Music Licensing for Filmmakers

The perfect song can transform a scene from good to great— it can connect an audience to the story, the experience or the moment like nothing else. That’s why filmmakers eagerly dedicate time and money as they select music and thoughtfully place it throughout their film.  But how do they get the music and accompanying rights in the first place?

Read this article to learn how to acquire music for your film and why music licensing is a complex, expensive process. We’ve organized the article by the basic three options for filmmakers: use a pre-existing song by licensing the music, hire a composer to write an original score for your film, or purchase music through a stock site. The route you choose will depend on your music budget and music needs.


Licensing Basics

If you want to reuse another person’s work such as a song, an invention, or artwork you need permission to do so.  A license is simply the written permission to reuse the work; a broad license permits the licensee (the person who seeks the license) to use the work in several different ways with few limitations, whereas a narrow license only allows the licensee to use the work in a very specific way.

Licensing is particularly complex and time consuming when it comes to music because copyright law protects all aspects of a song. A “song” consists of two components the musical composition (written lyrics + musical notes) and the sound recording (the recording artist or band’s specific recorded track of the song). Depending on your situation, you most likely need to get permission from both copyright owners to use the song. In music licensing lingo, this means you need a sync license from the copyright holders of the musical composition and a master use license from the copyright holders of the sound recording. For each license, you must:

  1. Locate the copyright owners/holders
  2. Negotiate the deal, and
  3. Prepare the license
1. Locate Rights Holder

Typically, the songwriter, music publisher, or a combination of both own the copyright in the musical composition, whereas the recording artist or record label owns the copyright in the sound recording. Since music is often a collaborative process, several composers and artists may “own” any copyrighted song. Thus, merely locating the owners can itself be daunting.

2. Negotiate the Deal

Before you can negotiate, you must determine what you need the music for. The deal you seek will depend on the frequency, duration and use of the song—will it be used as background music, performed in the movie by one of the characters, play as the central point of a scene, or used in the opening and closing credits?

3. Prepare the license

Once you’ve negotiated the deal with the copyright owners, you will need to translate the deal into the written license. If you do decide to continue with the music licensing journey, we are happy to help you prepare the synchronization and master use licenses.

Enforcement: Consequences of Using a Song without Permission

Don’t do it… just don’t. By using a song without the proper license, you put yourself at risk in multiple ways. First off, you’ll likely get sued. With today’s music technology, copyright owners often hire people full time to monitor the use of their songs. As soon as your film is distributed or available anywhere on the internet, copyright owners can easily detect unpermitted use of their songs through software. You get the picture; this can end ugly.

In addition to your liability for copyright infringement, using a song without a license will deter potential distributors, who will look at this as an unknown expense tied to your film.


Since music licensing is so cost-prohibitive, we recommend filmmakers hire a composer to write an original score for the film. Many independent filmmakers choose this route, given the hassle and expense of clearing pre-existing music. Music can play a big role in a film, and hiring the right composer can enhance and compliment what your audience is watching, more so than a pre-existing song not designed specifically for your scene or your audience.


Another great alternative is purchasing music through stock sites such as Musicbed, Audio Jungle, or Audio Network. With these sites, you’ll want to be clear on what license your purchasing, and any limitations it provides for the use of the song.

By: Jenna Macek – 11/30/16

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