The song “Over the Rainbow” from the film The Wizard of Oz has generated over one billion dollars in royalties. Granted, this is one of the most popular films of all time, but its success demonstrates the income potential found in song licensing. And musicians have more opportunities than ever to earn new revenue streams: In a world of declining music sales, musicians are licensing their songs for films, TV shows, movie trailers, and commercials, and earning performance and synchronization royalty income in the process.
Getting your song placed starts with understanding the people who choose music for these productions: music supervisors. Their job is to find the perfect song for the story being told. It’s a job requiring equal amounts of artistry, love of music, technical skills, and knowledge of the legal world. We’ll explore the role of music supervisors and share ways to increase your chances of getting your music placed.
THE MUSIC SUPERVISOR’S WORLD
Music supervisors live and breathe music. They use it to elicit a particular emotion, create a mood, or build pacing within a scene. They deal with demanding clients, directors, editors, musicians, and publishers who give them vague descriptions like, “I want something that’s blue.” And they do this within tight schedules, often within a weekend, a day, or even a few hours. Once they find an ideal track, they need to negotiate a licensing deal quickly.
But anyone on the production team can veto their choice including the director, editor, producers, or even the actors. In the case of advertising, clients always have the final say. So music supervisors need to have multiple music options ready to go.
The Types of Music Supervisors and Licensing Opportunities
Music supervisors typically specialize in one of four areas: movie trailers, film, television, and commercials. Each one has unique needs to be met if you want to improve the chance of licensing and placing your music.
In the past, movie trailers were only seen before movies or in television commercials. But today, trailers are available on demand. As Danny Exum, a movie-trailer music supervisor and partner at the High Bias music supervision collective says, “Trailers are big business, getting as much as one hundred million views online, and there are never enough fresh songs out there to use.” You don’t have to get your song placed in the film in order to be in the trailer.
What Movie Trailer Music Supervisors Need From You: Trailers are designed to generate emotions in a short amount of time. To accomplish this, music supervisors need snippets of music to create impactful moments. As Exum explains, “Trailers follow a three-act structure: an opening, a middle, and then a big payoff at the end. Each act needs different music.” Here, supervisors want your stems, as well as the final track, so they can bend the music around the needs of the trailer.
Films have historically been popular targets for musicians, because getting placed in a film can be extremely lucrative, especially from a performance royalty perspective. Films take longer to make than other media, allowing music supervisors more time to find and clear rights.
Today more independent films are being made; Major film studios have music budgets and established processes for licensing music, but independent films may lack both of these. Instead, they may offer a step-deal, paying out license fees based on the box office receipts.
What Film Music Supervisors Need From You: Studios typically commission a film’s score, but they may license songs for scenes. Instrumental versions of your songs are just as useful as versions with vocals, since directors and music supervisors sometimes need “background” music.
There’s more television content being produced now than ever before, with high production values. Like trailers, television requires quick turnaround times; shows can be turned around within a week. This not only keeps television music supervisors busy, it also opens up a lot of opportunities for musicians. TV music supervisors live in a fast-paced world and musicians who work with them need to be responsive.
What Television Music Supervisors Need From You: Similar to movies, some studios commission scores, but there are plenty of scenes where songs set the right mood. Although having your stems available is a good idea, music supervisors are more likely to just use the finished tracks.
COMMERCIALS AND ADVERTISING
Historically, many musicians felt uncomfortable licensing their music for advertising, but today, commercials are usually seen as great opportunities for exposure as well as income. In fact, brands such as Red Bull and Nike have become well-known for promoting and breaking up-and-coming artists.
What Commercial Music Supervisors Need From You: Advertising music supervisors who work with independent musicians usually do so to target demographics such as age. They hope to associate their product with the same vibe that energizes the artist’s audience. Being new on the scene can be helpful since the buzz you’re already trying to generate for your music is exactly what they’re looking for to promote their brand to fresh audiences.
