Thursday, May 26, 2011

Another perspective on getting the rights to use music

I got an email this week from a reader named David, in response to this earlier post:

I am by no means an expert on this topic, but I think what you've been saying in the past couple of posts is only partially correct.

The companies that own the rights to these songs license them out on a sliding scale based on the production budget. So yes, NBC or FOX would have to pay tens of thousands of dollars to use a song in 30 Rock or Glee, but that's because those shows have 7-figure budgets per episode. A feature with a $100,000 budget, I'm almost positive, could license that exact same song for a fraction of the cost.

Again, I'm not an expert on this, and I imagine there are lots of caveats to this - for example, if the artist owns the rights to his own material, you will be facing a very different scenario than if you're dealing with BMG. But that is a rare occurrence. And I do know that several years ago I produced a no-budget play and got the synchronization rights to three very well-known songs for the low low price of free.

Just thought I'd offer this up for discussion.


  1. I have heard this to be true depending on the project. I know when I was in film school, I heard plenty of stories where students were able to acquire the rights to a song (not the whole song) for a fraction of the cost because they were A. Students and/or B. an extremely low-budget production.

    Does it work all the time? Probably not. However, I'd bet that if you hear a popular song often in films/television then it's likely the writer and label are open to dealing with small-timers like the most of us.

    A lot of a little can sometimes be more than a little of a lot for some songs.

  2. It also depends on the stupidity of the licensor.

    Nina Paley who created the animation "Sita sings the Blues" got hit for an insane amount of money, using music recorded in the 20s.

    That nobody was listening to any more.

    When a heavyweight stepped in to help her it got *reduced* to $50,000. She borrowed it and paid.

    Yes, you could say she was silly to use it without permission but how additionally stupid was the licensing company when this animation *promotes* music no one would otherwise be listening to.

    Anyway you can listen to her talk about it, and lots of other interesting stuff here:

  3. Copyright law in the U.S. provides for compulsory license fee rates according to statutory schedule for creating new sound recordings of musical works (in other words, covering a song), and compulsory license fees for performing those works in certain contexts.

    However, there are no compulsory license rates for performing a musical work publicly in the context of a movie or TV show. So the fee is whatever you can negotiate with the owner of the musical work. The owner might be some combination of the songwriter, composer, producer, et cetera. So if you're performing a new version of the song for your movie or TV show, you negotiate the fee with whoever owns the musical work.

    The owner of the sound recording might be -- and usually is -- someone totally different, generally the record company. If you're using a version of the song already recorded, you have to negotiate with the record company that owns that particular sound recording of the underlying musical work.

    Make sense? The key thing to take away is that it is sometimes easier to get the rights to record a new version of a song rather than license the right to use an existing version, simply because the owner of the musical work is sometimes more likely to be sympathetic to your situation than the owner of the rights in the sound recording.