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A Filmmaker’s Guide to Music Licensing

A Filmmaker's Guide to Music Licensing

This article originally appeared on the Film Independent blog and has been republished with permission.

Filmmakers often feel so attached to a song that it becomes a crucial and indispensable element to the story. A scene, or even an entire film, can revolve around a single piece of music. What many directors don’t realize is that the process of clearing that song can be very difficult and expensive. Brooke Wentz, the music supervisor behind “Kings Point,” “Bully” and “Bill Cunningham New York,” cleared up some of the confusion and little-known realities of music licensing during a recent Film Independent education event.

The most important thing to know is that there are two rights to every song. There is the person who wrote the song (who holds the publisher rights, a.k.a. sync rights) and the person who recorded it (who holds the master rights). To use this piece of music you need permission from both entities. You can listen to a song like “All Along the Watchtower” by Jimi Hendrix but you may not know that the writer is Bob Dylan. To determine who owns the rights to songs, the websites ascap.com and bmi.com are extremely helpful.

Once you’ve determined who owns the publishing and the master, you must contact them separately and ask for permission to use the song. This can get tricky when there are a lot of songwriters involved. Katy Perry’s song “California Gurls,” for instance, has five publishers. Therefore, if you wanted to clear this tune you would need approval from all five of the writers and on top of that you would need approval from Katy Perry. If one of them says no, then unfortunately you can’t use the song.

Wentz’s Top Six Secrets for Music Licensing

1. For film festival rights, most songs can be cleared at around $500 per side ($500 for the publishers, $500 for the masters). If you don’t have enough money in your budget to pay for all the rights up front, you can clear only the film festival rights and add an option to get all media rights up to two years later.

2. The fee is the same regardless of the duration of the cue. If you use a song for five seconds or two minutes, it will cost you the same amount of money. The only exception to this is if the song is used over beginning or end credits.

3. The rate for a piece of music is negotiable! Most filmmakers don’t know that they can offer a lower price, or if the artist likes the subject matter of the film, they might offer a better rate.

4. If you think a song is in the public domain—double check. “I had a client who thought ‘My Sweet Lord’ was in the public domain,” Wentz explained, “and I said ‘nope, I’m pretty sure that’s a George Harrison song.'”

5. If you’ve contacted the publisher and masters and have not heard back from them, this does not mean an approval. It might be frustrating if they are not getting back to you, but you have to keep pushing. If you do not clear the rights for a song, you could receive a “cease and desist” letter from the rights holder, which could incur fees.

6. If you are doing a music documentary, you must make sure you can secure the rights beforehand. If the estate or the artist is not on board you will not be able to use the music. Many deceased musicians’ rights are owned by their spouse—or ex-spouse—or both. Certain songs might never be clearable just because of inner conflicts that have nothing to do with you or your movie.

Filmmakers can get charged higher fees because they don’t know the numbers. That’s why it’s useful to have someone that knows about clearance to be the middleman. Brooke Wentz’s company, The Rights Workshop, helps filmmakers secure the appropriate rights for any budget. Brooke recently worked on a film that got distribution at a festival and needed to expand the rights. She was shocked to discover that the director had licensed the songs himself and got charged five times what the fees should have been. Ouch!

READ MORE: Attention, Documentary Filmmakers: 4 Things to Understand About Fair Use

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