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Guide

How to get your music licensed for films, TV, and beyond

A guide to getting paid for your music through sync licensing, written by Josh Briggs with illustrations by Sunny Eckerle.
Prelude

I’m Josh Briggs, General Manager for Terrorbird Media, where we represent over a dozen record labels and hundreds of independent artists for sync licensing, in addition to looking after the worldwide publishing rights for more than one hundred fifty songwriters. On a daily basis, we place music in everything from student films to blockbuster superhero movies, and do our best to be good stewards for the music with which we’re entrusted.

In 2019, we’ve been in not just the “Golden Age of Television” for over a decade, but really the Golden Age of Media: there’s more quality television, film, and video games being released now than ever before. Even ads have come to resemble short films, sketch comedy, or micro-blockbusters in order to keep antsy viewers from clicking “Skip Ad” at the first sensation of boredom. These days, there are more authentic, diverse stories being told than ever before—and all authentic storytelling requires great music. So if you’re a musician, you should know that wherever you hear music paired with a moving picture, there is money to be made in the form of sync licensing.

In this guide, we’re going to talk about how that’s done, how you can get in on the action, and what to expect along the way. If you make good music (or control the rights to other folks’ good music), and want more people to hear it, read on. You can make money. Exactly “how much” you can make with sync licensing is a moving target, based on factors we’ll get into—just know that effectively licensing your music for syncs can be a career in and of itself. (And at the very least, a pretty nice li’l bonus.)

— Josh Briggs

Sections
Guide

First things first: How do I know if I can license my music for syncs?

In this piece, I’m specifically focusing on licensing your music, so that means we’re going to leave composing, works-for-hire, and the nitty gritty of publishing and copyright for another day. This is really about fitting a square peg in a round hole: editing your pre-existing, recorded music to picture.

To start, you need to know what you control.

Every time you write a song and record it, two copyrights are born:

  1. The lyrics & melody that make up the song, i.e. the composition, which is the part you can sign away to a publisher.
  2. The recording of that composition, i.e. the “sound recording” or master, which is the part you can sign away to a record label.

If a TV show wants to put your song in an episode, they need to license BOTH the composition and the master. Even if you own both, they need to license them both separately, and pay you for the rights to each. So…

What is a license, exactly?

A license is a limited granting of certain rights for someone else to use something you own—in this case, a song.

The vast, vast majority of licenses (sometimes called “placements” or simply “syncs”) are limited and are “non-exclusive.” That means you can license the same song to a different thing, often simultaneously. So, when considering licensing your music to someone else, what should you consider?

A license can be broken down into 6 essential points, all of which are technically negotiable:

  1. Media: What types of different outlets will be allowed to broadcast this thing? TV? Movie theaters? Film festivals only? The internet? All media now known or hereafter devised? Generally, TV shows will ask for “all media, excluding theatrical.” With studio films, it will likely be “all media, including in-context promos and trailers,” meaning they can use the clip of the film featuring your song in the advertising without paying more. Again, that’s typical. What you want to watch out for is “out-of-context” requests, meaning they could use your song over other scenes in a trailer. It’s a completely different use, so it’s okay to strike that. With indie movies, they might try for all media, but if they don’t have distribution for their film secured, try to limit their use of your song to, say, film festivals only. Ads are broadcast in all types of outlets and media types, so make sure that if the license includes advertisements, you’re clear on exactly where the ad will broadcast (if it’s “internet only,” does that include “paid media” like YouTube pre-roll ads or Hulu, or would it just be, say, on the brand’s website, YouTube channel, and socials? It’s an important and expensive difference, so make sure you’re clear about it).

  2. Term: How long will this license last? A year? Five years? In perpetuity? Most TV, film, and game licenses are “in perpetuity.” That means forever. So even if what seems like a small film becomes the next Get Out, or your li’l song hits #1 on Billboard, they won’t ever need to come back to pay you more money. When licensing to indie films, if you’re able to limit the media, also limit the term (for example: film festivals only, one year). Also know that ads can run as short as one day (think: Super Bowl) or as long as a year. Typical increments we tend to use in licensing contracts are three months, six months, or a year. If they’re asking for more than that, eyebrows should raise.

