Toga CatI want to get this out of the way first. Music clearance is a fluid process, highly dependent on negotiation and relationships. Very little of what I am about to tell you is true 100% of the time.

That said, I’ve worked on a wide range of projects and often come across misconceptions that are 95% false and detrimental to the creative process. A few come up so frequently that I’m convinced there is someone going around to film schools and production companies actively spreading the same incorrect information.

As a filmmaker, an educated approach to music clearance will produce results beyond ensuring you don’t inadvertently cripple your film with an improperly cleared song (which is of course very important). Demonstrating patience and understanding of the process will also give you a greater chance of obtaining your “dream” soundtrack…both in current and future projects.

1. Music is cheap (or free). I’ve worked on more than one film where a director has believed a few hundred dollars will get them any song, any artist they want.

Think of a song like your movie. The passion, excitement and attachment that you feel towards your film or web series is the same as what artists and songwriters feel toward their songs. You spent more than just a couple hundred bucks to make the film, and similarly it takes more than just a couple hundred bucks to write, rehearse, record and produce one song. Money, time, personnel. Why would you expect a song to be free? While there are no set rates for songs (see more on this below), a bargain basement, production music library, background muzak cue for an indie or short film will likely be in the realm of $500.

Sure, there are some free music websites out there, but then you have to ask yourself if you are willing to compromise on quality, and open the door to the possibility of someone coming out of the woodwork down the line claiming ownership. If you must use one of these websites at least try to vet it to ensure there is no funny business behind the scenes.

With that in mind, if quality music is important to your project, plan ahead. It’s been said that 2% – 4% of the total film budget is a good place to start for your music budget. If music is important to your creative vision, you are attached to certain (big) songs, or you envision there being many song spots (don’t forget about those restaurants, elevators, waiting rooms and other places where music may play in the background) skew on the higher side, at least 5% of the total budget.

There are of course other factors, namely rights, that affect price as well. Asking for film festival only rights will bring song costs down, but may hurt you in the long run when seeking a distribution deal. In that scenario it is possible to get an idea of potential “back end” costs by requesting “options” for more rights, to be exercised only if needed. Should you clear songs for limited rights only, then obtain distribution (woo!) while still working with the same meager budget (yikes!), it may be worth pursuing step deals. Article to come on evaluating which rights structure may be best for you.

2. Exposure is as valuable as money. For some bands trying to build a following, maybe exposure will be enough to get them on board. For a major label or publisher, it is their job to make money for their artists and songwriters, and it’s bad business to give merchandise away for free.

Regardless of what entity you are dealing with, it is not the filmmaker’s prerogative to decide what artists or songs should be happy with exposure, and who deserves money. Exposure will not put food on the table, or pay the rent, or contribute to the bottom line of a company that needs money to function. Just because a song hasn’t been used in film or television in a long time, does not mean a company or artist will not (or should not) care about making money on it.

The unfortunate truth is that most indie features and short films do not secure distribution deals, and only reach a very limited audience. Yours may be one of the exceptions, but the odds are working against you.

3. Every song has a set price. There is no master rate card for songs. Even companies with their own “set rates” for different types of media have been known to be flexible based on who is asking (I won’t say who you are, only that I am VERY VERY APPRECIATIVE).

Many different factors affect what a song will cost.  Here are just a few:

  • Type of media (is it a studio feature film, indie film, documentary feature, short, cable television, network television, scripted television, unscripted television, web series…)
  • Overall project budget and music budget
  • What rights you want (all media, all media excluding theatrical, television only, home video, web only, film festival only…)
  • Type of usage (is it a cue in the background of a diner or a featured montage?  Is someone performing it on camera)
  • Timing of usage (is it a 5 second use, or two minutes?)
  • Territory (United States and Canada only, Worldwide, etc.)
  • Term (One year? Two years? In Perpetuity?)
  • What are other songs in the project being paid? Is everyone getting paid the same?
  • Are you willing to pay more at a later date if the project becomes financially successful?

4. Every song has one price. See my previous post on the David Letterman video for more about the definitions of master recordings and publishing.

Both the master recording owner and the publisher will quote fees for using the song, and they are not always the same number. And while there is typically only one master owner (the label) there can be any number of publishers, and they can all quote different prices. This is where negotiations come in.

