Music Licensing: A Musician’s Guide to Syncs and Placements
Digital music distribution has altered the way artists get paid. And smart music promotion, gigging and distribution are only part of being successful.
Music licensing and publishing are huge opportunities. Here’s what you need to know.
No one buys albums any more. The traditional revenue channels of yesterday (like physical album sales) are no longer the most successful channels for artists looking to get paid for their music.
But the recording industry is still a billion dollar business. So where is all that money going?
Well, if you’re wondering the same thing then two simple words should be burned into your brain forever.
Especially if your looking to make a living from your music today and tomorrow:
Seems simple right? Hang on.
Licensing and publishing are complex parts of the music industry with more than a few twists, curves and dips. You might be wondering what music licensing and publishing even are…
So here’s everything you need to know about music publishing and licensing—the two most important concepts for working artists right now.
What is music publishing?
Music publishing is the management of copyrighted music that gets used commercially. A publisher is responsible for things like the collection of royalties, the public use of music made by the artists they represent and finding licensing opportunities.
Some artists take care of publishing on their own. It’s doable in certain circumstances but it’s basically a full-time job to make it really work.
Publishing companies have a huge amount of resources to get artists paid for the use of their music—resources that independent musicians wouldn’t normally have access to.
The upside of representing your own music for publishing is that you retain 100% of the revenue your music generates through royalties, placements and syncs.
The downside is that artists typically don’t have access to the same network and resources that a publishing house would so it’s a lot more work to manage.
Artists that can’t take care of their own publishing typically sign a publishing agreement with a publisher.The terms of the agreement determine what percentage of the revenue the publisher takes in exchange for their services
What is Music Licensing?
Music licensing is the commercial use of copyrighted music through an agreement called a music license. Music licensing agreements guarantee that a song’s copyright holders are paid for the use of their music in media like:
Movies and Films
Online Video Ads
That means an artist somewhere is getting paid (a lot) for that car commercial they play way too much on TV.
Music licenses and fee splits are typically arranged between artists and publishers through publishing contracts.
But like I said before, many artists represent themselves for publishing in order to retain 100% of the licensing fees. In fact, artists and bands often form their own publishing companies to represent their own music.
However, getting your music placed can be a lot more difficult without the help of a publisher and their resources.
If a license is arranged through a publisher, the revenue from the placement is shared between the artist and the publisher based on the terms of the sync agreement so that everyone at the table gets a piece of the pie.
The Biggest Clause
Signing any contract that concerns your music is a huge deal (literally). Publishing agreements are no different. The key things to remember when signing a publishing deal are:
Read Everything! Especially the Fine Print.
There’s plenty of horror stories out there about bad record deals. Guess what? Most of them have to do with publishing and the collection of royalties. So knowing EXACTLY what you’re getting into is crucial early on. Depending on what kind of publishing deal you sign, it can often define what happens with your music years down the road.
Get a Lawyer
Obviously it’s super important to know the details of the contract you’re getting into. But hiring a lawyer to go over it and explain it to you in a language that makes sense is really important. Being offered a publishing deal, advances and placements can seem like the ultimate accomplishment. And it is. But don’t let the excitement blind your judgement and sign something stinky. Get a second opinion and go from there. negotiate the terms and find something that fits for you. Remember, it’s your music. So protect it!
Find the Agreement That Suits Your Project
There are quite a few different types of publishing agreements. That means everything from individual song agreements to foreign sub-publishing. Finding the right one for your project means knowing what all of them are. This article does a great job of breaking down some of the more common types of publishing agreements. ASCAP also provides a ton of useful information about publishing as well.
Think Long Term
Getting a $20,000 advance might seem like an incredible deal in the short-term. But if you’re signing away 80, 90 or even 100% of your publishing rights to a publisher, they can turn around, put your music in a Hollywood blockbuster for a $100,000 placement fee, and you don’t make a single cent. Plus, if the deal is binding over a long period of time you lose the publishing rights of your work for the entire term of the contract. Be wary of long-term contracts with un-fair splits and exclusivity clauses! Think about who you want to be controlling your music 2, 5, or even 10 years from now.
Oppor-tune-ities: Placements and Syncs
Music is everywhere.
There’s never been more ‘content’ out there than right now. And guess what? Most of it needs music to back it up. The commercial use of music in other content is called a placement or synchronization (sync for short).
“Syncs are a huge opportunity! It’s a great way to make money now because a lot of other avenues like album sales and touring aren’t always reliable. Plus, you can reach new listeners; think of how many people Shazam a song featured on Grey’s Anatomy then go buy it on iTunes. It can actually lead to an entire career.”
– Jasamine White-Gluz from the band No Joy
There’s literally billions of opportunities. You name it and it probably needs music. And as content balloons, the need for music grows as well. And so do the music budgets…
Which is why syncs and placements have become a very legit revenue stream for musicians.
Think about it: you could wait around for all those $0.006-per-stream revenues to build up. Or you could get placed in something like a Skittles commercial and make north of $1000 overnight. Sounds good right?
So how does your music go from your hard drive to being placed? Great question.
The Place to be
When it comes to getting placed in something you’ll often hear the phrase “getting your foot in the door.”
It’s true. Getting your music licensed often means networking, meeting the right people and being persistent with selling your sound.
But if you don’t know how syncs work you’ll never even be able to FIND the door, let alone get your foot in it.
Syncs start with a music supervisor. They’re the final step between a song and a movie, TV show, or commercial.
Super Music Supervision
In the case of movies and TV shows, music supervisors work closely with the director to find music that suits the project. Each song in the project is called a cue.