Commercials, like trailers, have precise timing requirements. For this reason, many music supervisors turn to trusted music production houses to compose custom music. If they do use an existing song, they’ll want both the instrumental version as well as the stems. This allows them to maneuver around the lyrics since a lyric sung at the wrong time might conflict with a voice-over (VO). Or they may want to cut out certain instruments and bring the lyrics down during the VO and then up again at the end.
Video game designers need music as much as the rest of the forms of media covered here, although they are far less likely to have a music supervisor working for them. Songs are used in cut scenes, credits, during gameplay, and even for the videos that they use to advertise the game. Plus, they need sounds to use in their games as well—a single modified synth sound might be perfect for their game.
What Video Game Designers Need From You: Video game designers might want to commission a work, or to license existing songs. They tend to be less well-versed about how music law works, and thus you might need to provide them a standard sync license contract for the composition and sound recording. Another factor is that video games need to license the MP3 decoder if they want to use it in their game, and as a result they tend to use the free and open OGG format. You may wish to provide your song and sound samples in that format instead so that if they like it, they can use it in their game immediately.
PREPARING YOUR MUSIC, UNDERSTANDING COPY RIGHT
Most music supervisors are wary about working with independent artists. They work in high-pressure environments and many have been burned by musicians who wouldn’t return emails or phone calls, or didn’t have their legal rights in order. Some have war stories of negotiating a deal with an indie only to find the musician never cleared the samples he or she used in a song. Because of this, many supervisors have “no samples” policies or they deal exclusively with large publishers, use pre-cleared music libraries, or license only from agents they trust.
This means you need to have both your music and business in order. Send professionally mastered tracks. There are no demos: Songs prepared for licensing must be ready to go into a feature film or advertisement tomorrow. If you write and record commissioned songs, be ready to turn around a new song in a very short amount of time. But most of all, be easy to contact and be ready to respond at any time including turning around licensing contracts on short notice.
Licensing is based on copyright law, which states that all music that’s part of a video or film work requires a synchronization (“sync”) license from the owners. Music supervisors know they need to get a sync license from both the sound recording owner (copyright form SR) and the composer (copyright form PA). Often the music label owns the master and a publisher representing the composer owns the composition, so music supervisors might need to deal with two parties. One advantage indies have is they usually own both, making the negotiations a lot simpler. It also means that a placement can generate up to three distinct revenue streams for an indie musician: a composition sync fee, a sound recording sync, and performance royalties. Plus, a sync license is not compulsory and there’s no maximum fee amount set by statute, which means you can deny permission or set any price you want.
Income from sync licensing comes on the front end in the form of direct license fees, and on the back end from performance royalties. To prep your music for these, make sure you own all of the rights to the composition, sound recording, and all samples in the sound recordings. They should also be registered with the Copyright Office (copyright.gov), which protects the music and gives you extra statutory benefits if you complete this within three months of publication.
To get the back-end income, register your song with a Performance Rights Organization (PRO) before it’s broadcasted or played. Also make sure that the film or video production company submits cue sheets for each of their works that use your song. Some musicians opt to license their sync rights for free just to get the back-end royalties, but you should only do so if getting front-end fees is not an option.
To prep your music, create 320kbps MP3s and be sure to fill out all your ID3 metadata fields, including your website and contact info. Preparing your music in this way will make it easy for music supervisors to drop your music in their demo reels, try it out, and find you if they decide to use it. Plus, while in the studio, make instrumental mixes and also keep the stems handy. Not only are stems licensable, sometimes supervisors need to remix your music, take a small piece, or cut out the vocals. As music supervisor Toddrick Spalding of Mob Scene said, “A track might be perfect except for that one harp part. If you have the stems, you can easily take that part out and instantly have the right track.”
CONNECTING WITH SUPERVISORS
Music publishing has always been a relationship industry. If you can get to know music supervisors or directors directly, you can start pitching songs to them or become a trusted resource. This is especially true if you are known to be great at a particular genre of music. In fact, this industry is somewhat split up between people who make music, people who have the relationships, and the music supervisors who choose the music.