Let’s say you have asked your music supervisor to look into the cost of using a song. In addition to understanding the difference between the master recording and publishing, here are some important glossary words to know:

“A side” as in “The song will likely cost $30K a side”
This means either the master owner, publisher or both estimate $30K for their portions. The full cost estimate for the song would be $60K.

“All in” as in “The song will likely cost $60K all in”
This is an estimate for the total cost of the song – master and publishing. 

If a music supervisor gives you a number without specifying, you should probably confirm whether he/she means “a side” or “all in”. They will be impressed and grateful.

5. The bigger the song or artist, the more expensive. This is often true. If an artist or song is in high demand at the moment expect higher prices. That said, if you are interested using a song by an iconic artist or someone currently on the Billboard charts, it will likely not be cheap at any time.

When it comes to the vast sea of artists below that level, however, it can get fuzzy. The company pitching the song plays a large role – major labels and publishers often have bottom lines and a lot of overhead, therefore aren’t as flexible as a smaller, more nimble, indie company. Certain mid-level pitchers and publishers have reputations for being expensive and/or difficult regardless of a song’s popularity. As I’ve mentioned, cost is not determined by your perceived value (or popularity) of a song – it’s how much the label, writer or artist thinks their music is worth.

6. All music supervisors have prices for every song on file somewhere. Admittedly this could be partly true. More experienced music supervisors have cleared more songs, so there is a greater chance they have been asked to research the song(s) you want in the past. Personally, whenever I do a search with a specific budget I keep track of the information in my music library for future reference. That way, if I’m asked to clear a particular song at a later time, or for another project, I have a general idea of what the fee may be, or at the very least whether the song is clearable (or to proceed with caution).

 That said, it’s rare, if ever, that all of the factors that go into determining the cost of the song (as detailed above) are replicated across different projects. Respectively, we can’t just tell you what the cheapest song by a certain artist is, or the cheapest cover of a popular song, without calling and requesting quotes from licensors of every song.

While this may seem counterproductive, it this practice is actually in your best interest, as every situation is different. Your dream song (or cover song) may be actually cheaper for your project than another. It’s always worth the ask.

7. I will be able to use any song I want. Having a great deal of money to spend makes this almost plausible, but see my post 3 Reasons You Can’t Use That Song for an explanation of what other factors may get in the way.

8. If I’m not making any money from this project, I don’t need to clear the music…so I can use whatever I want. If you plan on showing the film (or television show, or web series) on any kind of public viewing platform, giving away DVD copies, or offering free downloads (regardless of whether or not the end user is paying), you need to clear the music.

That said, there are rare exceptions to this rule, such as fair use, which I will not go into here. The only advice I will give on the subject of getting around paying for music is that you should definitely consult a lawyer who is an expert on the subject.

9. I’m only using a few seconds of a song, so I don’t need to clear it. Nope. The moment a song can be identified as an existing song it needs to be cleared. This also applies if the audio alone may be unidentifiable, but the dialogue references (identifies, if you will) the tune.

Similarly I am often asked about quoting song lyrics. You do not have to clear a song if the title alone is included in dialogue (e.g. “Oh man, my favorite song is ‘Hit Me With Your Best Shot’ by Pat Benatar”) however quoting lyrics is trickier terrain to navigate. There are differing opinions on this even in within the music supervision and licensing community.

To be totally 100% safe, it is advisable to clear all spoken lyrics the same way you would any song (though since there is no recording being used, only the publishing needs to be cleared).

That said, if one or two lines of a song are spoken with a cadence that does not at all resemble the song melody, it may not need to be cleared. Judge yourself harshly on the cadence, and tread especially carefully if it is an iconic lyric, song or artist (for well known artists or songs, I would pursue clearance).

Reciting the entire song (or even a full verse) in it’s entirety would definitely require clearance. If you have a legal department or lawyer at your disposal, this is a scenario for which to seek their counsel.

Whether spoken lyrics or full audio, the more of a song used, the more expensive it will be. However, there are no set rates for different timings.

10. I should only clear songs I plan on using. Clear a song the moment you think you might seriously want to use it, especially if you are shooting or cutting a scene to fit. Do not wait until you are almost done with Post Production and a week away from important festival deadlines. 