  3. Territory: Where will they be able to broadcast your song alongside their content? In the U.S. only? The tri-state area? Worldwide? At this point, ads/promos/trailers are the only things that may not always ask for worldwide rights. If they do, it’s important to ask if the territory will apply to all of the media rights they’ve requested (i.e. “I see you’re looking for broadcast and internet. Will this ad be broadcast globally, or is “the world” just to cover internet uses?”). It’s okay to limit things for clarity.

  4. Exclusivity: most license agreements state clearly in the preamble that you are granting rights on a non-exclusive basis. You’re not signing over the copyright (i.e. ownership) to a production company. So if someone is talking about “exclusivity” in a deal, it will typically be in advertising, and is referring to your ability to license the same song to another ad for the duration of the term. If this is the case, consider if you want to give them “full exclusivity,” or if you’d rather limit their exclusivity to a certain product category (aka they will be the only alcoholic beverage to use your song in an ad, but an automobile company could still use it in the same term, etc).

  5. Fee: In consideration of all the points above, how much are they paying you? We often refer to the copyrights being licensed as “sides,” meaning the master recording on one side, and the publishing (the composition) on the other. When you’re talking about both “sides” together, that’s called the “all-in” fee. For example: a Netflix series quotes you $5,000 “all-in” to license your song in “all media, excluding theatrical; worldwide, in perpetuity.” If you own the master, and own you own publishing rights, you keep all $5,000. If you’re signed to a record label, and they own the master being licensed, that “all-in” fee needs to be split up. Typically, an “all-in” fee is split equally between the master side and the publishing side. So that $5,000 “all-in” would now be $2,500 to your label, and $2,500 to you as the publisher. Also keep in mind that these fees are usually written “based on 100% ownership.” So if you have a co-writer on this song who has 50% credit, $1,250 of that publishing “side” belongs to them. If it’s ever unclear, it’s always a good idea to just ask if the fee quoted is on a “per side” basis or “all-in.” When you’re trying to understand how much you’ll be paid, clarity and communication are always your friend, so don’t be afraid to ask how everything will break down.

  6. Is any part of this “MFN?” MFN is short for “Most Favored Nations,” a term that gets tossed around a lot in music contracts. In sync licensing, if you “quote MFN,” it essentially means that if any other artist gets a better deal than you in the same film/episode/video game (maybe a shorter term, more limited territories, or a higher fee), you will get the same deal as them. It’s very uncommon in episodic TV, but is especially helpful when navigating licensing to independent films. When you’re negotiating the terms for a license, ask if “all songs in the film are MFN.” That way, if they tell you they can only pay you $250, you can be sure that they truly only have $250. MFN can also apply across a single song: if you are licensing your cover version of a famous song, try to quote “MFN with the publisher,” and see if the licensee agrees to it. If so, you’ll be paid the same as whoever owns the rights to the famous song. (This might not always be possible, but it’s worth a try! Maybe your haunting, industrial take on “Walking on Sunshine” is just as valuable to this superhero trailer as the composition itself. You won’t know if you don’t ask!)

Now that you know what’s in it for you, it’s time to choose your own adventure: Do you go it alone, and try to drum up interest in your music yourself? Or do you enlist the help of a record label, publisher, or third-party licensing agent (like Terrorbird, the one I work for, but know that there are countless others out there)?

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Get help, or help yourself

Music supervision—i.e. the people out there whose job it is to find and clear good music for films, ads, etc—is a world of gatekeepers. It’s not (usually) about ego, it’s simply their job. They aren’t making mixtapes for their favorite movies, they’re managing a budget, and weighing the needs/whims/desires of a client/producer/director against the needs/whims/desires of every record label/publisher/artist/manager, and finally, against their own creative input. So even in the best-case scenario, there are a lot of voices and opinions to navigate. Decide if you want to venture through this landscape alone, or if you want help.

