How To License Your Music For Commercial Use (And GET PAID)19 May 2023 by Gaetano
Musicians are looking for ways to share their music with the world and monetize their art. One way to do this effectively is by licensing music for commercial use.
As a songwriter, you can sufficiently release your music and tracks where they will be heard in various types of content formats such as television, films, YouTube videos, streaming advertisements, video games, commercials, podcast theme music, and background music.
But how do you actually get your music licensed?
The truth is you need to build relationships with licensing companies (or well connected people in the licensing game).
That means you need to start networking, cold emailing, and sending DMs in order to pitch your music.
This guide will teach you all about song licensing for independent musicians – how it works, what an agreement entails, and how to work with a music licensing company in order to get paid for commercial use of your works.
Imagine you are a composer with copy written material. An independent movie company wants to use a portion of your song in a movie scene. How do you license music to them and get paid royalties?
- Clearly define the scope of the license: Decide which rights you want to grant to the movie company. This could include the right to synchronize your music with their visuals, public performance rights, or other types of usages.
- Negotiate the terms: Engage in negotiations with the movie company to determine the specific terms of the license. Consider factors such as the duration of the license, territories where it will be used, payment structure, and any limitations or exclusions.
- Draft the licensing agreement: JUST GET AN INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY LAWYER! It’s not advisable to do this yourself.
- Royalty payments: In the licensing agreement, work with your attorney to outline the royalty structure. Typically, royalties are a percentage of revenue generated from the movie.
- Register your work: Prior to granting the license, ensure that your music is properly registered with a performing rights organization (PRO) in your country. This step is crucial for tracking performances and collecting royalties on your behalf.
- Execute the licensing agreement: Once both parties agree on the terms, sign the licensing agreement to make it legally binding.
- Monitor usage and collect royalties: Keep track of where and how your music is used in the movie to ensure proper reporting and payment of royalties. Collaborate with the movie company to ensure accurate reporting to PROs or any other royalty collection agencies.
- Renew or renegotiate: Determine the duration of the license and whether it needs renewal or renegotiation if the movie company intends to use the music beyond the initial agreed-upon period.
What is music licensing?
Music licensing is a legal agreement by where a composer/author will grant permission for the use of their copyrighted music for various types of commercial projects in exchange for a licensing fee.
If you are the composer/author for that work, then you will earn the sync fee that gets paid out! It’s a glorious way for songwriters and composers in the music industry to receive compensation for their original music.
This introductory video from Chris Small is a simple overview of how this confusing world of music licensing actually works.
How competitive is music licensing?
I won’t BS you – it’s SUPER competitive. There are countless music creators offering an endless supply of music, yet the demand can only reach a certain point.
The harsh reality: you will probably NEVER find a licensing opportunity on your own, unless you know some super connected person who can directly introduce you to the decision makers.
Not even a music publishing company or record label will help you get your music licensed (unless of course, they stand something to gain by helping you).
In order to find companies who might want to license your music, you’ll need to do 1:1 direct outreach to music supervisors on websites like LinkedIn or Instagram.
Alternatively, you can just work with music licensing companies and they’ll help you reduce most of the administrative burden, for a fee of course.
If you eventually find a company that wants to license your music, you’ll end up working with a sound designer, music supervisor, or even a director, depending on who is in charge of securing the music license. I’ll also explain what a music license contract actually looks like.
Related Read: Check out the best recording studios in NYC.
Different types of music licensing
So first thing’s first – as a musician, you need to be sure that your music is copyrighted so you can receive all of the royalties and fees associated with the contract. One way to be sure that the music is completely owned by you is to cover all costs associated with recording / producing the music.
Every time you write and/or record a song, two copyrights that are formed – the lyrics and melody of the song, and the actual sound recording.
The lyrics and melody are components of songwriting (author), which may be shared with the music producer (composer).
This is important to be aware of because anyone that wants to use your music for something has to license BOTH of these (the ‘composition’ and the ‘master’) pieces to your music – so even if you are the owner of both (which makes it easier to copyright), there still needs to be two separate licenses and separately paid rights for each.
