Learn Music Licensing and How it Works

Step by Step Guide on How Music Licensing Works for Indie Artists

What is music licensing? How much does music licensing cost? Who does music license work for? How to license your music? Who benefits off of the music license? These are all common and important questions many artists ask when music licensing is mentioned. These are all excellent questions one should ask especially if you have interest in ownership of your music. These are definitely important questions that should be answered for independent artists. If you are an independent artist who wants full control or as much ownership of your works as possible music licensing is a topic you should be interested in. If you are an independent artist that don’t have a major corporation financially backing you, than you certainly should know all about music licensing. After all it’s one of the major avenues you can used to get paid off of your music.

What is music licensing?

In order to understand all of the aspects and factors that come into place with music licensing you first need to know what music licensing is. Music licensing is the permission to use music that is copyrighted. The intention of a music license is to make sure all owners of the copyright on a musical work or sound recording are paid for the use of their creation. Like any other license the party who is interested in having permission granted to use the musical works have to go through a process before the license is completed and granted to him or her. A music license can cover a song (composition) or a recording (master). As I’ve explained in earlier posts there are a difference between a song and a recording. A song aka a composition covers the lyrics and melody of a music work. A sound recording or recording aka the master covers the actually recording of the vocals of a musical work.

Song (Composition) = Lyrics and Melody

Sound Recording (Master) = Official version of vocals or voice recording

TV and film are some of the most popular music licensing media around.

Both of these entities concern your musical work and depending on which one of these entities the party wants to use the music license would have to go through either the music publisher, artist, record label or sound recording owner. This is because both the song and sound recording are each owned separately by a different party. Both of these elements can be owned by the same party, but in order for that to happen the artist or creator of the music piece would have to have done everything surround the music by himself or herself. Let me explain in further details step by step.

  1. The song (composition) is owned by the songwriter (sometimes the artist if he or she writes their own song) and the music publisher. If you’re the artist and haven’t signed with a music publisher than you are your own publisher. Meaning you as the artist owns the 100% of the song. (50% as the songwriter as long as you’ve written the song yourself and 50% as the publisher). However, if you signed with a publisher you only own 50% of your song. Also if you had someone write the song for you that songwriter owns the other 50% of the song. If you are an artist especially an indie artist and want to own 100% of your song then make sure you write the song yourself and don’t sign with a music publisher.
  2. The sound recording (master) is typically owned by the record label and artist singing or rapping the official recording of the song. Once again if you are the artist and want 100% of the ownership of the sound recording make sure you recording the vocals to your song and make sure you’re an independent artist who isn’t signed to a label. If you are simply a songwriter and don’t play on recording the vocals to the song for commercial release than 50% of the sound recording ownership goes to whoever records the vocals for the song for commercial use. The remaining 50% goes to whatever label the artist you sell the song to is on. If the artist you sold the song to is independent and doesn’t have a label you as the songwriter of the song now have the other 50% of ownership to the sound recording.

Now that you know what a music license is, the 2 music entities it can apply to and who has ownership of those entities it will now be easier for me to explain how to license your music particularly as an indie artist.

How to license your music as an indie artist

If you are like most independent artists you are doing absolutely everything element of your music career by yourself. Some artists are semi-independent meaning they’re independent but signed to a indie label or independent but have an agreement where they get distribution. However, if you are an solely indie artist you have no type of financial support or corporate backing, meaning you have to do everything yourself. This can be a gift and a curse but you can guarantee it’s a gift as long as you cross all your music business t’s and dot your i’s. In order to capitalize off licensing your music for movies looking for music, music supervisors looking for songs and more the first thing you need to do is make sure your songs are protected. Some of these stuffs you may have already completed  but assuming you are starting from the very beginning here’s a step by step process on prepping your songs to be prepared for music licensing.