Pitching your music without help is tough. But it’s possible. Music supervisors tend to be some of the biggest music fans in the world, so if your music is out there and gaining some recognition on its own, they may already know who you are. Additionally, there are plenty of reliable online resources you can use to get folks’ contact info (IMDbPro, Songwriter Universe, music supervisors’ own websites, even LinkedIn or Facebook). However, not all music supervisors will accept or respond to “unsolicited submissions.” This means if the music supervisor didn’t ask you for your music, or they didn’t send you an email directly saying, “We’re looking for any songs you’ve got about alien invasions,” they may just delete your email if you send one. Straight up. Or ignore it. Some music supervisors get literally a thousand emails every day, meaning they wouldn’t be able to do their job if they answered them all. So they simply don’t.

If you do manage to catch the eye or ear of a music supervisor, be gentle. Ask if you can submit music for their project. Ask them if they have specific guidelines for doing so. Follow those guidelines to the letter, and don’t follow up unless they ask you to. If you land something this way, without the help of a third-party licensing agent, then congrats—you nailed something that many others fail to figure out on their own, and now you get to keep all of the money.

If you want to enlist some help, third-party licensing agencies like Terrorbird are great places to start. To find one that’s right for you, ask your fellow artists who they use, or check your favorite artists’ websites to find suggestions (look for “sync licensing contact”). Then go explore those agencies’ websites to see if your music might be a good fit, or if you recognize anyone on their roster, or any of their recent placements. While all third-party licensing agents need a variety of music to cover their bases creatively, they often have a certain genre or niche that they specialize in (indie rock, electronic, vintage catalogs, etc). They also need to be picky about what they take on to ensure they’re servicing their clients effectively. At Terrorbird, our favorite resource for referrals are our own clients. If one of our artists vouches for you, we’re much more likely to listen extra closely.

In addition to our own A&R efforts (seeking out new artists, going to shows, etc.), we get daily solicitations from industry contacts, blind submissions via email (those tend to get deleted; read on to find out why), and through our website (yes, we do take submissions this way). Regardless of how we get the music, it’s the music that means the most to our decision-making process. The music should be well-produced (that can still mean scuzzy garage rock, or super-slick pop—it should just be appropriate for the genre, and not sound like you did it all in GarageBand), and have some kind of “hook.” That hook may be lyrical (songs with big choruses, featuring universal but original lyrical themes), or musical (quirky, percussive stuff, or non-English vocals for instance). Maybe it just sounds good or fills a hole in our catalog. One way or another, it needs to be memorable so you stand out amongst the rest of our roster.

If you’ve found a third-party licensing agency to pitch your music to supervisors, congratulations! Now you don’t have to figure out how to redline license agreements or chase down payments on your own. You also get the benefit of their relationships, their bird’s-eye view of the industry, and (god willing) their excitement about your music. Your rep can even give you advice on your demos, give you briefs or lyrical prompts to write songs to, or help you find other team members (managers or labels to work with, for example). They can be your emotional buffer with music supervisors, and get you more access than you can get on your own. For this service, most third-party licensing agents will take a commission from any licensing agreements (usually 20-30%, depending; note that it should never be higher than 50%).

Before you get into an agreement with a third-party licensing agent, close-read the contract they send you. Ask questions, and consult an outside attorney if you need help understanding things. Like with anything, it’s on you to know what you’re signing.

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Do your research and get organized

Regardless of whether you choose to go it alone or seek the help of a third-party licensing agent, you’ll need to be extremely organized. This is because no matter what, your files and metadata will be what gets sent to a music supervisor, music editor, producer, showrunner, director, intern, or whoever is ultimately placing your music, whether it’s in a Disney picture or your friend’s student film. And remember, they (like you) are very busy, and they (like you) also want to make something great. So helping them do their job well and efficiently is going to help you get more licenses.

