Music Licensing – who owns what, where, when

Music licensing can be a very complex subject, but only if we let it. Very simply, every piece of music is owned by someone. The technical term is Intellectual Property (I.P.) which means that an idea and it’s execution has value – which it has or we’d never listen to Metallica records. License options depend on several factors, which are mostly based on your needs & budget.

Composers wrote em, I Performed em

The default state of music ownership is that it is owned by the Composer. If there is a Performer (other than the composer) they own their performance. Rights are then assigned to people, or businesses, to use that music. Each agreement is reasonably unique and the result of a (hopefully) open discussion of who is doing what, where & when. Everyone then agrees on a fee and method of payments/s.

The broad outcomes are usually one of these:

Total Buyout: the music (and performance) becomes the total property of the person who has commissioned the work. This is not automatic because the work was commissioned but must be agreed upon. To get agreement, the client normally has to pay more as taking total ownership of the work deprives the creator of any further income, or often even bragging rights which in-turn brings more work. Just think how you’d feel if you wrote a #1 hit and you never saw a cent, let alone your name on the back of the record? Ok, so this option can have some benefits for both parties, but only if the fee offered is enough to make it worthwhile to give up some or all rights in perpetuity. $5 is never the right amount here. Easy to assume no one would want this dipsy ditty you had made, but you do and another advertiser may think it perfect for their brand and take it international. You need to factor in the time for creation plus reasonable residual earnings over an extended period of time.

Exclusive Usage: exclusivity is really what most people thinking total ownership are really after. You don’t want the music in your promo appearing in an advert for hemorrhoid cream at the same time your ad is running. Eew! Mixed messages. This is where you work on some sort of exclusivity where the music can’t appear in a competing product, specified territories, specified duration, or any rules both agree on. This can dramatically reduce the cost as the work is still open for royalties, can appear in the creator’s portfolio and be sold again. Just be aware that the broader your expectations, the higher the fee needs to be.

Broad Usage: is where you can pay a smaller fee because the piece is still for sale to any and all comers. You may hear the same music on 10 projects. There may still be Composing (and Performance) fees and Mechanical rights. Be sure when making the agreement.

The next decision is whether you are choosing to have music made for you or from an existing library. There are three main sources for this:

Stock Libraries: composers put up their work on spec in hope someone licenses it. While popular in some circles it is never a replacement for real music as the composer is only working towards being generic in hope the piece catches many users. Most quality composers and filmmakers will avoid these libraries. There are some commercial libraries that production houses buy but they don’t come cheap and are rarely used in high quality productions. I am not even sure if they are much of a thing these days as composers are easy to find now the internet is on computers.

Personal Libraries: are the in-between where a composer has a large library or discography and an existing piece (or part thereof) does the job you are looking for. This means there is no composing fee so you simply work out the license terms.

Unique Composition: is what everyone really wants. You get unique work and the composer gets to do a good job based on the needs of the project.

Advice on Choosing & Hiring a Composer

If you like it, put a ring on it

While I have no doubt you can find someone with a few samples they stole who will work for $1, Composing is as much a skill as Brain Surgery. You wouldn’t hire a $1 brain surgeon. Give the composer a great brief, let them see the edit you have from the start and get them a locked edit ASAP (before they lose passion).

Be aware that a 20 second project is not 20 seconds of work; often the very short projects require more work to condense. Allow 8 hours of on-time at least for the first version.

Don’t treat this music like a random Rock song. If the music is scored exactly to the action it needs to be in-context. When you get the music, pop the piece in the exact place where it is meant to go and give yourself time to absorb it. Overnight it at least as you need to hear what is there and not your assumptions. Try not to be a pedantic pig about alterations as all that does is make the composer less creative when creativity is what you are paying them to do for you.

While you may like Hans Zimmer or John Williams, don’t go expecting clones. No reputable person will want to do this as they know there is something unique about every great composer and while some of their traits can be borrowed, the results will only disappoint if trying to get one guy to write exactly like another. Being blunt, if you truly need Zimmer, go hire the guy – he does great work. If you can’t afford him, don’t punish the composer you do hire and therefore yourself by setting up for failure.

Triumph & Tragedy
Triumph & Tragedy

Listen to the Composer’s existing work carefully. That means more than 10 seconds and skip. Immerse yourself in it so you can understand how they handle narrative (if they don’t they aren’t worth spit in my book, no matter how blammin’ the mix). Let them do that narrative magic for you. This is what makes a great score, whether it is the intro for The Simpsons, Windows Startup, or Gladiator.

Time Means Nothing

Each composer will have their carded rate, some will publish this, many won’t as jobs are mostly quoted based on outcomes. A composer is not like a car park where it makes sense to pay based on the amount of time you leave your car in their place. A composer is about outcomes – a great piece of music that brings magic to your project. That is not a time-based thing. Trying to convert it to one puts your composer in the wrong mindset as they are thinking of how to get rid of the project instead of how to make it truly timeless-great.

As an example I kept track of my time spent building this Binaural Beats project. Before it got to the video & cover art, it took about 10 hours. This “cold” time doesn’t take into account 30+ years of learning/experience, investment in tools, having won an award, the time it took to do research and the time it would have taken to liaise with the client and the inevitable requests to change things. So the “cold” price of this piece of work is $550.

If a client wants total exclusivity, this dramatically decreases my chances of earning more from my investment so the offer has to rise to be fair.

Total ownership (“work for hire”) ensures that I as the “inventor” never see another cent so the cost should double. Especially if the client insists that I cannot show the work in my Portfolio (ghost work) as an empty portfolio says I am not working, not a happening dude. This is a total killer in the creative space. No one gives you work if you are not demonstrably working. I have made this mistake.

Money’s Too Tight To Mention

Budgets are an issue. We all know this. Absolutely don’t start the conversation by making your problems into your composer’s problem. If you hit them over the head with your problems then they feel that you are not taking their budgetary issues into context. This makes you seem like a bad-risk client who demands much but returns little. We all have to watch our coins to feed our mortgages & kids.

Also if you are wanting work done for a commercial project – from which you hope to make money – starting by saying you deserve income but those who make your project work (sell well) are not so deserving is a terrible start.

The numbers you see above may seem frightening to you. The first thing to do is remember the adage that it takes money to make money. I could have stopped work on the job above at 4 hours and sent the program off but I can tell you it was pretty half-baked at that point. The extra time transforms a rough idea from a concept to a polished work. A polished work helps you sell your work much better. Spending money to make money.

Don’t have a mindset where you think that you are doing the composer a favor by considering them – find a composer you are eager to have work on your project and win them over. Show them your film and your budget offer. After that it is pure negotiation (there is a whole chapter in The Indie Musicians Guidebook on how to negotiate).

If you really enthuse & excite a composer in your project, you may be amazed how flexible they become. If you get flexibility at the start, be sure you reward your composer at the end with great credits, glowing testimonials and chatter on your Socials or it will never happen again.

If you are bright, you can tie this up with the point above about Portfolio to help gain a great price – but if you use this strategy you must do your part or you are plain being an asshole and that gets around and only bottom-of-the-barrel talent will work with you – once.

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