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Indie Music Artists in Film and TV

How to License Your Music and Get Paid (Part One)


Since the decline of purchased music started with the advent of the mp3 in the 1990s, and now with the prevalence of cheap streaming services driving down the value of popular music, independent recording artists have struggled to compensate for a shrinking music marketplace. One income source indie artists have turned to for survival is the placement of their music in films, television shows, and commercials.

Other possible placements include short films, independent films with low budgets, and internet ads, although they typically pay little to no money and can sometimes be justified only for exposure. If you’re an independent artist, syncing your music to the right project can mean both getting in front of a larger audience, and a much-needed paycheck.

The road to placing your music in a production is not an easy one but it can be successfully navigated, and the right placement can be a career game changer. This article will concentrate on song placements in the film and TV market over those in the short film, web series, and indie film market, simply because they tend to pay better.

I can personally attest to the value of having my music and productions featured in movies and TV shows. From both a financial and brand building perspective, licensing dozens of songs and instrumentals has helped me have a presence in music. It’s my goal to help other producers and artists understand what’s necessary to get their songs licensed.

Music licensing is a huge topic, and there are countless tutorials and references available to expound on it via the web. What I’ll attempt to do is illustrate the most important aspects of licensing from my perspective. My hope is that by reading this, a passionate music creator can shorten the amount of time it takes to get their first sync placement by honing in on the factors I found helped me the most. By no means should anyone read this as a sole authority on the topic, but hopefully this will shorten the learning curve and spare that person some of the pitfalls I have encountered as a music producer. Read this article and then get crackin’!

Know Your Target: Be Genre Specific at the Right Time

There are two things an artist needs to get started with music placements, also known as “sync” licensing since technically it’s the process of synchronizing music to picture. The first, as obvious as is may seem, is the right music. Now you’re probably thinking, “Duh. Of course,” with a roll of your eyes and an appropriately annoying amount of throat fry in your voice.

That’s okay. I thought like you think at one time in my music career, and had to learn the hard way that the “right music” for a film or TV show also means the correct song at the correct time. That means not only do you have to have the correct genre of music for the production, but also what the production needs from that genre when the music supervisor chooses what will be licensed. It helps to be genre specific to meet this need.

For instance, if you are writing a lot of hip hop music in the style of Eminem, but the production is calling for a sound closer to what the Migos do, no matter how amazing your song is it will probably not get into the show. The reason is that even though both artists are hip hop in genre, and have rap lyrics in their songs, they have very different sounds. It is not uncommon for a music supervisor to reject an outstanding track that just isn’t specific enough in its sound.

This can be frustrating because you’re at home, with your dope studio and what are undoubtedly some pretty sick tracks, and you can’t get your cut into that show on NBC you love so much (and that pays pretty well). You have to make sure you’re familiar with what is happening in the media at the time you begin sending your music out, and be specific when you do. “Hip Hop” or “Rap Songs” can mean a lot of different things. The same goes for “Pop” or “Rock”. Know what the trends are, know your genre, and know when to send out that very specific style.

When you send your music is perhaps more important than anything. Timing is something that is difficult to get right when you are initially pitching your music to film and TV, and not just because of how fast trends can change or how fickle an audience can be. (And in this case the audience is the music supervisor and perhaps the music editor working the project.)

It’s also difficult to get your music to a licensing company, library, or music supervisor at a time when they need it. They may have plenty of hip hop in their catalogue already, and much of it fits with the productions they are working with, so they simply don’t need any more songs in the style you are sending.

It’s easy to get discouraged, or think your songs aren’t good enough, because a library sends you a rejection email. Don’t be rattled by rejection. It could just be that their vault is already full. Just remember that songs and the sounds they’re made with tend to get old, and they’ll eventually need new stuff, so just keep cracking. (Also we’ll get into what happens when the songs get really, really old, and then become valuable again. I recently placed a song I had in my catalogue for over ten years because the film needed a throwback hip hop song circa 2004 and they used mine. When this happens they don’t typically want songs that are recorded today made to sound like the songs of the past. They actually want old, original recordings. I think of those placements as “Retro-Cash.”)

