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Guide to Music Licensing

Introduction to Music Licensing

For a beginner, music licensing always starts out looking like a sticky deal. It's very easy to become intimidated by all of the paperwork. With all the agreement types, the legalese, and usage terms, it's easy to feel like you'll never cover all your bases unless you become an expert on the subject. That may be true, and if you're working on a project with a major budget then it might be a good idea to hire that expert.

But if you're like most people, hiring an expert is crossing the line into overkill. Most likely the only thing on your mind is that you need to be able to use some music - legally - and you don't want to get caught with your pants down because you missed something. Some publishers and libraries can provide a royalty free license which can make the licensing very easy. Other libraries (like All Music Library) will take it a step further and give you an unilmited royalty free license, which makes the whole process of licensing music automatic and completely worry-free.

What's the Purpose of a Music License?

The best way to start delving into this topic is to think about it from the musician's perspective. All of those legal contracts and documents are designed to protect the musician, protect his work, and give him a fair share. You can start by thinking out the terms in a very logical way. Simply ask yourself these two simple questions, while looking at it from the musician's or songwriter's frame of mind: (1) What are the different ways that music will be used? and (2) What is the value of the music, apart from how it's used?

1. What are the different ways that the music will be used?

picture of composer

Will this film sell as DVDs? If that's the case, then I'll want to get a small percentage, or "royalty", for each DVD sold - my music is a part of what they're selling after all and I should be entitled to it.


picture of a high school kid

My sister wants to use my song in her semi-annual all-school talent show. It's a big event for the city but it's not like it's going to be aired on prime-time TV or anything!


picture of a seasoned songwriter

Is my music going to be treated as a featured theme song or will it just be background music? If it's just background music then it's not as important. If it's a featured theme, it's more important and I should get more money.


2. What is the value of the music, apart from how it's used?

How much money is a piece of music worth? Just like the terms in a license, there isn't a one-size-fits-all formula that will tell you how much. If it's your first time negotiating out a license with a songwriter then it's up to you guys to figure out a number that you can both agree on. Or if you're working with a music publisher or music library then they will already have a preset pricing scheme. These three examples will give you a good idea of what I mean by the value of a piece of music:

picture of some semi-professional at the mixing board

This hit of mine has sold over 100,000 singles alone. It's obviously worth more than the other songs I have written. Since it's so popular, I should sell licenses for more than the rest of my songs.


picture of John Williams

This Star Wars theme that I wrote is iconic. I can't go around licensing it just anybody. Nor can I license the music for anything less than a premium price. This piece is worth much more than that.


picture of a ametur guitar player

Man I totalloy wrote this awesolm song for my girlfriend. We broke up tho so maybe I can sell it and start making some money :P


In that last instance, the music probably isn't going to be worth very much. If the musician is relatively unknown, he or she may want to negotiate for a small amount (or nothing at all) just to get the exposure. This is a really important part of music licensing and most beginning songwriters will only want to sign that magical million-dollar contract. For an unknown, this can be a big mistake. Any seasoned composer or songwriter can tell you, exposure can be as good as money. Exposure can open doors to even more opportunities for bigger and more lucrative contracts.

A Music License is Protection and Permission

Overall, music licensing isn't as big a deal as you might initally think. Music Licensing is simply creating a shared agreement between you and the musician which takes some or all of the permission and protection points into account.

Here's a scenario where the music license is important:

Imagine if your music was licensed to be used as a "books on tape" and the author paid you $300 to use it. Sounds fantastic! Expecting the tape to sell 10,000 copies you suddenly find that the tape blew up and has sold over 68 million copies. Unfortunately for you, the license agreement didn't take this into account. There wasn't any royalty stipulation in your license and you didn't get more than your $300 bucks.

These types of situations are why license agreements are made. If you're the songwriter, then you probably can't help but feel like the license failed you. On the other hand, if you're the books-on-tape author, then negotiating for that license was a wise decision! When you're thinking about putting an agreement together, these are the types of points that you'll want to be thinking about.

It's just simply the logical stuff. Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all agreement. Depending on how it's used, each agreement be talor-made between you and the composer/songwriter. Creating a license should be based on how the music will be used. In that example, the songwriter didn't have the foresight to consider how the music would be used, and for him, it was a bad license.

Sometimes this can't be done, however. If you're working with a music library, then they prenegotiate the terms with their composer(s) and provide an outlet to sell licenses of their works. If you are looking for music, then it's best for you to find a music library or publisher that will give you more freedoms with their license, but I'll get more into that later.

So this is the groundwork and foundation of music licensing. Essentially it's a practice in protecting the musician and his work. On the ground-floor, a music license will outline how the music will be used and what types of fees will be allowed. From that, the agreement will begin to crunch dollar numbers based on the worth of the music, and the notoriety of its author.

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