Music supervisors can be found at music conferences like SXSW, NARIP, and The Association of Music Producers. And video game designers can be found at conferences like the Game Developers Conference and Game Sound Con. If you contact a music supervisor directly, keep in mind that his or her mailbox probably has hundreds of unread emails from musicians. To cut through the crowd, keep your email short, give a brief paragraph of who you are, what you’re great at, and a link to your high-quality MP3s.
If you see a TV show and have music that fits its style, check the credits to learn who the music supervisor is and search the internet. Most supervisors are superfans of music and maintain their own MP3 blogs or websites where they share playlists. Contact them. The same technique works for movie trailer production houses. If you have music you think can be used, search the internet for movie trailer studios’ websites. They often highlight their latest trailers and list the staff or have a contact page. Then, reach out directly.
Most music supervisors have a short list of trusted partners who supply music, including agents or music libraries. Getting your music into these resources can get you into the ears of music supervisors. Music libraries specialize in pre-cleared music of various genres. They make it easy for supervisors to find new music and eliminate headaches since all the music is ready for licensing. Some of the better known libraries are APM, Extreme Music, Ninja Tracks, Audio Machine, and Confidential Music. In addition, some indie musicians use SynchTank, which digital distributors such as CD Baby include in their list of services to make it easy for musicians to get tracks discovered by music supervisors.
If you want to get your music into music libraries, do the research to understand the library’s criteria for accepting music and the percentage cuts they take. Don’t sign any music library deal without having a lawyer review the terms.
Last, because music supervisors are music lovers, increase your chances to get licensed by targeting music blogs they listen to like Aquarium Drunkard or Stereogum; or get into the aggregation feeds such as the MP3 blog consolidator Hypemachine (hypem.com), and the MP3 aggregator Peel (osx.iusethis.com/app/peel). Supervisors also discover music simply by searching iTunes, Apple Music, or Spotify, since it’s easy to browse by music genre.
NEGOTIATING AN AGREEMENT
Most music supervisors will supply you with a contract, so it helps to educate yourself on what the terms mean. Note that each term is negotiable. For example, if someone wants worldwide exclusivity then you should charge more for that right, since it prevents you from licensing to others (although you can place a time limit on exclusivity). Other terms that dictate your fee amount include the scope of the territory and the length of use. Also, music supervisors will want to know if a song has other placements (meaning it’s licensed for use elsewhere).
The contract should include an obligation for the studio to submit cue sheets to the performance rights organizations. This is how PROs know your music is used in film and TV and is the primary driver for your back-end royalties. Since the PROs pay out for performances when the films or TV shows are screened or broadcasted, this does not affect the studio’s income.
Once you get a placement, double-check that you have everything in order: copyright registrations, PRO royalty registrations (as both the publisher and songwriter), and confirm that cue sheets will be submitted. These are all critical actions toward getting the full amount of backend royalties that you’re owed. Finally, for every placement that you do get, make sure to thank the music supervisor, and lock in your relationship. That is the most likely way to get your next licensing deal.
Increasing your changes of successful music licensing means getting your music out there so it’s discoverable and making sure your contact information is easy to find. Every music supervisor we interviewed had a story where they found the perfect music surfing iTunes or Spotify and simply contacted the artist through a web search. But there were also plenty of stories of musicians who weren’t easy to reach and lost out on opportunities.
Once you understand the world of the music supervisor, you’ll realize that music licensing is something within the reach of every musician. Perhaps your song will be the next “Over the Rainbow.”
Thanks to all of the following who were interviewed for this piece and participated in panels on music licensing: Chris Clark, Rudy Chung, Josh Collum, Danny Exum, Heather Guibert, Holley Maher, Chris Mazur, Theresa Notartomaso, Tim Quirk, Joseph Rudge, Eric Shaw, Toddrick Spalding, Amanda Krieg Thomas.
Randy Chertkow and Jason Feehan are authors of The Indie Band Survival Guide (St. Martin's/Griffin), now in its second edition.