Clean Recordings: Be Broadcast Ready

The second thing you need when pitching your music for film and television are good recordings that are mixed well. In today’s production environment, there are a lot of ways to get your songs recorded, mixed, and mastered. A trip to any Guitar Center will reveal about a million different ways to record and produce music on your own, which is the way many of us are doing it every day. Especially in hip hop, pop, and dance music, the home studio setup has become almost a standard mode of operation for producing. So, first we’ll touch on some advice you can use if you are making your recordings to pitch to film and TV, and then we’ll touch on why you probably need the expertise and experience of someone who is a recording professional.

If you are a home studio producer and making your own recordings and mixes you might be reading this right now thinking “My mixes bang!” or, “We rock louder and dirtier than Black Sabbath!” This is to be expected and encouraged. Make your mixes bang, knock, slam, or pound to your heart’s content. Just make sure that your not getting mixes that are so loud and obnoxious that they clip and distort when you play them back. Reference them on different sets of speakers, your computer, phone, car, TV or anywhere else you can manage, and make sure there is no unwanted distortion on playback. There is a difference between the wanted distortion effects inherent to your musical style, and the distortion you get from a track mastered too hot for your speakers to handle. The loudness wars are over, and common sense has prevailed. This holds especially true in the world of sync placement, where unwanted noise can interfere with the dialog in a scene, and ultimately cost you a placement. Make sure your mixes are broadcast ready.

When your recordings are mixed and mastered competitively within your genre, and clean enough to please the ear, they will stand the best chance of being chosen for placement. You’ll notice at the top of this section I used words like “good” and “mixed well”, and I didn’t use words like “perfect” or “major label Grammy winning quality.” Those things are not expected in the world of film and TV music. Chances are you can’t compete with the latest Skrillex mix, and that’s o.k.

That being said, if you can beat the best in the world, then go for it. If you can’t do a major label mix just yet, don’t let it stop you. I have personally had one or two of my songs licensed to projects where I knew I was probably up against recordings made by signed, funded DJs that had a full team of people around them. At the time, I certainly did not. I was on my own, doing my best with limited amounts of software and outboard gear, and I beat those suckers out because I had a good, clean, mix, and the right song, at the right time. (And, if I can toot my horn for a second, a great and timely piece of electronica.)

If you’re having trouble getting your songs mixed to a good, clean, broadcast quality you have no reason to panic. There are many qualified engineers willing to do a broadcast ready mix who are available and, quite frankly, looking for work. If you’re serious about sync placements, finding a great engineer to partner with for recording, mixing, and mastering your tracks is one of the smartest moves you can make. An experienced audio engineer with a decade of solid work under his or her belt can usually knock out an affordable, top-notch mix in very little time. This is a huge advantage for you as an artist or band, because then you can spend the time you would have normally spent struggling to get your mixes right on something like booking gigs, marketing, or writing more songs.

Music history has shown that a long-term partnership between a band and an engineer or producer can be a real game-changer for the artist. Jimi Hendrix had engineer Eddie Kramer, Van Halen had engineer Don Landee and producer Ted Templeman (for at least their first six albums, all classics), and the Red Hot Chili Peppers had Rick Rubin as a long time producer. In all three of these examples, these bands would not have achieved the amazing sounds that they developed in the studio, and one could argue that they would not have had the same spectacular success that they achieved without having such amazing people working with them.

When trying to license your music to film and TV, it may seem like a bit of overkill to compare what you are doing today to what superstar legends of music have done in the past. But, the way the music market works now, and with the importance of film and TV placements in the career of a musician, it is not an overstatement to say that as an artist you should put a strong emphasis on how your mixes sound before sending them out.

A music supervisor or someone who does A&R at a music licensing company can hear the difference between an amateur mix and a professional one. When picking songs for placement, they’re not just working on a project, they are working on their own career as well, and are represented in the music business by what they choose to place. You can be sure that they do not want to stake their own reputation on a shoddy mix no matter how great the songwriting may be. So make sure you can be objective about your mixing and mastering skill level, and don’t be afraid to hire some help if you think you need it. It could be the difference between getting a great placement for one of your songs, or being passed over for someone else.

Tighten Up Your Digital Presence and Your Brand

Once you have genre specific music that is recorded and mixed well enough for broadcast, you are well on your way to pitching your music for sync placement in films and television shows. An important part of your presentation when pitching that’s often overlooked by artists, and is essential to your success, is the look of your brand and image that is associated with your release.