Before you jump into a music licensing agreement, learn about the different types of music licenses that are available (since you can actually license your music in many different ways).
Sync License – This is also more professionally known as the Synchronization License, and is one of the more common forms of music licensing. The music is accompanied by visual media like a movie, commercial, or streamed video ad (like on a YouTube video, for example.)
Public Performance License: Probably the most common form of music licensing, where business owners will typically purchase the broadcast of music in their store or have it on their jukebox at the local bar. Many performing rights organizations typically manage these types of licenses for their musicians.
Print Rights License: This is where the obtainer would get rights to print the actual sheet music with the song or track in order for use – this can be a bit tricky for musicians because you can’t exactly stop someone who has the music printed from copying it again.
Master License: This is very similar to the sync licensing, which gives the obtainer permission for use of the pre-recorded song without allowing them to rerecord it (like as a cover). Most of the time you would issue this license along with the sync license.
Theatrical License: This is obtained when music is being performed live on-stage, so the licenser can pay royalties to have the music sung or played a specific number of times in front of an audience.
Exclusive vs. Non-Exclusive – If you make it to superstar level, some companies may want an exclusive licensing agreement with you. Just as an example, Fox network may want exclusivity over your digital works, so that you can’t simultaneously license it to competitor networks like CBS. One recent example of an exclusive licensing agreement is Joe Rogan’s $100 million dollar deal with Spotify.
The music licensing agreement
Once you’re familiar with the types of music licenses available, you can get into the actual contract, better known as the music licensing agreement.
Here’s a typical breakdown of what you might see covered throughout a typical licensing contract between musicians and those who are obtaining the rights for use:
- Rights to the music – (owner: musician) granting the rights and permissions for use of the music, which also includes:
- The term – how long it can be used for.
- The fees – performance royalties or fees included within the term.
- Exclusivity – whether the contract is exclusive or non-exclusive is also identified within the rights (basically, it’s whether others can use the same track / non-exclusive or if it is only used for this specific contract / exclusive, so it will not be sold for licensing use again).
- The Licensor – owner of the copyrighted music (you, the musician – and any other party who may have any copyrights to things like lyrics or composition)
- The Licensee – whoever needs to use the music for their purposes – this could include a music supervisor, a production house, a movie producer, filmmaker, etc.
- The Broadcast – how, when, and where the music will be used, as well as if any modifications to that music will be made during the process.
- The Where – the ‘media’ portion of the contract. Will the music be used for a tv show, film, ad, commercial, video game? etc.
The contract does contain a lot of legal jargon, so this is where you should rely on companies that can do the licensing portion for you. Music licensing companies are great for simplifying the whole licensing process.
For example, I know of an agency called Marmoset that licenses music for videos and they take all of the annoying admin work off your plate. They even make sure you get paid when your music finally gets licensed for commercial use. There are tons of music licensing companies out there, so be sure to ask around and do your due diligence before deciding which licensing agency to work with.
In the past, I’ve written about how some music companies run schemes and untruthful marketing programs in order to confuse and take advantage of musicians. Be sure to check out that guide if you need to refresh your memory on that.
Benefits of working with a music licensing company
Typically with a music licensing company, you will pay an upfront fee to be a member. Alternatively, you could also pay multiple fees if you option to share your music through more than one company.
A lot of musicians get pissed here. Yes, licensing companies will charge you a fee. Why? Because this is the music business.
Most licensing companies will store your digital works in a music library. This is where record labels and music supervisors can search, locate and use your tracks for their commercial projects.
This is an easy route for most indie musicians, as you probably haven’t expanded your network enough to build relationships with actual music supervisors on your own.
Music supervisors also don’t like to license music from independent artists they aren’t familiar with, since they don’t know what to expect, so utilizing a third-party licensing company is a beneficial stepping stone to building that creative-musician relationship.
This also eliminates the need to create the actual agreement yourself, since these companies will take care of all of that for you while getting your music visible by creatives.