  1. Make sure your songs and sound recording is copyrighted. The safest and most efficient way to do this is through the U.S. Copyright Government Office.
  2. The second thing to do is register yourself as a writer and music publisher with one of the major 2 Performing Rights Organizations (PRO), which are ASCAP or BMI.
  3. The other thing you need to do is create a master spreadsheet for all your songs. If you’re anything like me you have an entire collection of songs mixed, mastered and ready to go. Create a spreadsheet with the title, date of completion, writers, producers, etc. of each song you have copyrighted and registered with your PRO.
  4.  Now you can start selling and promoting your songs to different parties to be licensed. If you only want your songs to be used on certain media outlets then list those outlets before you contact any organizations. Depending on where your music is used will dictate exactly who you go through to complete the music licensing process. There isn’t just one standard music license you issue that allows other parties to use your songs or recording. If you want your music on a TV show that requires a specific license, music licensing for YouTube requires a particular license and so on. This is why it’s important to know exactly where you want your music place. If you have a broad selection and want your music placed anywhere you can generate income and a buzz it’s good to know how all music licenses work.
  5. Once you know how you want your music to be used it’s now time to start contacting people to make it happen. My personal advice would be to start with advertising agencies. This is a great avenue if you want your music to be featured on a commercial, online ad or as a catchy company theme song. If you don’t know where to find advertising agencies at this link here is a good place to start. Another way is simply do a Google search of advertising agencies in each major city (i.e. New York City, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Chicago, Las Vegas, etc.). Once you have the agencies contact number start calling each of them one by one. Ask to speak to the music supervisor in the production department and explain to him or her you are interested in submitting your music as featured commercial ad music.
BMI and ASCAP are the 2 PRO’s that you have to register with before you go through music licensing.

Learn how all music licenses work

Now that you know how to start shopping your music to be licensed you have to understand how music licenses work and what music license you would actually be using depending on what type of media your music gets used for. If you want your song or sound recording to be used for any type of broadcasting endeavors than the party you decide to do business with will have to obtain a synchronization license that grants him or her permission to use your music. A synchronization license is a license that allows a song or sound recording to be used in a TV show, film, commercial, video game or YouTube video. Basically any type of media that falls into the visual piece category. If you come to an agreement with any company that wants your music for use with any of these types of media a synchronization license has to be issued to the copy by you and you have to grant your permission. A synchronization fee is also involved that has to be paid by the party who wants to use your music to you. If you own the song 100% by yourself then the synchronization fee is paid solely to yourself. However, if you are sharing the ownership of the song and/or sound recording with someone else the synchronization fee has to be split between all music ownership parties. If you’re wondering how much the company who wants your music for use has to pay for the license fee it truly all depends. It depends on how big the company/ organization is, what they’ll be using your music for, how successful your song or record may already be. Not to mention the both of you can always do your own negotiating.

The second most popular type of music license that is needed when another entity uses your music is a blanket license. This license does fall under the category of licensing music for commercial use but not the way you may think. A blanket license is for radio stations and broadcast companies who want to play your music on their station, at a venue, a club, etc. Unfortunately to use your music for theses type of uses the company doesn’t have to go through you personally. The radio station or broadcast company would go through your PRO (performing rights organization) and your PRO would issue them a blanket license that allows them to play any song registered under the PRO catalog. This could include your music. However, the good news is you receive public performance royalties every time your song gets played.

My Girl recorded by legendary group The Temptations is a song that’s been largely licensed for commercial use due to its popularity

Where do these license come from?

Another lingering question you may have is where exactly do these music licenses come from? You now know what they are, how they are used and who the interested party has to contact.  But where does one actually obtain a synchronization license? The party interested in using your music or the party you contacted would have to obtain a music license through your PRO. There should be an option on your performing rights organization website where you can download a form. If not there should be a contact email where you can request your desired license. If that option isn’t available call your PRO number and ask to speak to someone that can send you your desired license. Once you have it you can now send it to the company that agrees to use your music. This process would work for music licensing for film, music licensing for YouTube and so on.

Music licensing fees and royalties chart

Arguable the most important factor in understanding all this information about music licensing are royalties. After your song or sound recording is officially being used by a media or corporate company and the music license has been issued and went through you now have to look out for royalties that will come with your music being used as a feature. For example if your song is now the background music to a popular YouTube video you now will generate YouTube royalties. If your song is the theme song to America’s newest favorite commercial you now have TV royalties you’ll get paid for. Whatever avenue your song or sound recording gets used for will generate revenue you should now get paid for. In order to ensure you’re receiving proper pay make sure you check with your PRO and any other organization you may be signed up with to collect royalties from. You any think that as an independent artist the chances of your song be chosen by a huge company to be featured is slim to none, but the reality is anything is possible. Why not give it a try and start now?

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