I was once told by a licensing person at a prominent distributor that I had some great electronic music that she could definitely place, but she wouldn’t show it to her clients until my brand was put together in a definitive fashion.

She first asked me if she could be brutally honest, to which I answered “Of course,” because I absolutely love it when I can get vital, useful information out of someone on the inside of the industry. (Note: In case you haven’t had any experience with music industry gatekeepers, honest advice that can help your career is hard to get, and most people won’t take the time to give it to you. They’ll just be nice to you, act fake and smile a lot so that you like them and hopefully tell other people how great they are, and then blow you off for the rest of your life.)

Then she took a deep breath and softly tore into me. It was like a gentle execution.

“Your brand is all over the place. You have to clean it up, make it uniform in look and presentation, and then I’ll pitch the music. Your artwork has no consistency and you dabble in too many styles. But there is some great stuff here I can work with.”

Then she went on to explain to me that sometimes the client isn’t just licensing the music. They are licensing an association with a sound, and are partnering with another brand. And that brand is you.

Think about it. When a client such as Ford Motors licenses a song for a commercial for the new Ford Fusion that’s coming out, don’t you think they’re going to run at least a Google search on the artist whose music they are choosing to be the soundtrack to their new car? They’ve just spent millions of dollars on research, development and manufacturing, so you’d better believe they’re going to check you out before they drop tens of thousands of dollars, or maybe even more, on your song. They are going to want to be associated with an artist who looks like they’re hip, well put together, and relevant to the modern times we live in before they license the music. (Note: it’s, of course, different for some TV and film licensing, where the production company couldn’t care less about who you are. A lot of times if the song is right, it’s right, and it gets placed no matter your place in the multiverse of branding. But my stance on this is why take the chance? Cover all your bases!)

So in short, get your web presence looking great, get your logo to be uniform on all your releases, make sure you have great cover art to go with your music and make your digital footprint as large as you can.

I heeded the advice I was given by the brutal industry exec that crushed me that day, and it definitely paid off. My internet and social media is something I try my best to tend to, so any licensing people who are concerned with this aspect of the business know they are getting material from someone who’s putting in the extra effort, and who cares about securing the license.

Pay for Pitch: Sometimes it’s Okay, Sometimes it’s Not

Now you will need to present your music to libraries, supervisors, licensing companies, advertising agencies, publishers, record labels, and possibly even the producers of the movies and shows themselves. It can seem like a daunting task when you first start trying your hand at the process of pitching, for no other reason than there seems to be a million places to start. An internet search of music licensing opportunities I recently ran on Google returned over 23,000,000 results! The majority of those results are not places to pitch, but of that number there are literally thousands of labels, publishers, libraries etc… It’s bananas.

Included in this deluge of opportunities and potential avenues will be websites where you can sign up and upload your music to submit for opportunities, usually for a fee of some kind. Some sites will take a percentage, some will not. Some companies will review your music with their A&R staff, and then forward along the tracks they deem the best. And in even other cases, sites will commonly store your music for a fee and let their clients browse their curated catalogs, creating a nice passive income for the publisher that now controls either exclusively or non-exclusively, your material.

One site I have used in the past charged varying fees per pitch, and then let the executive reach out and open a conversation with me, which produced results that were both good and bad. Sometimes the person was an executive, and sometimes the person was an “executive”, if you catch my drift. It’s best to test the waters cautiously whenever paying someone to listen to or represent your music, and most often, it’s not the best idea.

There are a few companies that have a long history of running these kinds of services who have great reputations and successful track records because of the relationships within the industry they have carefully developed. There are some good companies out there that have been around the block, and you can trust. I’m not going to personally recommend any of them, because this article is not to endorse any company, and I don’t want anyone out there thinking I work for them. I do not.

A little research on your part should make it clear who the trustworthy ones are. It is, as you could probably guess, a very short list. Avoiding the potential scams that come with “pay for pitch” services is easy if you use common sense and your gut instinct, which you must always learn to trust when you are dealing with the music business.