Movies might have between 20 and 40 cues while a TV show might have around 10. But when you think about all the movies and shows out there, that a lot of music needed.
A rough draft of the final project is put together using the cues that the director thinks fits the mood of the scene. It’s the music supervisor‘s job to license the music the director has chosen.
Seems fairly straightforward right? However, the budgets for music are often too small to sync songs by major artists from major labels.
For example: If the rough draft of the movie, TV show, or advertisement has a Beyonce song in it and the budget for music is $5000, there is ABSOLUTELY no way there will be a Beyonce song in the final cut.
So it’s the music supervisor’s job to find music that captures the same mood of the Beyonce track without shelling out $1-bazillion bucks to license it.
Doing the Network
Music supervisors are typically tapped in to up and coming talent, new bands, and various music communities. They’ll ask around to their contacts at publishers, record labels and even musicians that they know in order to find the right track that fits the budget.
“I would say more often the sync opportunities we’ve had have come from fans of the band. For example, our music was featured in a Gucci runway show because one of the artistic collaborators was a fan and gave our albums to the creative director, who then decided to use a song in the show. I’d say more often than not, for us anyways, sync opportunities have happened organically.”
– Jasamine White-Gluz from the band No Joy
Having a publisher and record label can help when it comes to syncs. But being involved in your own local music community can help just as much.
Sometimes placing music by dealing directly with the artist is a lot easier for a music supervisor. Major labels and publishers can have a lot of red tape to get through. So going direct is often simpler for plugged in supervisors.
Most supervisors would also way rather give $5000 to a fledgling musician rather than paying a major label the $5000 for the publishing rights they acquired through a merger 20 years ago.
So try and stay connected with other artists working in your community and familiarize yourself with some of the mid-level publishing companies. There may even be music supervisors in your community as well. Don’t be shy when it comes to networking and getting to know your own community. Get involved!
Contacting music supervisors directly is also an option if you get their contact. But you put yourself in serious danger of scaring off a potential placement if you don’t approach them in the right way…
If you are contacting a music supervisor directly try to create a personal relationship with them. It will increase your chances of getting your music listened to and placed
Supervisors listen to pitches ALLL DAY LONG and get hundreds of submissions. So you need to stand out and keep it the point.
Familiarize yourself with a supervisor’s work and try to get a feel for what kind of music they’ve synced in the past. Most prominent supervisors have IMDb profiles. Do your homework about the types of projects they sync before you reach out.
If you’re emailing a submission your subject lines should include some brief keywords of what your song sounds like. Avoid sending entire albums or huge amount of MP3s. Most of the time a SoundCloud or Bandcamp link is fine for the first contact.
Try to pick a select few of your tracks that you think would be best for the kind of media they sync.
The Publisher Path
The other option is to approach publishers directly. You don’t actually need a record label to get involved with publishers.
In fact, arranging a publishing agreement with no record label can be better for artists in the long run. If there are less people at the table then there’s more to eat for everyone.
If you want to learn more about representing yourself for publishing, or more about licensing and publishing in general, Performing Rights Organizations like ASCAP and SOCAN are extremely helpful resources for figuring out licensing and publishing on your own. It’s a difficult subject so research is your best friend.
Many publishers accept open submissions. The Publisher’s bottom line is to fill cues and clear music. So anything that is well produced and placeable is an asset to them. The means they’re always on the lookout for new material.
Get to know the publishers
These companies are a great place to start for understanding publishing:
Bank Robber Music
Some of these companies accept submissions and some don’t. But all of them are good places to familiarize yourself with how publishers work.
Get to know their rosters and always read up on the submission guidelines before you submit anything.
And always put your best foot forward!
Submitting for Success
First impressions are everything. So if you’re just starting out with submitting or thinking of submitting to a publisher or music supervisor, you’re gonna have to come correct with your music.
Sound Quality and File Format
A solid stream of your music on SoundCloud or Bandcamp is a great first step. Some sources require MP3s for your first submission. If so, they need mastering and should be high quality 320 files.
If your song eventually gets placed it’s up to you to provide the actual file that will get used in the placement.
You NEED access to a ‘broadcast quality’ file. That means a high-quality WAV master. Access to the mix session is also an asset in certain circumstances, but not always required.
If you are hoping to sync music actively and are creating original music for placements, your workflow has to be fast and adaptable.
Try to keep your turn around times to a minimum. Speed and convenience are huge assets for supervisors.
Providing the right data about your track is vital for getting placements. It’s not as simple as throwing your artist name, track title, and a broad genre into an email.
As the composer, artist or producer it’s up to you to make your music searchable and successful when a music supervisor is looking for placeable audio.
Deryn Cullen’s excellent article on the importance of metadata mentions that composers must “think visual” when it comes to writing objective descriptions of their music:
Be patient. A sync might not come right away. But that might just mean the right cue hasn’t come along yet. If your data is searchable and clear, you’ll be findable when the right cue does come a long.
And the music supervisors will want to work with you more if they know you’re pro about your descriptions.
Don’t complain. Adapt.
As the music industry changes your strategy should be changing too. The conventional ways to get paid for your music aren’t what they used to be. That’s clear.
But that means that new opportunities are growing. Publishing is one of those opportunities—and a big one at that.
So educate yourself and work towards getting your music out there (and getting paid while you’re at it).
The future is friendly. But only if you’re smart with your music.
Special thanks to Jasamine White-Gluz from the band No Joy for helping with this article. Check No Joy out on Bandcamp.