I am in the midst of yet another educational opportunity. Little did I know at the outset of this project, the nuances of music licensing for film. Sure, I knew a few things – generalities really – but what I am experiencing now is a crash-course in “How To License Music For Film.”
The Good Soldier has an original score (beautifully composed by Anne-Vale Brittan, I might add) that I have permission to use, so there is no issue there. In fact, I will say up-front that creating your own music or finding/hiring someone outright to do an original piece is probably easier than all this licensing stuff. But even that has it’s host of issues.
There are two songs in the film, both from the 1940s, and both require licensing. At first when I downloaded them from http://archive.org (my favorite website), I thought – AWESOME – free music! Wrong. Just because they were found for free does not necessarily make them free. Be careful in making those kind of assumptions.
I want this post to serve as a primer, of sorts, to those trying to do the same thing I am doing; license music for film festivals and possible distribution. Please keep in mind that this is something I am going through right now and I am still learning – so there may be some adjustments made to the post later depending on what happens.
There were some things that I was forewarned about early on: 1) the music industry has been known to take their time – your deadlines are not their deadlines. To a large extent I have found this to be true – with one exception, which I will get to later. 2) Customer service (i.e. being nice) is not what the music industry is known for – so don’t be surprised if people get pissy with you. 3) Don’t expect to get ANYTHING for free – if you think something is public domain – you’re probably wrong – in fact, you probably owe someone money for the song you are about to use and you just don’t know it. Do your research, make some calls, find out what you don’t know and you’ll be better off for it. Information is out there you just have to be willing to learn about it.
Here’s the deal with public domain – “There are no sound recordings in the Public Domain in the USA. If you need a music recording – even a recording of a public domain song – you will either have to record it yourself or license a Royalty Free Music recording.” (Source: Public Domain Info Project)
So where do you begin?
Take a song, any song. If you have the album you already have a lot of information about it. There are two things you need to know: who the publisher is (or sometimes songwriter) and who did the recording. The publisher/songwriter and performer can be looked up on the ASCAP website using their ACE search tool. If you can’t find it there you may look at SESAC or BMI. On the ASCAP website (which is where I found my film’s songs) it will give you the contact information of the publisher. Use this information to contact the publisher by phone or find them on the internet and contact them through their online form or email. Publishers want things in writing so even if you call them they will still ask you to submit a form in writing to them.
If you know the recording company – great – you’re one step ahead of where I am. I am still searching for the original recording of both of my songs. I think they are owned now by Sony-BMG (which purchased the original Columbia recordings) – but I don’t know for sure yet. You will need to contact the record company too, same as the publishing company.
Who am I paying for the licensing?
You pay the publisher for the song rights and the record company for the recording rights. Here’s another kicker: music publishers and record companies act on a “most favored nations basis”. Let’s say you strike a deal with the publisher for $500 for synch rights, worldwide, for festivals. Then you contact the record company and they want to charge you $750 – well, under the most favored nations clause the publisher will raise their price to $750 to match the record company. If my hunch is right, the price always moves up, not down.
What are the licensing terms?
Terms of the license are based on a number of things: how you intend to use the song in the film, where you use the song, how many times, the duration of the song. It’s also based on if you want the film to tour in the US or take it to international festivals. Price seems to double if you are going worldwide. It’s also based on the popularity of the song, how it’s been used in the past, and how the song fits with the film. And probably a number of other things they don’t tell us about. If you intend to distribute (sell) the film they’ll want to know how many copies you are going to produce and where (territory) you will be selling them. Then there is an up-front payment based on the number of copies produced.
What do the record companies and publishers need to know about your film?
Just about everything. The title, the story, the duration and how the song fits in with it. If you are using a song on the opening credits or the end credits, expect to pay more.
All this is great info but why would I pay for music?
Because I’ve heard stories of a person sitting in the audience at a film festival, they hear a song on the film and realize – that’s their Great Uncle’s song! And they wonder if Uncle So-And-So knows that his song is in a movie so they give him a call. And amazingly, he had no idea that his song was in that movie – no one ever told him or received permission. And that’s too bad because, by the way, the movie sucked and it really misrepresented the song. So he decides to call up his record company and take action. Next thing you know you’ve paid an attorney $25K for services and reached a settlement.
That’s just one reason. There are others. Bottom line is you are breaking the law if you don’t license music appropriately and risk getting sued big-time.
As far as where I am in the process, I’ve heard from the publisher of one song and received a quote – $250 for one year of licensing within the US for festivals. I’ve had great luck with this particular publisher and they (the company) has been very responsive and helpful. They responded quickly to my inquiry and appear willing to work with me.
I am waiting to hear back from the record company and see what their price is going to be – I’m guessing the $250 range per song. I am also waiting for Warner-Chappell music to call me back with an estimate on the other song. In all, I’m guessing that it’s going to cost me somewhere around $1000 in total to use the songs in the film (for one year in festivals). My experience thus far has been good.
Yes, I had an initial sticker shock.
You always come back to the question: is it worth it? And what are my alternatives?
That’s really a question that you have to weigh for yourself and your project. In terms of this film, I feel it is worth it. Music licensing is something I completely overlooked in my initial film budget – but it was one of those variable that I didn’t know how to quantify so I cast it to the back of my mind, at the time. In the future, I will be better prepared and anticipate the licensing issue.
There are alternatives to licensing the two songs: I could choose to not use the songs at all or I could work the original score into other sections of the film. But the songs are genuine 1940s pieces and they add an authentic element to the film that I really want – I feel that progress the story and the tone. So for me, it is important enough to accept the cost and include them.
On an editorial note, I don’t think many individual filmmakers understand the ins-and-outs of the music industry and licensing. It’s not something we want to deal with or think about. Furthermore, the music industry as a whole makes it difficult to license films. If there were a central clearing-house that was sort of a one-stop-shop it would be much easier and I think filmmakers would be more likely to follow through on licensing. Unfortunately, it is difficult to follow the rules because it’s not clear what they are, communication with the publishers/record companies is lacking, and every company seems to have their own protocol.
Hopefully, this post has been helpful to someone out there in the same boat as I.