How to Sync License Your Music for Film, TV and Beyond

The ever-increasing number of new video productions means greater opportunity to sync license your music for film and television.

You’re a new artist. You’ve produced music you think people want to hear – so you’re probably looking to tap into every opportunity to make that happen. One of the most underappreciated avenues for the monetization of music for emerging artists is music licensing.

 If you place one song in an advertisement, you can make as much money as you would after 1,000,000 streams on Spotify. 

Which seems more obtainable? For every song that’s licensed, you get money upfront and royalties every time your track is played in public.

Simply put, music licensing or sync (synchronization) licensing is an agreement between a music user and the owner of a copyrighted song that grants permission to use the song in some manner of video format. If you’re reading this, you want to know how to make this happen. How do you go about placing your music in a television show, movie, video game or even perhaps a YouTube video?

How do TV shows, movies and video games find and select music?

A music supervisor artfully selects and licenses pre-existing songs and recordings for use in movies, TV shows and video games. Though it seems like their job merely requires an expansive knowledge and love of music, they must also negotiate and clear rights with licensing representatives and licensing libraries. It’s not just about having exquisite taste and a feel for the juxtaposition of sound and image – a music supervisor resolves rights and pieces together ownership puzzles.

Their music discovery process likely mirrors your own. They surf Spotify, curate playlists, collect recommendations through friends and social media, and actively scout new talent. It’s a demanding job, which is why you want to make licensing your music as straightforward as possible. In order to obtain the rights to a perfect song from a commoditized artist the music supervisor would jump through as many hoops as necessary; an unknown artist, however, must make their work instantly accessible and available without obstacles. 

How to submit for music licensing as an unsigned artist

There are a few different opportunities for an emerging artist to sync license their work. Ideally, you’re going to simultaneously seed a few of these, but it’s important to understand the benefits of each so that you’re maximizing the return on your efforts.

You’ll want to limit the number of non-exclusive partners. Some libraries offer content at lower rates and you don’t want to create an environment where you’re undercutting your own price. Look for different types of licensing partners to cover as many potential revenue streams without much overlap. Find a catalog that specializes in licenses for TV, another that administers micro-licenses (like MusicBed) for YouTube and web-videos, and another traditional partner for film, TV and advertisements. Now, let’s examine your options.

  1. Music Publishers such as BMI and Kobalt require you to sign a publishing deal. While they will provide a cash advance and remain proactive in pitching your work and finding licensing opportunities, they’ll also demand co-ownership of publishing rights, which perpetually entitles them to a share of your licensing royalties.
  1. Sync Agents seek, pitch and negotiate licensing deals on your behalf, usually for a percentage of royalties.  
  1. Licensing Libraries are companies that represent a large catalog of music for the purpose of selling their clients’ music to music supervisors. In the most basic sense, they resemble a business-to-business version of Spotify. Music supervisors search the database and request music they need. Artist agreements with these libraries come in different flavors, and it’s important to understand how these companies handle your work.

i.     Exclusive: Only one music library is allowed to represent your content. This is a restrictive agreement that limits the number of companies shopping your work, but one that typically results in higher sync fees.

ii.     Non-exclusive: You’re allowed to place your content with as many companies as you want. These are larger databases in which its often harder to stand out, but if you don’t like how an arrangement is working out, move on to the next opportunity.

Sync licensing libraries make money by retaining a percentage of upfront licensing fees from placement or a percentage of licensing fees and a percentage of public performance royalties stemming from the licensing of your material. Fees are usually based on a flat rate with no negotiation.

Some examples of popular licensing libraries are SongTradr, Jamendo Music, Marmoset, Artlist, Pump Audio, Rumblefish and Taxi. Each company has their advantages and disadvantages. Research artist satisfaction, website traffic, composer/library financial split, and the library’s re-titling practices (which tend to affect your royalties) before taking the plunge.

Licensing libraries are an efficient online marketplace connecting the music rights owner and the music buyer. The music is pre-cleared and easily licensed, eliminating those aforementioned hurdles that might deter a music supervisor.

  1. Direct Relationships. This is a method for licensing your music directly to music supervisors and other potential licensees such as ad agencies. It is an ideal way to avoid splitting royalties or ownership with a ‘middleman’ because you would be acting as your own agent dealing directly with the buyer. However, it takes time and patience to build these relationships and it requires some experience (or legal assistance) to negotiate such licensing deals. Nonetheless, as you build a catalog of music and test the waters with licensing libraries, you should still continue to build this network of contacts.

i. Music Supervisors

SongwriterUniverse and TuneFind are useful resources for locating supervisors and identifying their needs. Each submission must be personalized and tailored to the individual. First impressions are everything. Make sure your visible media profiles such as LinkedIn and your personal website are up-to-date and highly polished. Only send supervisors links to quality streams, never attachments.

ii. Ad Agencies

To build the necessary networking, attend trade shows and conferences such as Ad Week. Ask questions at panels. Network at meet-and-greets. Receive as many business cards as possible and leave a brief but memorable impression. Do not hand out CDs like candy at Halloween. 

How to prepare your music for licensing

Most productions aren’t looking for the next hit single. Supervisors search for a specific kind of music based on the nature of their medium. Film and TV supervisors require a different kind of music than someone searching for a choice commercial clip. For film and TV there’s a broad range of moods and emotions, whereas commercials, with a maximum allotment of 15-30 seconds, require a hook and immediate energy.

Here’s how to ready your music for licensing opportunities.

1.     Submit music without lyrics or music featuring broad lyrics without mention of a specific time or place.

2.     If you’re using a pre-existing song, provide an original version, an instrumental version and stems for the tracks. Producers might love your song but need it to shine behind spoken dialogue.

3.     Instrumental versions of older material are best suited for a license library. Value your music appropriately and craft a licensing strategy that reflects that value.

4.     Create more music! Successful artists suggest uploading upwards of 80 songs/120 instrumental cues per year.

5.     Write new songs to fit themes you’d expect to find in a production. Create theme lists and tag each with emotions you hope to evoke. For example, you could focus on a “Romance” theme, crafting music to fit the various stages of a relationship like “new love” or “broken heart.”

Once you have your music written and professionally recorded, you’ll need to nail down the details. This means getting your metadata and credits in order. Detail who wrote the song, any album artwork, the year it was recorded, publishers and companies attached, who owns the master, and most importantly your contact info. Put all this into the grouping notes, if necessary. Sync licensing databases are gigantic and without all that information at a supervisor’s fingertips, they’ll just ignore your music because it’s not worth the hassle.

Another avenue into this business is scoring directly for film, TV, and video games. When creating instrumentals for moods and emotions, you’re essentially scoring a movie that doesn’t yet exist. Once your music is out there and you’ve built a network of connections (filmmakers, producers, etc.) you never know how those connections could pay off. You could become the next John Williams (who didn’t even score Star Wars until he was 45!).

The Role of Publishing Administrators

A publishing administrator helps artists navigate the music marketplace, but in some instances they can also assist in licensing your music. A publishing administrator is not the same as a publishing company. They do not actively pitch your music or own a percentage of your fees/royalties. This is an important distinction. Having a publishing administrator can be an advantage, but it’s not necessary for opening up a revenue stream through licensing opportunities. Likewise, aggregators/distributors like CDBaby also offer sync-licensing services. If you’re already using a publisher, you should see what other services they offer.

Like every other aspect of your music career, preparation and persistence are the most important factors in breaking into the business of music licensing. Audiences are inundated with new content from every possible angle. New streaming services. Film. TV. New YouTube channels. Independent movie production. It’s up to you to take advantage of this deluge of opportunity.