Licensing Music for Film

When selecting music for a film, it's extremely important that you secure a license beforehand. If not, you leave yourself open to a lawsuit from the record label, music publisher, or whoever else owns the rights. It also sets a bad precedent in your relationship with the music industry, as you'll probably need to acquire other song rights in the future. When it comes to music licensing, going by-the-book is the only way to get that perfect ballad for the most powerful scene in your movie. Below, we've outlined the basics of music licensing, including typical fees and how to organize your application. 


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What are the Main License Types? 
Synchronization License: Also known as a "sync", this license allows a filmmaker to use a piece of music in conjunction with a video. To gain this license, you'll need to contact the copyright holder. Unless it's a self-released song, the owner will probably be the music publisher. The two main publishers are ASCAP and BMI, but you can learn who owns and manages the copyright by visiting www.ASCAP.com/ace. 

Master Use License: While the sync license gives you the right to pair a particular song with a visual, it doesn't allow you to re-record, sample, or repurpose that song. This is where a Master Use License comes in. In most cases, you'll need to contact the record label associated with the song.  

How Much are Licensing Fees?
Although licensing fees can vary wildly from case to case, there are a few factors that influence the final cost. First, you need to determine how prominent the music will be in your film, including the song length and number of times it will play. It also makes a difference whether you plan on releasing the film on DVD, online streaming, or TV syndication. This is known as a "step deal", and negotiating all of those rights at the same time can often save you money, rather than handling them separately. Using the song on a CD soundtrack will require its own license as well, so keep that in mind.  

Even knowing those details beforehand, all fees can be negotiated, so there is no hard-and-fast rule for labels and publishers to charge a certain amount. This is particularly true if you're producing an independent or educational film, and if you only plan to screen your movie at festivals, it will only cost about $1000 for that license. 

How Should I Apply?
First, you should provide all relevant details about your film project to the record label/publisher. This can include a basic synopsis, the total production budget, and exactly how you plan on utilizing the song. The last piece is particularly important, as the copyright owner will want to know how the song matches the visuals. Is it in the opening or closing credits, or at a pivotal moment in the storyline? Does it only play once, or is it a recurring theme that emphasizes certain plot points? The more information you provide about the intended song usage, the more likely they will accept the request.

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