said in a phone interview.
Kory said he was impressed by Ubisoft's "respectful" approach to Cohen's music and the company's willingness to collaborate when developing an arrangement.
He also felt the trailer's structure and violent narrative fit with the song's dark themes.
"You have the character in Assassin's Creed faced with overwhelming darkness, which is what the song is warning us," he said.
"It's a warning to the world: 'I didn't know I had permission to murder and to maim,"' he said, quoting one of the song's lyrics.
Kory said working with Ubisoft also gave the estate the opportunity to present Cohen's music to a younger audience.
"We're going to introduce this song to a lot of teenage boys whose parents may have been listening to Leonard Cohen," he said.
"But maybe they hear the song and they're moved by it and say, 'wow, Leonard Cohen. Maybe I should listen to something else."'
Kory has less praise for the Montreal Symphony Orchestra's 2017 arrangement of "You Want It Darker," which he criticizes as too uplifting.
While the orchestra was given permission to perform the song, Kory says the use of harp music was inappropriate for a song which refers to the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac.
As a result, he denied the MSO full "synchronization rights" to produce and sell the arrangement.
"The Lord is telling Abraham: 'Kill your son,' and you have harp music, angelic music. Would you approve that?" he asked.
Since the singer's death at the age of 82, his estate has received daily requests for rights of use, Kory says.
The rate of approval depends on the type of use requested and the complicated back-and-forth with copyright holders.
Permission to perform a straightforward cover is easy enough to get, he said, while arrangements that change the music or make use of Cohen's vocal performance are more complicated.
Pornographic films, political pieces that don't reflect Cohen's beliefs and most major advertisers are shot down.
On the other hand, movie and TV proposals tend to be accepted because they are generally presented by people who understand the music, he said.
While he sees himself as a protector of Cohen's musical legacy, Kory says he also tries to be open and to avoid reductionism, "or anyone thinking Leonard Cohen's work is susceptible to one interpretation and that is the correct interpretation."
Price is a factor too, although Kory insists it's a secondary one.
"We won't do something that's wrong for any amounts of money," he said.
While Kory sometimes brings in the singer's son, Adam Cohen, to consult on musical issues, he says he's developed the confidence to make decisions based on the faith Leonard Cohen always placed in him.
"Leonard kept telling me in the face of my doubts, 'trust your instincts, Robert. You have a great esthetic appreciation of what I do,"' he said.