Do your research

First, it’s good to have a lay of the land. Fortunately, that means watching more (current) movies, binging on some #hot #new shows, and while you’re watching, paying close attention to the tunes and who put them there. Keep your phone handy, and if you hear something you like, look it up. Check out online resources like TuneFind (film/TV), iSpot.tv (ads), and IMDb (music supervisors’ names). Pay attention to how music is being used, and which pieces are “underscore” (made specifically for the film/ad/whatever by a composer) vs. what’s licensed. As you do this, ask yourself, “Where would my music fit in?” This will help give you a realistic idea of how likely your music is to be licensed for something similar, as well as which projects, creators, and music supervisors are worth targeting.

Get organized

Meanwhile, get your files in order. Note that anything you send to your third-party agent or to a music supervisor should be a finished, professionally mastered recording. Very few music supervisors are interested in raw demos, or “ideas” for songs.

With that in mind, **here’s everything Terrorbird asks of a new client, or new release. Ideally we get all of the below delivered to us at least a month before its release date:

  • Hi-res, mastered audio. We need hi-res audio, not MP3s (we’ll make our own) or streaming links. This is because hi-res audio is what productions need to make sure it’s high enough quality for broadcast. We specifically ask for AIFF files, because unlike WAV files, an AIFF retains metadata. That means if we share your file with someone else, when they open it in iTunes, they’ll see more than just a song called “file name”—they will also see your artist name, and most importantly, our contact info so they know how to license it.

  • Instrumentals & alternate mixes. Instrumentals are crucial in sync licensing. Get them printed and mastered when you get your record mastered. That way, they stand up to other mastered instrumentals in a pitch. It also gives a music supervisor a better shot at getting your vocal version to stick if they need to mute your voice while characters are talking. If you recorded live, and there’s vocal bleed into the instrumental, it’s likely not going to be useful. So when recording, overdub vocals whenever possible. If instrumentals aren’t—and can’t be—available, say so. Also, if you swear in a song, consider making a clean version.

  • Lyrics. Sometimes a music supervisor’s search for a perfect song is lyrically specific. If we can’t tell what you are saying, or can’t search for relevant lyrics to find your songs about anxiety or road trips, you’re going to miss out. Same thing if we can’t tell if you’re saying a bad word. So, be sure to have files containing lyrics for every song you’re making available. A Word doc, Google doc, PDF, or other universal file type is fine.

  • Who controls what? Record label info & writer/publisher “splits.” This is essential info for licensing a song. As I mentioned earlier, if you wrote the song (and it contains no samples or pieces of other peoples’ music), and you haven’t signed to a record label, you are the proud owner of your own compositions and recordings. That is great news for licensing, as you’ll have the fewest possible parties involved to clear a song. Such a thing is cleverly called a “one-stop.” If you have co-writers on a song, and if any of you signed a publishing deal or has a deal with another third-party sync agent, make sure you disclose that. Everyone with songwriting credit—regardless of percentage of ownership—has an equal say in whether or not a song can be synced. If a record label or distributor has sync rights as part of your deal with them, note that too. (Note: co-writers are different than bandmates. Bandmates can be co-writers, but that’s a conversation you should have with your band before money is on the table. See “Further Reading.”)

  • Disclose any samples, cover songs, etc. Say it with me: “There is no hiding a sample.” It doesn’t matter how small, obscure, chopped, and/or screwed it is—if someone else might own part of your composition or master, you need to make that known. If you can make your music without samples, do it. If you do not disclose a sample, and go on to license that song, you are committing copyright infringement and can be sued by the rightful copyright owners. They can also sue just about anyone involved with the license (a music supervisor, production company, studio, etc.), for each instance of infringement. Samples are fine for PR, SoundCloud, and DJ nights, but leave them out of songs you’re pitching for licensing opportunities. On the other hand, if you record your own version of “Wicked Game,” that’s fine! Just call it out as a Chris Isaak cover when you share it. You still own your master recording, and can license it freely, but Warner-Chappell (Chris Isaak’s publisher) will still need to clear it with their client if someone wants to license your cover.

