Artist Advice Column: Music Licensing 101

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Music licensing is a tricky business. There are a lot of moving parts and players in the field. You have sync houses, agencies, artists, composers, labels and brands vying to be a part of the licensing field. Getting a big commercial sync can change an artist’s career; just ask X Ambassadors or Jet. This 101 will give you an intro into how to write music for commercials, TV and more, pitching, legal concerns and more.

The first step that everyone asks, is how do I get music in commercials? What types of music should I make?

1. Make great music. Yes even music for commercials can be great. While many people will only see 15-30 second in a commercial on television, often times the commercials are much longer and thus the music is that long as well. There are a couple of routes you can take, but either way, the music has to be great. You can write music and release it as you might normally for your own career. Then from there try and pitch those songs to agencies for commercials or TV or elsewhere. Or you might get lucky and a music supervisor really wants your music and pays for it. The other main option is writing music you think will fit for commercials.

This is an art among itself. Ads, just like any other musical space, do follow trends. There is music that will always work as background tracks like a simple dance beat to track a fast-paced commercial, a pretty standard guitar riff or a classical string melody. However going back through time you will see commercial music either following big sync hits or the current musical trends.

In the end you just need to write quality music because even if you don’t fit one project you are pitching for, the brand or agency may decide they like what you do and keep you in mind for the next opportunity that could come sooner rather than later. Trying to write a song with lyrics that are too obviously for the commercial (unless it is a jingle), will pigeonhole to that one project and can come off as cheesy for the consumer. Supervisors and brands would rather have music that matches the feeling and mood of the commercial, not exactly the content. If it is a traditional spot, a lot of time may be voiceover describing the product. That doesn’t give you much time to make an impression with your music.

As Brian Monaco, president and global chief marketing officer at Sony/ATV said to Billboard describing that feeling, "If you can put a song in there that gets people to stop and turn around and look at the television and go, 'Oh wait, I know this, what is this?' That works. And that's kind of the emotion I think people go after."

There is a self-sustaining, upward cycle that the artist, ad agency and brand are looking for. If your song becomes a hit in large part as a result of the commercial, then it will get more airtime on radio, playlists and more. Once a strong association between a song and an ad is created, the song’s success will help fuel that product’s success. As an artist you may not want to be so closely tied to a brand with a successful song, but the checks may assuage your concerns.

Making music is part of the challenge. There are also some legal issues to remember and be mindful of.

1. If you are working with a large group of musicians, know if they are union or not and if there are union fees involved. Know the rules for the local musician union you might work with, the restrictions that might cause and if there is any additional paperwork. If there is a re-use fee, know that, meaning that if the agency wants to use the song for more than the time originally contracted for; a fee might have to be paid to the union member musicians.

2. Understand how your royalties will be paid and who owns what. You will still own rights to your song and it won’t be transferred to the agency. We went over copyright in a previous column, so get familiar with a few of the terms there. The brand or agency will have to license the master recording and then you will be paid on that and performance royalties. This may sound nice if you get a big spot that pays out big, but the rates can be quite low depending on how your PRO calculates rates determining cue sheets, type of showing, length of time used and more.

3. Know how your contract is structured when it comes to territory and time exclusivity. Sometimes some brands will want exclusivity on your song for commercials during a certain period of time or the whole term of the campaign. Others will let you use your song in other commercials. It will likely depend on your negotiating position and how big a deal you are getting. Your licensing deal may have some territorial restrictions like it can only be used in commercials in the United States or Europe.

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