Musicians have sought more opportunities to exploit their songs using placements in motion picture and television projects as record sales have decreased over the last twenty-five years. As the competition for placements has increased, more publishers, music libraries, and song pluggers have stepped into the market to offer songwriters an advantage in their efforts to secure synchronization licenses.
Synchronization licenses are licenses obtained by film production companies and television studios to pair songwriters’ musical compositions with video footage. While a songwriter owns a copyright in their composition, artists who record their songs also control the sound recording copyright. Independent artists who own both copyrights have an advantage obtaining placements because their songs are easier to clear. Artists who own their publishing and recordings can pitch songs to film and television stakeholders themselves (artists typically do not choose to do this because it is a full-time job on top of creating music). Publishers and Music Libraries who obtain the right to pitch songs from songwriters, often prefer to work with artists that own all their publishing and recordings because they don’t have to secure permissions from multiple parties to control the rights to a song. A traditional publisher administers an artists’ compositions (registers copyrights, collects public performance revenue, issues mechanical licenses). They also locate opportunities for income which include identifying candidates to perform covers of their client’s compositions as well as finding opportunities for synch licensing. A music library specializes primarily in placing their client’s songs in film and television projects. Whether a songwriter signs with a traditional publisher to exploit their whole catalog or whether they prefer to license some songs to music libraries and the remaining bulk to traditional publishers depends on whether there are distinct differences in the songs written for synch placements and the artist’s more traditional songs such that different platforms are appropriate and desirable.
Early in an artist’s career, they might not have the clout to obtain a favorable publishing deal so it might be beneficial to own the publishing for the bulk of their catalog. Licensing certain songs to music libraries to obtain placements in film projects may be a good way earn extra money while building a profile. At the same time, artists should be mindful of the overall value of their catalog. An artist’s catalog won’t be as attractive to prospective publishers if they’ve already licensed their best material to music libraries.
Any songwriter that is serious about placing their songs in television and film projects should study the type of music being placed across a wide variety of projects. Often times the music placed on a television show is different than a song that goes viral on a Spotify playlist. It is usually sound practice to retain the publishing for material written with traditional song structures while licensing instrumental tracks or mood music to music libraries. Experimental recordings that either aren’t right for a specific record or don’t fit the aesthetic you’ve established for your music project are also good fits for a music library. The quality of recordings for tracks you license to a music library shouldn’t be any less important, even though those songs aren’t ones you’d necessarily place on a proper release. In fact, the sound quality of your submission can make all the difference in whether your music is placed, as the focus of the viewer should be the dramatic scene in question, not the grainy lo-fi recording of your song. That’s why it is good practice to devote some studio time to recording and mixing material that isn’t the focus of your session, including instrumental tracks. For songwriters that choose this route, licensing songs to music libraries can be done on an exclusive or non-exclusive basis.
Exclusively licensing songs to a music library means that a songwriter cannot sign licensing deals with other music libraries wishing to make similar efforts with respect to those songs. These exclusive contracts usually last for two to three years. The songwriter and the music library split the proceeds of synch and master use licenses in half. Songwriters that only own the composition copyright will be entitled to synch license income. Songwriters who, in addition, own their recordings will also collect master use license income. The most common reason a songwriter doesn’t own their sound recording is that they’ve signed a record deal, in which case the master use license income would go to their record company.
In addition to income from synch and master use licenses, music libraries and songwriters also split public performance royalties earned when songwriter’s compositions, synched in a television show, are played over the airways. Contracts between songwriters and music libraries typically grant the publishing half of public performance income to the music library while the songwriter is entitled to the writers half of public performance income. If the placement continues to air after the term of the contract the music library would continue to collect their share of public performance income for placements they secured during the term of the agreement.
For songwriters to get the most out of an exclusive licensing deal with a music library they should be using the right kinds of songs as detailed above. Songwriters would ideally own both their copyrights which would enable them to collect income from both synch licenses and master use licenses. The licensing deal itself should not assign any portion of the songwriter’s copyrights. Work for Hire arrangements should be avoided. Those are contracts where the music library commissions the songwriter to create works on their behalf. Even though a Work for Hire involves a songwriter creating an original work, the copyright would belong to the music library. Typically when the music library offers an advance (upfront money) to you as a songwriter, that is an indication that the contact might be calling for you to assign your copyrights. Finally, songwriters should push for a shorter contract term where the all of the licensing rights revert to you when the agreement ends.
Non-exclusive licenses with music libraries seem like a more favorable contract for songwriters because of the potential to have multiple agents pushing your songs. This approach is not always the best way to secure synch placements at favorable rates. Music supervisors responsible for pairing songs with the appropriate film sequences tend to reward music libraries and songwriters that deliver material that precisely conforms to what they are looking for in the most efficient way possible. Hearing the same song from five different music libraries will not endear most music supervisors to your material. In addition, if someone can license one of your songs from five different places, they will likely license that song from the music library offering it at the lowest price. Non-exclusive licenses with music libraries work the best when each particular library has a niche within the industry that won’t create overlap in the types of submissions that will be made on your behalf.
Any songs artists license to music libraries should be done within short time frames of one to two years. This will give you as a songwriter more flexibility to enter an exclusive publishing deal with a traditional publisher down the road. Should a song you’ve held back from a music library achieve notoriety, a more traditional publisher will have the clout and knowledge of the industry to exploit those synchronization opportunities. Depending on the terms of that publishing deal, you might stand to collect a greater share of income from those placements.
Deals with music libraries or traditional publishers whether they be exclusive or non-exclusive agreements are not per se good or bad. A songwriter can have an exclusive licensing deal with respect to a couple songs, non-exclusive deals for a number of other songs, and an exclusive publishing deal for a set period of time for any songs composed during that timeframe at the conclusion of all other license agreement terms. As long as you are licensing the right types of songs for the right purposes and are not assigning away any of your copyrights, a diverse portfolio of licensing strategies and income streams can redound to a songwriter’s benefit.