  • Where’d you make your record? And who made it? The answer to this has more to do with music supervisors trying to navigate union rules in order to save their budget than which studio you used. Occasionally, it is necessary for a certain project (mostly ads) to only license music recorded outside of the United States, and/or performed/recorded by non-union musicians (SAG-AFTRA vocalists / AFM players). It’s good to ask of the folks with whom you made your record if they’re part of a union, and good to note that in your metadata. You can say it as simply as “Recorded ex-US” and “non-union.” If anyone who helped make your record is a union member, disclose that as well! It’s far from a dealbreaker for most projects. Separately, it can be helpful to know where you are geographically, or of any cities, regions, or countries you’re associated with. Sometimes there are projects specifically looking for artists from the region where their story takes place. Other times, they want an on-camera artist who can make it to set on a flexible schedule without incurring any travel costs (i.e. Even if the movie takes place in Los Angeles, they’re shooting in Atlanta, so they want an Atlanta-area artist who could drive to set easily).

  • What’s your story? Get a bio together! It’s a good idea to make a “one-sheet” or press release when you have a new record, as well as a bio on your website, but you can also share “marketing updates” with your licensing agent on a regular basis (unless and until someone tells you otherwise). Send them things like new press photos, positive reviews, celebrity retweets praising your music, impressive DSP stats (“we got added to Chill Vibez Mondaze! It has 90 million subscribers!”), upcoming tour dates, and anything else that can keep you on your sync agent’s radar.

  • Will they/won’t they? Put some thought into what types of uses you’re okay with. If you never want your music to be associated with any ads at all, or with certain brands specifically, or don’t want to be used in scenes involving drug use, or anything else you are particular about, be crystal clear about that. While your agreement with your agent likely grants you approval rights on every sync, you don’t want to be put in the awkward position of turning down a license someone pitched you for in good faith, thinking you’d be down with it. And if you’re excited about something specifically (“I want my music in Riverdale!”), or categorically (“I love horror movies!”), let it be known.

Think of each of these things as not just covering your bases, but giving your rep more arrows in their quiver (to thoroughly mix metaphors). If you have a 10-song album, we have 10 songs to pitch. If you give us instrumentals, we now have 20. If you include lyrics so we can easily find songs relevant to our search, or know that they are FCC compliant (that means no swears, or references to body fluids), it’s like we have 30.

So I got a sync, now what?

Well, shit. This is great news! You beat out every song that’s ever been recorded since the Edison wax cylinder, plus whatever a composer was willing to create for that particular piece of audio/visual real estate. That is awesome.

And, you probably at least paid your rent with whatever you got from it. Maybe you even made a down payment. If it was a TV or film sync, and if you’re a member of a performing rights organization (a “PRO” for short; that’s ASCAP, BMI, GMR, SESAC, in the U.S—check your local listings elsewhere), you’ll get performance royalties every time the thing with your song in it airs on TV or is streamed around the world for the life of your copyright (here in the U.S., that means for 70 years after you die). So make sure you join a PRO, register your songs with them, and keep your contact info up-to-date with them so they know where to send those royalty checks.

If the scene your music was licensed for ends up being pivotal, and the show or movie becomes popular, you could have folks tracking down and buying or streaming your record, purchasing tickets to shows, and more. If you think there’s a chance this could happen, make sure you’re set up to get all of that ancillary income: in addition to joining a PRO, you may want to look into a publishing deal, sign up for SoundExchange, etc. See “Further Reading” at the bottom of this guide for more on this. If you’re already signed to a distributor, label, or publisher, read over your contract again.

As an example of what can happen after getting a sync, the band Lord Huron got a platinum record for their song “The Night We Met,” based almost entirely on a run of a few key syncs, most notably in the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why. That’s more than a cool accomplishment—it’s also a lot of money for them.

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I haven’t gotten a sync yet, but I’d like to

As you’re reading through this guide, how can you start getting ready to put all of this into action?