You can avoid trouble altogether, if you have the time, by using the tried and true way of avoiding scams and shenanigans, which is through hard work and the long term development of your career. If you concentrate from the start on finding the companies and people that you know you can trust, and work consistently with those people and entities, you will find more success than carpet bombing the community with your work. I know because I have done it both ways, and I am proud to say I am a reformed carpet bomber. I no longer just send my work to anyone who will listen, but only to those people who run organizations that have built their reputation one day at a time over a course of many years. You should build your reputation the same way, because the people who are representing your music are a reflection of who you are as an artist, and ultimately a part of that reputation.

Register With a PRO to Collect Performance Royalties

One of the most important things to consider prior to pitching your music to film and TV is what performance rights organization you want to represent your catalog and collect performance royalties on your behalf. A performance rights organization, (or PRO as I’ll refer to it from here on for the sake of brevity), is an organization that makes sure your get paid when a public performance of your work is broadcast or used publicly.

Before you pitch your music, make sure you are a member of a PRO and that all your music is registered and recognized as under your ownership (this is commonly referred to as owning your publishing). Do not pitch your music before this is the case, because most licensing companies or publishers that may represent your music and try to place it will not even consider doing so until your catalog is registered. The reason for this is simple: money.

For example, if you send your song into an independent A&R company, and they love it and forward it along to a licensing company, that licensing company may contact you and want to pitch the song to a network show. (If your song gets this far along in the process, this is great for you, and you should be psyched because it means you have a song that is a viable commodity and stands a good chance of placement. Also, your song is now represented by a legit licensing company. ) Then let’s imagine that the show picks the song, and contacts the licensing company and says that they want it and will pay X amount of dollars for the sync fee. Bingo, your song is licensed and you are most likely getting half of the sync fee (split with the licensing company.) In a month or two, the show airs, and now begins earning performance royalties on every performance and airing of the show.

Once the song is placed, the network will then produce what are called “cue sheets”, indicating where in the show the song has been used and for what length of time, and how many times. Those cue sheets are then submitted to the licensing company and your PRO to get an accounting of what you are owed for the public performance of your work. The licensing company will then also get a percentage of the performance royalties (usually also half), and you will get the rest. For this reason, a licensing company or publisher will want you to have a PRO and have your songs updated with the PRO, so everyone can get paid on the backend.

Over the long haul, these royalties can far outweigh the initial sync fee (excluding what’s called a “buyout” deal where there are no royalties on the backend, and the network is usually hiring artists and producers as one time, “work for hire” independent contractors), so you can see why companies who make it their business to pitch music do not want to deal with a catalog that is not represented by a PRO. Don’t hesitate on this, do it ASAP.

If Your Song Lands a Placement: Understanding the Publishing Splits

For clarity, it is good to understand that in reality there are three sides to the money you will hopefully see from a placement of your song in a movie or TV show. There is the initial sync fee which is the licensing fee paid by the production company for the use of your music. Secondly, there is the what is commonly called the “writer’s side”, which represents 50 percent of the performance royalties collected by your PRO. Then there is the other 50 percent of the songwriter pie commonly called the “publisher’s side”. So, in essence, a licensing commonly pays three ways, and most of the time the licensing company or publisher is claiming the publisher’s side, the writers are claiming the writers side, and the sync fee is usually split between the writer and the licensing company. How this money is divided amongst all parties involved, including if there are multiple writers and producers on a song or album, is referred to as the publishing or “pub” splits.

It is an excellent idea to have an understanding of what percentage of the splits is to be assigned to whom, and to have it in writing with all parties involved before pitching your music. In some cases, especially when dealing with network television or major film releases, proof of this agreement is required in writing and needs to be signed by all the parties involved. Without a signed agreement that states who owns the copyright, who owns the master recording, who the writers are and what the publishing agreement is for the song, sometimes the placement will not go through. In the increasingly litigious environment that is the music business, production companies, publishers, licensing companies and labels are all making sure they cover all their bases to protect themselves against infringement liability.

Sampling: Keep it One Hundred

When dealing with music licensing as an independent artist, band or producer, avoid using uncleared samples in your work. It is best to make sure your music is 100 percent original and entirely your creation, or a licensing company simply won’t deal with it.

Even if you have cleared a sample of someone else’s work to use in your song, chances are the licensing people you are dealing with will avoid it unless you are at a label large enough to guarantee, and show in writing, that you do have the right to use a piece of another artist’s work in your own. And chances are, if you are at a label large enough to have its stuff together (and enough clout to get this done without legal consequence), then you don’t need to read this article or pitch music to companies that won’t deal with samples. So, in short, if you are indie and hitting the bricks to get your music synced, don’t sample.