Just be sure that you review the agreements in-depth when you receive them so that you can clearly understand what is going on – you may even want to consult with an attorney to be sure you have an understanding of it before signing that dotted line. You wouldn’t want to assign an exclusive deal if you planned your music to stay non-exclusive and used over multiple projects.
Organizing your music library
This is an important last step to licensing – get all your digital music files (with metadata included) in order before you start showcasing it.
Consider maintaining a spreadsheet with all your available music for licensing, or something along those lines, so that you can stay on top of it.
Anything you send to a music licensing company needs to have the completely finished, mastered recording of your music. Zero exceptions!
Demos, unmixed tracks, incomplete songs, half-baked ideas, and unfinished song concepts are NOT the music that you want to pitch here, since music supervisors and producers are looking for already finished, polished, hi-res tracks.
Mastered audio also needs to have instrumentals ready ahead of time – these are crucial for mixes especially, in case there are instrumental versions of the song that companies want to license (without the vocals). The highest quality audio file is typically a WAV audio, so make sure it’s encoded in WAV format.
You will need to break out all of the instruments and vocals within the audio as well, so that when the licensee can easily take out what they won’t be using. You’d be shocked at how precise the music licensing requests can be! Sometimes, a TV commercial may only want to clip 5 seconds of your track, and that’s it.
Your job is to be prepared with all of the knowledge of your own music – things like where you made the recording, disclosing any samples of the earlier stages within the music. It seems trivial, but guess what? Music supervisors do not want to jump through any extra hoops when it comes to working with indie songwriters.
It helps to register your songs with a Performing Rights Organization – A couple of PROs in the United States that are great for this are BMI, ASCAP or SESAC (invite only).
Finally, you should have a website, social media and press about yourself that you can market when it comes to your music.
Things like headshots, background about you and how you got started within the music business, where any of your other music might have been featured, upcoming gigs or live concerts, anything that can give you a leg up on any possible competition, as well as helping you look as legitimate as possible.
5 tips for getting your music licensed
- Don’t use anything that could be considered plagiarism, or anyone else’s work, and claim it as your own.
- Make sure audio files have the correct metadata required – which includes the track name, artist name, album name (if applicable), the musical genre, and the actual recording (and release) date(s).
- Do your research on music libraries before submitting, so that you can choose a place where music in your genre gets the most action – or, it may even benefit you to take an online course or training program so that you can further educate yourself in the music licensing world.
- Market yourself! Create a music website or even just a webpage with information on how/where to find you. You can keep it simple and just open up a social media account attributed to your band or solo music career – this helps to gain attention in the online world for your music. You can share snippets of live shows, create hype around a new song coming out, or take pictures of your awesome recording studio. Half of the battle to getting noticed and having loyal fans is through effective branding and marketing.
- The bottom line: make great music and figure out a way to get noticed so that you can make money and continue paving your way to a promising music career.
FAQs about music licensing
How can songwriters and musicians get placements?
- Create professional quality music: Focus on crafting well-produced, professionally recorded songs that are relevant to the needs of potential licensees.
- Target the right opportunities: Research and understand the market for licensing placements. Identify the types of projects, genres, and specific media (such as film, television, commercials, video games, or online content) that align with your music style. Target your submissions to the appropriate opportunities.
- Build a diverse and licensable music catalog: Develop a catalog of songs that showcase versatility in genre, mood, and instrumentation. Having a diverse range of music increases the chances of finding licensing placements that match your songs.
- Register with performing rights organizations (PROs): Join a PRO, such as ASCAP, BMI, or SESAC, to ensure your music is registered and tracked for royalty collection. PROs help monitor the usage of your music and collect performance royalties when your songs are publicly performed.
- Work with music libraries and publishers: Submit your music to reputable music libraries, publishers, and licensing agencies that specialize in placing songs in various media. These platforms act as intermediaries between songwriters and potential licensees, increasing the visibility of your music and the likelihood of placements.
- Create an online presence: Use platforms like SoundCloud, YouTube, and social media to share your songs, engage with fans, and actively promote your music to attract attention from potential licensees who might discover your work online.
