4 Essentials When
Clearing Music Rights

By Sarah Romeo

Nothing sets the mood quite like music. Your film’s soundtrack can make or break the tone of your story, but acquiring the actual songs can be a daunting task. Read on for the ‘need to know’ in buying your movie’s tunes!

Producers Foundation Certificate1. What Licences Do I Need?

If you have some tracks in mind for your film, the first step is to contact the music’s publisher—most singers and songwriters have little control over their own music, but their publishers will own almost all the rights. The best way to find out a publisher’s information is to look up the song you want on a site like Amazon, find the record label name, and find the appropriate contact information on the record label’s website.

Once in talks with the publisher, you’ll find out the different licenses you need to acquire. These licenses have different names depending on who you’re dealing with and where you’re making the deal.

Purchasing music rights in the UK or the US, you’ll usually need two licenses:

1)    Publishing License - This one is from the publishers, or whoever holds the copyright to a pre-recorded composition. It gives you the right to synchronize a piece of music with your visual image. Some companies also refer to this is as a Synchronization License.

2)    Recording License - by the person or persons who OWNS THE RECORDING. In many cases, actually frequently, this is a record label or recording major such as Sony, Warners, Universal, EMI, etc. To approach the Composer would be quite wrong unless the recording was an indy that the Composer had made themselves. However, for most commercially available music, it is a record label or recording company major that you are dealing with.

Some companies also refer to this as a Master Use License.

It's an urban myth that performance and publishing rights become public domainonce the composer has been dead for 70+ years. Remember that although Beethoven might be dead more than 70 years, the performance of his 5th Symphny by the Aukland Symphony Orchestra will be deemed contemporary and need a license as well.

Don’t forget to ask about something called the Festival Use License, a permit given to independent filmmakers who only plan to show their film at festivals on a limited release. If your film is later granted theatrical release, these fees will increase, but it’s always important to ask what is available to you as a student or an independent filmmaker. Two places always willing to help out indie or student filmmakers are Musicians Union (in the UK), AFM (in the US or Canada).

2. How Much Will All This Cost?

It really all depends on what you’re using and how you use it.

The first factor that dictates your expenses is obviously your budget. Music publishers will take into account how much money you have before they start piling on the fees.

However, the next and almost equally as important facet here is what kind of music you’re using. For instance, if you’re working with a £5,000 budget, it’s not in your best interest to have 10 Michael Jackson tracks backing the scenes of your film (actually, this is probably a really bad idea even if you do have a big budget). Those will cost you lots of dough. But using music from a lesser-known artist will make a big difference in what you pay

The next deciding factor of how much you pay will be how long each song plays in your film, and how often it reoccurs. Simply, a 10 second clip will cost less than a 2 minute clip, and the more it plays the more quid you’ll cough up.

Finally, licensing will cost more depending on where you plan to show the film. As with the Festival Use Licence, films slated for limited release will demand fewer musical fees. Contrastingly, the price will go up if your film is released nationally, internationally, or on DVD.

3. The Easier Ways!

Think this sounds like a lot of work? There are simpler ways to purchase your music for reduced prices!

You can get your tunes from a music library such as PRS. Databases like this one hold a huge amount of tracks that have already been cleared for usage in films, and are usually fairly inexpensive. These websites also offer step-by-step guides to acquiring the appropriate licensing, so there’s no guesswork for you.

When you can, it’s also good to use songs whose composers have been dead for 70 years—after this length of deadness, the composer’s copyright will have expired and you won’t have to seek artist clearance. However, this is only true for original pieces (IE, it’d have to be a recording by Mozart himself, not a remake by a concert pianist in 1990), and either way, you’ll still have to pay the owner of the recording. Additionally, the 70-year time lapse really limits your available genres to choose from, but hey, everyone loves a moonlight sonata!

If those two options fail, you can always hire a friend or a local band to compose your own music. In this case, you’ll have to draft a contract to decide who gets the publisher’s rights to this, but it’s the most frugal option. It’s also the best execution of creativity, since you’ll really get to tailor the soundtrack to fit your film seamlessly. If nothing else, it will provide your friends with a musical opportunity and they’ll feel important being a part of your project.

4. Please Stop Blabbering at Me!! Where Should I Start?

I know, I’m sorry! This has gotten long-winded. Let’s determine your starting steps to purchasing music licences.

Type up a document with the following information:

Write a synopsis of your film to submit to publishers. Let them know the type, genre and storyline. Then, make clear where your film will be screened, and be sure to ask how your fees will increase if your film is later picked up for broader release. Finally, provide a very detailed summary of how you plan to use your chosen song or songs. Include whether the music will be a forefront or background feature in the scene, if it will be used for opening and closing credits, how long it will be played for, how many times, and where in the film it will be played. Yikes, that was a mouthful. So make sure your summary is organized and precise!!

Once you have this information on hand, you’re ready to contact a publisher. Remember to ask lots of questions and ask what you can do to avoid spending more money than you want to. But don’t get too stressed out; with all these options, and so many great songs to be heard, there’s no reason not to have fun choosing your tunes, too!

With special thanks from Ron Brown in Austrailia who fact checked Sarah's article.

Here is a gret article from the Guardian about securing music for film

Your Comments Please


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Hello, and thanks for your guidance regarding music/soundtrack use in film. As a new member of Raindance, my primary interest is in the creation of soundtracks because I am a composer. Most of the music in my ' laboratory' has been labelled as soundtrack material by my fans. Foremost I am a pianist with classical training in academic cooperation with the University of Western Ontario, and my composition ability is augmented by my work on violin, and acoustic and electric guitar. To date, I have composed and recorded over two hundred songs ranging from baroque style orchestration to Pink Floyd and everything in between. My latest cd was pressed in December of 2011, and the music on it was inspired by my latest travel to Morocco ( the title of the cd is Tears for Morocco ) As I am now a full time composer/ producer in my own studio, I am dedicating the rest of my creative life to compositon and performance of my music. Hopefully this will lead me into the film industry, and I can be of service to any and all who wish to use my creative energy. Now it is a matter of getting my work to the people who wish to use it.

regards, Jim Fast ( the fusion booth inciden. )

Contact me at jfast2@cogeco.ca

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About The Author

Sarah Romeo Sarah Romeo is pursuing a B.A. in English and creative writing from Fordham University in New York City. Upon graduation, she hopes to obtain an MFA in the Big Apple and write screenplays for film and television.

A former Raindance intern, Sarah is enjoying learning the ins and outs of the film world and the refreshingly blunt British sense of humor.

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4 Essentials When Clearing Music Rights