Exclusive vs Non-Exclusive Licensing

Another important aspect of music licensing to be considered before pitching your music to the licensing companies and libraries that will represent your catalog, is whether to assign the rights to your songs exclusively or non-exclusively. Before signing off the right to represent your songs, make sure you understand the contract before you finalize the agreement.

In a non-exclusive agreement, the company you assign rights to will still allow you to keep the right to pitch your songs on your own and through other companies under other non-exclusive arrangements. This is particularly helpful to you if you have direct music supervisor contacts, or contacts with production companies that can place your music independent of a third party.

In an exclusive agreement, the company you assign rights to is the only company that can now represent the songs you sign over to them. You can’t pitch on your own, and you cannot assign rights to other companies either exclusively or non-exclusively after that agreement is reached.

For clarity, understand that if you assign your music to a non-exclusive agreement, you then cannot assign to an exclusive agreement and vice versa. You must choose when you assign songs or tracks that get picked up which way you want them to go.

Both agreements have pros and cons to them, and you have to weigh those pros and cons as you decide who you want to represent your catalog. Remember, if your songs are being picked up for representation, then this is a good problem to have. It means your material and mixes are good, and you most likely are going to get sync placements.

For exclusive agreements, one of the advantages is that the company representing you be just about positive your music is getting synced, or they wouldn’t sign the song. Also, if a company is pitching your song under an exclusive agreement, chances are the sync placements are going to be higher profile and pay a lot more. There is a greater chance your song is going to be used not as background music, but as a distinct and featured part of the production, and pay better and offer you more exposure as well.

I recently produced an artist who brought me a song he heard on a car commercial where a very famous actor is driving and falling into swimming pools and stuff. He wanted the beat we were making to be similar to the song in the car commercial, because he had used Shazam to figure out who the artist was after he had seen the spot. This song had a huge impact on its intended audience because it was part of a high profile commercial, which means it was probably licensed through an exclusive arrangement. In my experience and opinion, you have a better chance of getting your music into these spots and in front of potential fans with an exclusive agreement even though you are giving away the potential to pitch through other sources.

For non-exclusive agreements, one of the positives is that your representing company may include your work in a larger library of songs that are going to be placed in many different productions, and you can still pitch the music on your own and through other third parties while this is happening. (But there is a greater chance that the songs will be used as background music, and less chance of a distinct feature of your music.) You may have one song or instrumental that is really great, and everywhere it goes people want to use it, either for small background uses or larger featured uses. In this scenario, staying flexible in your agreements with licensing companies can be preferred.

Another example: I once produced a song for an artist that had a distinct and memorable guitar part over a hip hop beat that was loved by literally everyone who heard it. The song and the instrumental were used in multiple productions, so keeping the song in non-exclusive agreements made more sense. It found its way into both background and featured sync placements by being signed only to non-exclusive agreements. Take time to understand the difference between the two types of scenarios for your music, and be comfortable in your decision before you finalize your agreement. (And once again, remember, this is a good problem to have!)

Also be aware that once you sign the songs over to be represented, it’s wise for you to take those songs off the table when it comes to song placements with record labels or publishers that pitch songs to recording artists. If part of your plan is to place a hit song with a huge country star, or the next pop diva, don’t assign that song to a catalog that is going to film and TV I know of at least one company that will specifically ask you about this when considering your material. If they are pitching your song and it is under contract, and then a popular artist wants to cut the song and own it, you may be out of luck. That song is now under an agreement, and neither the artist’s record label, or the licensing company will want to deal with each other, and your song could be caught in limbo and will not go to the big star.

Knowing what to do when deciding how to assign the rights to your music can be confusing when you’re starting out. If you don’t understand something in your contract, or even feel the least bit uncomfortable with what you are signing, go see a lawyer. A good music attorney can make it easy for you to understand what’s happening when you sign the contract, and can advise you quickly and affordably. Make sure you get references when hiring an attorney, and be sure you’re hiring someone that you trust. I recommend all young artists and bands see an attorney anyway, to assign songwriting and publishing splits early in the process so everyone involved can avoid disagreements later on. You might as well double down and have a lawyer also look at your licensing contracts, so you can side step potentially heartbreaking publishing problems, and possibly miss out on great opportunities for your music.