Here’s a checklist of where to start:

  1. Keep all of your assets handy (“in the cloud”), so you don’t get caught without access to your music files when someone needs something on a time crunch. When sharing, use trackable, non-expiring links. We like the service Disco. It’s quickly becoming the industry-standard, and it’s affordable for independent artists. But Box, Dropbox, Google Drive, and others work great too.

  2. Dream. Make a list of projects you wish you could hear your music in (this could be specific shows, creators, genres, brands you patronize, stories you identify with), and share it with your rep, or act upon it directly if you’re representing yourself.

  3. Practice patience. It can take time to land a sync. You could deliver a record on June 1, and your rep could pitch it that day to a 13-episode Netflix series that’s not coming out until January. The music supervisor might find a spot for it in episode 8 that October, finalize that episode mix in December, and it might not confirm until January—the week the entire series is set to drop. From then, it’s realistic for production not to send payment for 90+ days after the initial air date, and from there, you’d be paid by your rep based on their contractual schedule with you. All of a sudden it’s June again, and a whole year later, you’ve got a check for $8,000.

  4. Reach out (appropriately). Haven’t heard from your rep or your contacts in awhile? Drop a line! Share your own updates, ask for theirs. Have you been making new music? Been on the road? Are they working on any new projects? Do they have any specific, immediate licensing needs you can help with? Have they been pitching your stuff?

  5. Remain true to your voice. You can take instruction and inspiration from what you see being licensed, but don’t chase trends. Remember—shows get cancelled, but records are forever. You can make music with sync in mind, but don’t write for sync. You are welcome and encouraged to write catchy songs about perennial favorite lyrical themes—like coming home, non-romantic love, new beginnings, magic, hunters & the hunted, and freedom—but do it as you, not someone else. Make music you are comfortable making. Otherwise, it comes off as what it is: an inauthentic cash-grab.

While it’s easy to say that you’ve succeeded if you’re landing syncs, it’s important to keep in mind that there are other ways to tell if you’re moving in the right direction. You should have a sense that you’re on the right track by the feedback you’re getting, so use the following to judge how your approaches are landing:

  • If you’re representing yourself and pitching your own music: Are the music supervisors you’re contacting asking for more music than what you originally shared? Are they asking you if you’d potentially approve certain specific terms (a specific scene, a fee range, etc.)? Are they asking you to demo original music for their projects? Are they showing up at your shows?

  • If you have a rep: Is your rep communicating those same things to you? Are they pitching your stuff (and pitching it appropriately)? It’s ok to ask to know what they’ve been up to!

If the above is happening, you’re doing fine. While we sometimes land a sync within days of working with a new client, it can often be a year or more before it all starts to click into place and we start landing syncs.

In summary…

If you’ve read this far, you’ve probably also been making music for a while now, with varying degrees of success. And you might be wondering if there’s a place for your music out there in the world of syncs. Regardless of genre, if you’re an independent artist, chances are you’re either making music that’s ahead of the curve, or you’re on your own trip entirely. Unfortunately, even at this Great Apex of All #Content, it can take a while for popular culture to catch up with where you’re at in this moment. So remember: a lack of syncs isn’t an indictment of your art, and no song is your last song. Keep moving forward, and they will find you eventually.

Also know that for whatever cosmic reason, syncs seem to beget more syncs. While getting the first one can be tough, it’s rare that that first one is your last. So do the best you can to stand out, be heard, and hopefully make some money while you’re doing it.

Further reading

About the Author

Josh Briggs

Licensing agent, Music publisher

Josh Briggs is the General Manager, West Coast & Head of Publishing for Terrorbird Media & Terrorbird Publishing in Los Angeles, CA. From punk rock bands and college radio to performing rights and music publishing, Josh has spent his career as a steward of independent music. He believes that doing it yourself doesn’t mean doing it alone, and that inclusiveness and understanding are keys to a thriving musical ecosystem. He is a father to two cats and two people. He enjoys basketball, comedy, and comic books, and believes that housing is a human right. If you give him an edible ingredient, he’ll make you ice cream out of it (and share it with you).