Business: The Music Placement Process Explained

Written by Anishka George Posted in: Business on April 09, 2012

Music placement in film, television, and advertisements has quickly become a significant revenue source for musicians and the music industry. Most importantly, it has become a new platform for A&R and allows the opportunity for relatively unknown artists to break. Any genre of music has a place on film and TV, but the most “licensable” music tends to be of the indie, electronic, rock, singer-songwriter, and pop varieties. But how does this side of licensing work exactly? What’s the process? Few people know the extent of detail involved in film and TV licensing, but after this article, you won’t be one of them! Keep reading to get a better understanding of how a synch license comes to fruition, from the initial song choice to that final signature on the licensing agreement.

Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros' track "Home" as used in this NFL Tickets Commercial

When music is used in film and TV, it is called a synchronization license, or sync license, for short. ASCAP defines a sync license as:

“...the use of a recording of musical work in audio-visual form: for example as part of a motion picture, television program, commercial announcement, music video or other videotape. Often, the music is "synchronized" or recorded in timed relation with the visual images.”

Sync licenses, similar to mechanical licenses or blanket licenses, require approval from the publisher. However, because these licenses tend to be more specific, they entail a lot more scrutiny and are looked at on a case by case basis. Synchronization licensing is complicated and requires more knowledge to master. Unlike blanket licenses or mechanical licenses, one specific song is being used and highlighted alongside a visual image. There is no standard payment or price. Because of this, publishers are very thorough and can be protective of how their works are displayed.

Different Roles:

Music Supervisor: The creatives. These are the guys that usually take the credit for song placements. Most music supervisors do freelance work, though many are tenured onto a TV show or work for a film studio. The role of each supervisor varies, as the job title doesn’t necessarily entail generalized standards of procedure. Some music supervisors are strictly creative, while some handle the licensing aspects as well. Some have total creative control, whereas some only exist to satisfy a director’s vision. Depending on the project or the budget, the music supervisor could be responsible for simply placing music to everything up to handling the film’s score.

Music Supervisor Extraordinaire Alexandra Patsavas

Music Licensors: The businessmen. These guys act as a liaison between the creative side and the publishers. They gather the publisher’s information, reach out to them, negotiate the licenses, communicate with the creative side, and seal the deal. In general, those who do strictly licensing usually work at a film or TV studio, where they work to clear all productions’ music. Still, there are also many freelance licensors. Independent licensors and companies are frequently used by businesses and ad agencies. Licensing music is confusing and can have terrible consequences if done wrong. Many companies prefer to hire and pay third party licensors to help clear music rather than figure it out themselves.

Music Publishers: The ones with all the power. Music publishers play the most crucial role in licensing music: they let you use it. Publishers only hold themselves accountable; they don’t have to say yes to anything if they don’t want to. They can deny a request for any reason imaginable if they feel it damages the image of their song. If a song gets approved, congratulations, but the next biggest hurdle is getting it at a reasonable price. Some publishers will offer lower quotes because they understand the film has a small budget, but most publishers aren’t so generous. For up-and-coming artists, it’s common to see quotes that run all over the place. If it’s a small budget film, the publisher won’t mind quoting low, but if it’s a bigger picture and they know they can get some money out of it, they’ll try to push their luck. Publishers of unknown or up and coming artists are a little more at mercy than the big timers. They want their artists’ music to be placed, so they’re willing to take a beating for the exposure. For bigger artists and publishers, there is no shortage in demand for their music. In most cases, they are the ones in power. There is a certain point at which they won’t lower their quotes anymore, even if it means the film can’t afford to use the song at all. Publishers look at under-quoting as a financial loss.

The Process:

For a particular scene, a music supervisor will usually pick 3-4 songs that would fit. They usually have a favorite, but pick backups just in case things go wrong with the legalities (and chances are, they probably will). When searching for a song, they have take the budget into account. Even though a music supervisor may be strictly creative, they need to have some understanding of the business side. Depending on the production, the music supervisor or music licensors will then contact the publishing companies for these songs in order of preference.

When they contact the music publisher, they have to provide as much information about the production as possible: the scene, the plot of the production, the actors or notable crew, the budget, etc. In addition to that, they must provide the rights they want approved, which also determines how the use should be quoted. These are:

  • Grant of Rights: What forms of media are being granted in this license? Is it a huge blockbuster film or a film in a film festival? Will it be on broadcast and cable television? Will there be internet streaming? Theatrical usage? “All media now known or hereafter devised,” or simply “all media,” is a phrase used to describe basically just that: all forms of media and whatever platforms developed in the future. All media would basically cover the copyright of a production over all platforms.
  • Term: How long do they plan on distributing the production across those forms of media? Is it a single screening at a film festival or a huge theatrical release that will hold copyright for life? A common term for life of copyright is “In Perpetuity,” which basically means the life of the product or copyrighted work.
  • Territory: Where is this going to be broadcasted or shown? It can be anything as small as the city of Boston or as large as a worldwide release.
  • Use: How is the song being used in relation to the scene? Is it is the foreground or background? Are there vocals? If it’s a key montage scene, you can expect the price to bump up because it’s featured. If the song is used as source music in the background from the radio, quotes can be much lower.
  • Options: These are usually extensions or additions to the above criteria. These will be quoted separately or in addition to the original quote if necessary. For example, a film studio might want the option to extend the term for another 5 years. A publisher would quote an additional amount for that time.

It is a combination of the above and the actual song that determines whether the use will be approved and how much will be quoted for them. Licensors will usually present a quote they think is ideal, and a publisher will respond with either an approval or a (higher) quote that they feel is fair. Most student and film festival films have notoriously small budgets, asking for a $200-$500 range of quotes. Many established publishers with a strong catalog won’t approve these, but don’t ever think they won’t look at them. Publishers (the good ones) look at every request, and approve or deny them, making sure you get a response. If you don’t hear from a publisher, never assume that it’s ok to proceed with your project. This is just a lawsuit waiting to happen.

Quoting synch placements takes a lot of experience and practice. A publisher has to be familiar with the history of his or her catalog and very well educated on publishing practices and terminology. Most blockbuster films are perpetual, worldwide releases that have the budget to properly pay for music. A common process with indie movies, since it’s unknown how they will fare in future years, is to add a clause to the grant of rights that guarantees additional payments if the film ever grosses a certain amount.

Once a song use is approved by the publisher, the licensor and publisher then begin to negotiate a quote that both can agree on. Once a quote and all the rights are decided, the publisher drafts a license, usually a standard one they already have for such licenses, and sends it to the licensor. The two parties send this agreement back and forth until everything is understood and signed. These licenses are more than just the listed criteria above. They include every detail of the rights granted and state all legal rights and provisions of the license.

When the license is signed by both parties, the licensee must send payment to the publisher within a reasonable amount of time. Each publisher has different time constraints, but within a month is usually the norm. For television, since it’s a lot more time sensitive than film, it is common for licensees to receive approval and the quote, air the show, and then deal with the license.

And now you know! Believe it or not, the topic dives even deeper than this. If you’re still a bit shaky, don’t worry! It’s taken me a couple years to fully grasp the basics. Synch licensing can become extremely complicated in every regard, and it takes a great deal of experience and knowledge to master. Publishing is really a side of the industry that takes years and years to get a hang of. Seeing how complex this process is, it really brings to light how important it is to have a smart publisher that also believes in you. The right placement can really change everything. With that said, be sure to be on the lookout for my next licensing article, in which I’ll discuss writing music for synch placements.

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