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How Music Licensing Deals are Made in Film and TV

Entertainment lawyers Dan Satorius and Ken Abdo explain music licensing. Photo by Brad Matala.
Entertainment lawyers Dan Satorius and Ken Abdo explain music licensing. Photo by Brad Matala.

If you’re a songwriter or composer, you may have been approached by a filmmaker who wants to use your music in his or her film. After the initial burst of excitement, a few practical questions should be going through your head:

  • What should I charge?
  • Who will own the music?
  • Will I be able to collect royalties?
  • Should I ask for a chunk of the film’s profits?
  • Should I write the contract myself or hire a lawyer?

These are just a few of the topics covered in this special summer episode of Composer Quest, featuring a talk by entertainment lawyers Ken Abdo and Dan Satorius. Thanks to the Minnesota Music Coalition and McNally Smith for hosting this talk at the 2014 MN Music Summit. I highly recommend listening if you’re a songwriter or composer, so you can make the most out of getting your music placed in a film and avoid getting stuck with a crappy contract.

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Right click to download Ep. 93, or open in iTunes.

Terms and Tips from the Episode

  • Synchronization (sync) rights: a filmmaker needs a sync license to use a composition or song in a film. The composer/songwriter (or their publisher) grants these rights.
  • Master use rights: a filmmaker needs a master use license to use the original recording of a composition or song. If a filmmaker gets sync rights but not master use rights, you could record your own cover of that song. The record label that owns the recording (or composer, if independent) grants these rights.
    Performance rights: as the copyright holder of a composition (unless you give up your copyright to a filmmaker), you’re entitled to certain royalties from public performances, such as when your music is aired on TV (and in theaters outside the US). These royalties are tracked and distributed by performing rights organizations (BMI/ASCAP/SESAC in the US).
  • Cue Sheet: a list of all the music used in a film, TV show, or commercial. Make sure to get this from the filmmaker, so you can submit it to your performing rights organization (BMI/ASCAP/SESAC in the US) and get paid for airings of your music.
  • Per side: refers to the fact that the sync rights and master use rights are usually each 50% of the deal. So if the sync fee is $1,000, the master use fee would also be $1,000.
  • Most favored nations (MFN): if there are co-songwriters who deserve equal share in the pie, they will attempt to put an MFN clause in the licensing contract. This could be to the benefit of someone who wrote a song with a much bigger artist. If you write a song with Prince, make sure his people do the negotiating first, and then ask for MFN to get the same deal.
  • Holdback: if a filmmaker wants exclusive rights to your music for a certain period of time, that’s a holdback. This can be a good alternative to paying the composer a huge fee for a never-ending exclusive license. After the time expires, the composer would be free to place it in other films, shows, or on an album.
  • In-context: if a filmmaker gets rights to “in-context” use of music, that allows them to use the music as intended in a certain portion of the film, and not elsewhere. In contrast, an “out-of-context” use would be running the music over the whole trailer (not how the music was originally intended). The music’s value then changes, which would require a new agreement and more money for the composer.

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