Synch Licensing Basics
“It’s selling out!” “It’s the savior of the music business!” “Some dickhead put my favorite song on a commercial!” “I’M CONFUSED!!!” Welcome to synch licensing!
“Synch licensing” is the music industry term to describe the practice of paying an artist to use their song in connection with visual media (think ads, movies, TV shows). A piece of music is put on the film and is “synchronized” to picture. The “license” is the agreement outlining exactly how the song is allowed to be used. Some of the most common synch licenses are for films, TV shows, ads, trailers and web content. No one is allowed to use music in connection with any visual media unless they have permission, 99% of the time in the form of a synch license, to do so.
A piece of music, as a normal person knows it, is broken into two separate parts when it comes to ownership rights: There are the rights to the composition (sometimes called the “publishing” or just “the song”) and the rights to the master recording.
An easy way to think about the composition and the master is to pull up “Satisfaction” by Jagger and Richards in your mind. Think of the melody of the riff and those lyrics you know so well. Hum it to yourself. That’s the essence of the composition—the words and music.
A master recording is the particular recorded version of that composition. The definitive 1965 fuzz box version that we’ve all heard a million times? That’s one master. The 1977 live version from Love You Live? That’s a separate master recording of the same composition. What about Otis Redding’s version? Another master of the same composition. Don’t forget Cat Power’s version! Make sense?
So, when someone wants to license your music they have to license both the composition and the master recording from you or whomever you’ve assigned those rights to. In most cases, the master and the composition get the same fee.
“Easy,” you think. No problem. My band wrote this song. We’re going to license it. Well, not so fast. Did you all agree as a band as to who technically “wrote” it? Did a label put out your record? Do they own the master recording? A portion of it? If you have a publisher, they definitely own a piece. Are there any samples in it? All of these things can affect what portion of the master and composition you or your bandmates control the rights to.
“Am I going to get rich from a synch license?” No. As a general rule, how well-known a song or artist is will be the biggest factor in determining how much they can charge for a synch license. Even the big fees aren’t that big to the successful artists that command them. Nonetheless, the money can be significant and meaningful if you are getting even small synchs on a semi-regular basis.
“What kind of placement will pay the most?” In general, from highest fees to lowest fees it would go: ads and movie trailers at the top, followed by movies, TV shows and then web content.
A common query I get is, “How much should I charge for my music?” That’s a tough question because that is always open to negotiation. How long do they want to use it for? Where do they want to use it? Do they want to pay you for exclusivity so know one else can use it? All these factors affect the price. Most projects have a pretty finite budget for how much they can spend on music, so knowing their budget can help you at least know the ballpark you’re playing in.
“Cool. I’m in. How do I get someone to license my music?” This is the toughest part. Of course if you have a song that is getting some recognition, people will find you. Barring that, you have to figure out how to get on the radar of the people doing the music licensing more proactively.
Music supervisors are the people that companies making movies, ads and tv shows hire to find them music. If you have a record label or publisher, they likely have a synch department that pitches music to music supervisors like myself. There are also independent companies that work with smaller unsigned artists to pitch their music to music supervisors. All the things you used to do to sell records can also get on a music supervisor’s radar, too. Supervisors are a pretty savvy bunch and notice when a new band is getting buzz. Make sure that they can Google you and find a quick-responding contact when they do.
Synch licensing isn’t going to save music, but it is one of the few areas that is paying artists right now. Make sure your business is in order in case anyone comes knocking for a track. If you have a label or publisher, talk with them about their plans for synch. If you’re rolling full indie, find tracks that are synch ringers and start making your way to folks like me.
By Gabe McDonough, distributed under a Creative Commons CC-BY license.
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