File Preparation: Have the Correct Formats and Follow Instructions

An easy yet vital part of your pitch will be what type of file or format you send when submitting to a licensing company for consideration. Different companies will have different requirements when you send in your songs. This is an easy part of the process because it only requires that you follow directions, so you really have no guesswork to do. Just read the instructions the licensing company has for writer’s submissions, and remember that every company might work differently and have their own system so pay attention to the details.

For instance, one company I work with will require mp3s to be sent in first, using a specific email that they undoubtedly have set aside for submissions only. This prevents them from being bothered by a landslide of unsolicited material, and helps them keep track of which writers are sending them the files. Then, if they approve the song for their library, they will require you to send in.wav files, in a specific format (44.1khz, 16 bit), through another file transfer service equipped to move large files. Then they will send you the contract, which you will sign using an e-signature service that confirms that you are assigning them the rights required to sync the music and do business on your behalf. This way they’re all cleared to sync the music without having to contact you when they are ready to license, because they have the pre-cleared and legal right to do so.

Another licensing company I have worked with required email submissions,.wav files on a cd upon accepting the track, e-signatures on contracts from you and any co-writers, and, finally, that you answer a series of questions confirming ownership, where your sounds came from (royalty free loops and such), and a bunch of other things confirming and re-confirming that you hold the copyright and are the owner of the work (again, getting back to being clear of litigation if you have lied to them or infringed a copyright by sampling). All the instructions must be followed, and the questions answered correctly and honestly, or the track will be rejected. So, in short, make sure you are following instructions carefully, are honest with those who are pitching your music, and remember to dot your i’s and cross your t’s when going through the process.

Organize Your Files and Update Your Data

Also make sure you are labeling your files correctly in their metadata. Label the track with a title that is unique to the song, date it, and make notes as to what mix it is in case you have to make revisions upon request of the production company. Sometimes they may ask for an edit or change in the mix, like a “vocal down” mix, or a button ending to fit their editing.

Make sure that the title of the song matches the title you register with your PRO, and that your metadata matches your file names wherever you are storing your files. Proper file management, organized and clear, can help you license songs when a production might be in a pinch and need music quickly, not to mention help you if you need to get an edit to a production quickly.

Making sure all your metadata is correct and files are organized will help you keep track of where your music is going and how you are doing with the process. A licensing company, upon syncing one of your songs, will typically take your title and add a serial number to it and in essence create a new title they can register when they go to collect on the publishing side. You will see this “re-title” show up in your PRO database with you listed as the collector of the writer’s side of the performance royalties. Keeping your data in line will help you make sure no one makes a mistake, and if they do make an error it can be easily fixed. We are all human, and the process of licensing can be tedious and hectic at the same time, and sometimes errors can happen. Keeping organized files and updated data can make everything easier for all parties whenever the need arises to make a change for production purposes, or to check on the status of your work.

It’s a Lot of Work But it’s Worth it

It’s important to keep all the different aspects of your music licensing in order so when a request for your song comes to the company, they have a song that is pre-cleared and can be synced right away. Because music is usually the last thing a production adds to a show, they are pressed for time and can’t be delayed by the long process of clearing a song. So as intricate and burdened with details this process may seem to be, rest assured it’s all worth it when the time comes for your music to be eligible for a sync placement. When a production needs a song or track for their show, everything needs to be ready to go right away. The companies you will be dealing with have this process set up for maximum efficiency, and this is to your benefit. A lot of times a music library or licensing company will have you go through the process to have your music pre-cleared and already in the hands of the production companies, so they can simply put the track into the production and notify the company of licensing. So keep organized, read and follow instructions, be prepared, and ultimately work with companies you know you can trust to do the same for you, which will give your music the best shot at licensing success.

Hopefully what I’ve provided here will help new artists, and perhaps some seasoned ones, to understand what it takes to get music placed. I’m publishing this as part one of a series of articles about music licensing, and in future installments, I’ll get into some of the subjects I’ve teased. Please share this if you feel compelled and remember that there’s a feature on this page where you can tip for these tips!

There’s more to come, but in the meantime remember: Keep Crackin’.

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