Licensing Your Music
for Film & TV

by Kerry Fiero

Licensing is a great way to make money by placing your songs in film, TV, commercials and video games. This article explains what licensing is and how it works so that you can join the legions of music artists who are enjoying additional income from having their music licensed.

Licensing and Booking Gigs: Connected?

Licensing means granting permission for the use of one's music to which you own the copyright.

Certainly the goal of an artist who writes their own music (a la the copyright owner) is to maximize the revenues generated by the musical composition.

When you license the use of your song, say in a TV show, you not only get a fee for the use of the license, but it gives the song and the artist greater exposure to the listening public, which can increase one's fame and fortune. The use of music in the TV program, "The OC," has launched the careers of several previously unknown independent artists, Rooney, in particular.

Before we dive into how to get your music licensed, we need to go over some terms that are commonly used with licensing.

Copyrights for Video Game Music

Be sure to file a completed copyright form along with a copy of the music with the US Copyright office before attempting to license your songs.

You can find the forms and instructions at www.copyright.gov. There are two copyrights for a song; a copyright for the sound recording (Form SR) and a copyright for the underlying song (Form PA). For our purposes here, let's clarify that we are talking about licensing original music of an Independent Artist who is not signed to a label or a publishing company and who owns both these copyrights.

Publishing for Radio Air Play

Publishing is one of the most complex parts of the music business and yet it can be the most lucrative area of income for musicians. Music publishing is the owning and exploiting of musical copyrights. A song is made up of two equal shares: the writer's share and the publisher's share. Songwriters affiliate with Publishers because their main job is to commercially exploit (increase use and value of) songs. Most independent artists/musicians are their own publisher, and therefore own 100% share of the song. If that is you, then this is why you want to get educated on how to pursue licensing for your music.

Licenses for Film and TV Usage

The license for use of the sound recording is called theMaster Use License. The license for the underlying song is called the Synchronization License (aka synch license), used when a musical work is synchronized in time with visual images, either background, theme or feature use in TV shows and Film.

Now we know the basic terms...time to learn what to do next.

Do your research by watching existing TV programs and write down every show you think your songs would fit into. From TV programs including reality TV, types of scenes in movies, video games, and commercials. Learn to think and listen visually; everything visual has a potential sound accompaniment.

Music & Presentation Considerations for Film & TV Deals

What you will send will be a CD of your music with the track listing and contact information on both the CD case and the CD label, and a great cover letter indicating the genre, maybe who you sound similar to and which production would fit the music. Do not send a bio, reviews, photo or any extraneous paper because the music is what is being considered, so the rest will just be thrown away and not strengthen your case.

Research & Relationships  (DIY licensing)

This side of the business is like all the others, driven by relationships. Start networking and reaching out with purposeful letters, calls or emails to those in the film and TV industry.

A really good start for the Independent Artist is to work with college students who are working on independent films. Although there will most likely be too low of a budget to pay you, you can begin building your resume/reel of having your music placed.

Next, begin researching who the music supervisors are on the programs you seek. Check credits in TV shows and movies. Go to film festivals and conventions such as The Film & TV Music Conference that music supervisors attend and meet them. Other sources to locate them are "The Film & Television Music Guide" (www.musicregistry.com) where you can find contact information for Music Supervisors and Music Publishers specializing in film and TV placement. You can also get leads by reading trade magazines like "Hollywood Reporter" and "Variety."

The Music Supervisor vs. Booking Agent

Music Supervisors are constantly looking for music of independent artists who release their own CDs. Independent artists are willing to negotiate for a lesser amount (with the risk that a TV show may not even survive the season, music supervisors try to keep costs down) and can create new music without having to get permission from a label or have a label delay the time sensitive process.

If you are a fan of a particular show and your music seems to you that it would be perfect, send a letter to the musical supervisor and let them know you are a fan and you have a song that you believe will work for the show & tell them which situation/ mood it would be best for.

The better you know the business of licensing and the terms used, the more likelihood for establishing a relationship with a music supervisor who finds you easy to work with and that, along with your obvious talent, can build a lasting alliance. An insider tip from a music supervisor told me if you write "all sync & master controlled" or "pre-cleared" on the CD label and CD case, that they will know immediately your music is ready for use which is invaluable to them when time is an issue and that alone can help your song beat out another's.

Negotiation with Music Libraries — & Getting Paid

They want your song! Now what? A good idea when first licensing your music is to have a manager or attorney or someone who really understands licensing to help you evaluate the deal for use of your music. Things to be considered are intent of use, scope, and fee. Once there is a verbal agreement, make sure to get it in writing as well.

It is important not to devalue the song by licensing it for whatever a user offers. But also be aware that music supervisors may let you know their budget constraints give them no room for negotiation; that's when you determine if the exposure is going to make the deal worthwhile. Think of unknown group, A3, placing their song "Got Yourself a Gun" in the then un-known HBO pilot, "The Sopranos."

Walk away from any deal that asks for 1. your publishing 2. exclusive rights to your songs 3. your music in any way they want and for any length they want.

Good Songs in the Right Place

There will always be a demand for good songs and music is used in every visual platform, so you, the artist/musician/ songwriter, have a great opportunity to make money in this business through licensing. Continue to educate yourself about publishing & licensing, continue to nurture relationships with people who place music, and continue to write and record fantastic songs.


Kerry Fiero is an Artist Manager, Director of the San Francisco Chapter of NARIP (National Association of Record Industry Professionals) and an adjunct professor at San Francisco State University teaching Music Artist Management and Music Marketing. Her company is Strive Management.


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