What Is Music Licensing?

April 27, 2020

Within a synchronisation context, music licensing is:

“The process of obtaining permission from the rights holders of a particular copyright, in order to legally ‘sync’ that copyright with a piece of visual media (e.g. a film, advert, video game etc).”

The music licensing process

Music is essential to most films, video games, and advertising campaigns of today. Seeing music work perfectly to picture is one of the most satisfying feelings. However, in order to legally ‘sync’ a piece of music to visual media, a specific music licensing process must be followed beforehand.

There are often multiple rights holders who lay claim to any particular copyright. Imagine the song is split in two. Music publishers control the composition, melody, and lyrics (i.e. the sheet music) on behalf of the songwriters. Record labels control recordings of the composition on behalf of the recording artist(s). A single composition can have multiple master recordings (live version, cover), potentially controlled by different labels, so be clear with which recording you want to use.

Sync licences are required from each interested party, with copyrights often having multiple publishers – and yes, you need a licence from each! Sometimes, recordings will be split between two or more record labels, but this is rare. An example of this would be Masego’s ‘Girls That Dance’, which we recently cleared for Diversity’s 20DV project.

Sync fees

A sync fee will then be negotiated with the various rights holders depending on the terms of the usage. This includes the size of the copyright, the length of the music required, the number of geographical territories required on the licence, and the types of media required (i.e. cinema, TV, online etc).

Often the record label will match the fee given by the publisher(s). This is known as Most Favoured Nations (MFN), which is a term that’s used commercially to ensure all Rights Holders are paid proportionately to their percentage ownership, based on the highest quote. From our experience, MFN is pretty standard practice in clearing music for advertising. In some instances, however, the record label may be willing to quote lower than the publishing. For example, if you’re looking to clear a pre-existing cover or re-record of an already famous copyright, or if the songwriter(s) is not the recording artist.

Things to remember about music licensing

Once the fee’s been agreed, the sync licences will be issued and you’re all good to go! There are a few important things to remember throughout the whole process, however:

1). Commercial music is value highly by Rights Holders. Expect to pay significant fees, especially in advertising.

2). Don’t just assume you can use the track you want. In general, most sync deals are at the artists’/songwriters’ discretion and they will have the final say over any potential deal. If a publisher refuses use of the composition, you will have to use another copyright or consider commissioning a bespoke track. If you want to use a particular master sound recording but the the record label refuses permission, you can commission your own re-record, providing the publisher approves, or look at using a pre-existing cover/re-record.

Need help with your music licensing?

soundlounge has been licensing music for advertising for almost 40 years. We are music licensing experts, having worked with over 700 clients and negotiated over 5000 licences. If you’re working on a project and need any music-related help, you can contact us at james@soundllounge.co.uk and thomas@soundlounge.co.uk. We’ll be happy to assist you! soundlounge also offers several other sync and sonic branding related services. You can find out more about those here.

Creative Research & Licensing