- Attend music conferences and pitch events: Participate in music conferences, pitch sessions, and sync-focused events where you can showcase your music to industry professionals actively seeking new songs for licensing placements. Research and target events that are specifically geared toward music licensing.
- Customize your pitches: Tailor your pitch materials, such as one-sheets, demos, and artist bios, to fit the specific needs of the projects or media you are targeting. Clearly communicate the potential uses, mood, and unique selling points of your songs in a concise and compelling manner.
For brands, isn’t it easier to just use stock music?
Sure, stock music is convenient, flexible, cost effective and saves time — but of course the major downside is boring, bland audio that every other brand will have access to. You lose creativity and uniqueness by just defaulting to stock music.
How can brands avoid copyright infringement?
- Use royalty free music: As mentioned above, stock music would be an example of a royalty free music that can be used commercially without penalty of copyright infringement.
- Only use licensed music (and make sure the license has CLEARED): Brands need permission (licenses) to use copyrighted materials. They should be prepared to work directly with the copyright holders – such as composers, publishers, or music licensing companies, to secure the necessary rights and permissions.
- Work with reputable licensing companies: When licensing music, work with reputable music licensing agencies, production music libraries, or established composers. These sources typically provide properly licensed and cleared music, reducing the risk of inadvertently using copyrighted material without permission.
- Credit the music appropriately: Provide proper attribution and credit to the music creators as specified in the licensing agreement or according to industry standards. This helps acknowledge their work and ensures compliance with licensing requirements.
- Monitor and track usage: Keep track of how the licensed music is used in your brand’s content or advertisements. Regularly audit your materials to ensure compliance with the terms of the licensing agreements and that the music is used within the authorized scope.
What is the role of public domain in music licensing?
Public domain plays a significant role in music licensing by providing a source of music that is free from copyright restrictions.
- Freedom to use and adapt: Music in the public domain is not protected by copyright, which means it can be used, modified, and adapted freely without obtaining permission or paying royalties to the original creator.
- Access to historical and traditional music: Many compositions that have entered the public domain are works from the past, including classical music, traditional folk songs, and older popular tunes. The public domain allows artists, filmmakers, and other creators to access and incorporate these historical and cultural pieces into their work, preserving and reinterpreting them for new audiences.
- Cost-effective resource: Public domain music is available for use at no cost, as there are no copyright holders to license the music from or pay royalties to. This makes it an economical choice for projects with limited budgets, including independent films, educational materials, or nonprofit initiatives.
Fantastic article with some great tips on getting your music licensed. There are some amazing music libraries out there to pitch to but it is important to make sure the deal works for you whether it is non-exclusive or exclusive.
Don’t forget independent music libraries as well. They often offer a more artist focused approach to music licensing and will often not be flooded with thousands of tracks, increasing your chances of being licensed.
The main thing is to get your music out there and find a fair deal that works for you!
My big question is about licensing through my website. Should I have my own pricing structure, or will I be pricing myself out of the market by doing so?
Thank you for all this advice in a really great article. I am a singer-songwriter hoping to get my songs licensed for TV and films. I am trying to find out how much licensing companies expect. I have found one that wants 50% of a licensing deal. I an wondering what the usual rates are. It is a non-exclusive contract so I am thinking of signing.
Steve, it can vary greatly. The stronger your track record, the more you can negotiate for yourself. In some cases, licensing companies may charge a flat fee or an upfront payment instead of taking a percentage of royalties. However, when royalties are involved, the percentage can range anywhere from 10% to 50%
Great article. Still, I don’t think my question has been answered. Here it is. I am a composer with a copy written material. A movie company (Indie), wants to use a portion of my song in a movie scene. How do I license my music to them so that I get paid the royalties? Is there’s a contract or form to fill? Thanks.
Hey man, the truth is that you are much better off just hiring an intellectual property attorney to figure all of this out for you. Unless you feel comfortable drafting a license agreement yourself, I would just get a lawyer TBH.