Sometimes we music supervisors are asked to clear songs months before they are finalized, just to learn or confirm the actual cost. Often licensors won’t begin their approvals process until they receive a quote request form (more on those below), and it is in that process where complications frequently reveal themselves. The only way you will know if it is even possible to use a song is by obtaining a quote based on the many factors described above.

To wait until the end before completing the quote request paperwork leaves you open to potential snags at the worst possible time. The last thing you want is to find out about an extra major writer and publisher when you are hours from final playback.

11. Clearing a song won’t take more than a day (or even a few hours). Licensors (especially those at major labels and publishers) are bombarded with requests daily, and as mentioned, they have their own set of checkpoints to pass your paperwork through before they can let you know whether or not a song can be used.

Sometimes artists or their management are part of this process, in which case you are at the mercy of their schedules and priorities as well.

Add the fact that frequently there is more than one owner of a song. You could be waiting for word from one licensor – or eight.

And if you’re hoping they will approve a lot of rights (all media including theatrical, worldwide, in perpetuity) for very low money? Patience will be your best ally. You’re not only fighting for attention among other people clamoring to clear their songs, but likely those offering double, triple or quadruple (or more) money. Pushing for a fast answer could get you nothing but a swift “no thanks”.

Conversely, if you do only have a very small amount of money to offer, limiting the rights (essentially asking for less) can result in a quicker response.

12.  I have an email from the lead singer saying I can use their song for free, so I’m good to go. To again revisit the lessons learned from David Letterman, more often than not the band members rocking out on stage do not solely own their own music. In order for a song to be considered cleared, you need to gain approval for the use from 100% of the master recording and 100% of the publishing rights-holders. Those companies are in the business of making money for their clients so they can in turn make money; it’s not uncommon for an artist to agree to a gratis (“free”) use and their administrator block it from happening.

Truth be told, it is not totally futile to try and circumvent the Powers That Be by going direct to the artist if you have a personal connection. Be careful asking a music supervisor to do this, however, if they have relationships with the people pitching. It’s possible a music supervisor will know the artist or manager as well as label and publisher, but he or she will need to tread carefully so as not to be perceived as going behind anyone’s back. Before resorting to any “sneaky” tactics, ask your music supervisor if they wouldn’t mind working with their contacts to get the artist link to view the film, set up a private screening for them, or even pass along a personal letter from the director to try and seal the deal.

What you would ultimately need your musician friend to do is go to their label and publisher and make a case for your project. Similarly, sometimes songs are written by only one member of a band, or by people not even in the band. In that case you would need to get the songwriter(s) on board to convince the publisher(s) they should cut you a deal.

From there, you (or your music supervisor) would send quote request forms to all licensors detailing the information specified above (scene description, timing, type of use, media rights, territory, term, etc.) either including the requested fee or allowing the licensor to write in a number. Remember, an accurate quote can only be provided once all key information has been received. If a licensor throws out a number before you let them know the requested rights, you may be getting overcharged (or even undercharged).

Only once you receive all necessary approvals back from the licensors is a song cleared for use. These approvals can either be signed quote request forms (ideal), or via email. It is a good practice to always get everything in writing.

 That is of course a very reductive overview of music clearance, but should hopefully get the following point across: there is more to the process than an email saying, “Can I pay you X amount to use your song in my movie?”

  • That’s a great article Amanda, not many people understand how complex (and potentially unsafe for your production) it can get with using not properly cleared music. Especially these days, when everyone is on the lookout for the “copyright free” music, which makes me cringe every time I hear that. What’s you take on legitimate royalty-free music, though? Do you think the big companies are still reluctant to license from small indie music producers? I’ve had good experience with licensing my music to small to mid-size businesses, mostly for video marketing use, but the big ones are still elusive.. Cheers!

  • sydney

    Thanx for a great article. What if the music is, for instance, something like Rossini’s “The Thieving Magpie” which would be used as the background score for an entire short? Would one need to clear rights to the music itself, or just for a particular recording of the song, say the version played in “Clockwork Orange”?

  • Great article, Amanda! Great insight into the music supervision process- thanks for writing this!

  • “it is not the filmmaker’s prerogative to decide what artists or songs should be happy with exposure, and who deserves money. Exposure will not put food on the table, or pay the rent, or contribute to the bottom line of a company that needs money to function.”

    LOVE THIS. Thank you for always being an advocate for the artists and educating us all on this crazy business.