When you use a song in your production, you actually need two separate licenses: a master license and a synchronization license. A master license protects the recording itself, and is owned by whoever paid for the recording, typically the recording company. A synchronization license protects the the composition (the lyrics, chords, melody…) and is owned the the songwriter(s) and their publisher(s). The U.S. Copyright Office protects both of these – the Form SR (Sound Recordings) for the master & the Form PA (Performing Art Works) for the composition. Unless you own both of these, or are working with someone who does, get ready for some serious paperwork and negotiations.
If you break this down even further, you will notice that a lot more clearances can pop up. A few watch outs include:
- Sampled Content – A growing trend is to use fragments of other songs to create new ones. Think Kanye West and his love for old soul music or M.I.A’s re-use of older indie rock songs. You need to make sure that all content in the songs you choose is original, or at least cleared. Think of the double work here…another set of publishers, writers, and recording companies. If one group wasn’t enough!
- Loop Libraries – Some composers use what are called “loop libraries” to create their music. Loop Libraries contain various “loops,” or repetable fragments, that can be expanded into full songs. Loops can be guitar riffs, bass lines, or any other musical tid-bit. I personally don’t use them, but I know that many other’s do. Although most are pre-cleared and royalty free, some are not. So you will need to check here as well.
- Latent Songwriters – When a band writes a song and no split-sheet (a document declaring ownership of said song) is signed, technically all members can claim ownership. Yes, I’m looking at you drummer boy. In many cases, the lead singer might assume that since they wrote the lyrics and chords, they own it. If the band breaks up, or members leave, and the song is then placed, you may not know until it’s too late, possibly when the bassist sees the commercial on TV and demands payment. Band breakups make it difficult, even impossible to track people down.
- Additional Publishers – You never know when more than one publisher might be involved, even if they claim there is only one. A sonwriter may have signed over some rights in the past to a to song pitching company and years later signed a different publishing agreement. Obviously it is the songwriters responsibility to keep this straight, but you don’t want your project jepordized because of it.
Now, we’ve discussed what clearances you need, but we forgot about the most important part, the fees. Since there are no standard rates for licensing fees like there are for royalty payments, the door has been thrown wide open for negations where typically the bigger part wins. Not only must you negotiate with the record label for a master license fee, but you must negotiate with every party individually who owns publishing rights. This can really kill the momentum of a project and become very exhausting. The thrill of finding the perfect music is soon replaced by the drudgery of clearing it. I’ve even read stories about unfortunate young filmmakers who paid a few thousand dollars for a festival license from a publishing company and thought they were done, only to realize that they still owed that same fee to the songwriter and the record label.
Again, working with a composer like myself, who writes and records everything on their own, gives you the luxury of only needing one clearance and one fee. Now doesn’t that sound like a breath of fresh air.