Music Tutorials

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 (8 hours minimum even if it was 1 minute of music) plus reasonable earnings over an extended period of time. If your composer works at $50 per hour that is $400 + at least the same again + some. So a fair offer needs to start at $1,000. If you want to deny that there ever was a composer, double that offer.

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.

Each composer will have their carded rate, some will publish this, many won’t as jobs are mostly quoted based on understanding the project and what needs doing. I currently publish mine in-part to make it clear I don’t want to hear from people demanding I score a 2-hour movie for $12.50 (less Upwork or PayPal fees). 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.


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