Songs in movies, TV shows, and ads: How do the licenses work?

George Howard is the former president of Rykodisc. He currently advises numerous entertainment and non-entertainment firms and individuals. Additionally, he is the Executive Editor of Artists House Music and is a Professor and Executive in Residence in the college of Business Administration at Loyola, New Orleans. He is most easily found on Twitter at:

I get asked this question (or a variant on it) more than just about any other music business related topic. I get it; it ain’t easy to understand, but it’s not that hard, and, understand it you must.

Also, as much as I believe that the “music business” is dead, and it’s all just business; the one thing that is unique to the music business is how copyright is handled. That’s not to say that you have different intellectual property interests in music than in other businesses; you don’t. Rather, there are just various “terms of art” related to © that are unique to the music business.

So…here we go: an attempt to explain the rules and licenses around songs being used in films, tv, and ads. Let me know if you have any questions; I’ll try to answer them in the comments, and maybe this can be an evolving document that we can reference.

    Any time a song is used in a film, tv show, ad there are two licenses required:

  1. A synchronization (synch) license: This is a license the producer of the above must obtain from the writer of the song (if the writer has assigned her © to a publisher, the producer must go through the publisher). 

    This license gives the producer of the above the right to synchronize the ©’d song (important: not the recording of the song, but the underlying composition – the lyrics and melody) with the moving images in the tv show, ad, or movie.

  2. A master usage license: the producer of the above must negotiate a license with the person who holds the © to the recording of the above underlying composition (i.e. the version of the song found on the CD). 
Typically, the master usage holder is the label. If there is no label (i.e., it’s self-released by the artist), then the producer of the movie, etc. negotiates directly with the artist who self-released.

Thus, in the case of an artist who has not assigned their publishing rights to anyone and self-releases their own record, the producer of the movie, etc. negotiates “both sides” (i.e. the synch and the master usage) with the artist herself.

If the artist has done a publishing deal and a record deal, the producer negotiates with the publisher for the synch rights and the label for the master usage rights.

Unlike with mechanicals (i.e. the payment labels make to songwriters for the rights to mechanically reproduce a ©’d song on the album the label releases), there is no compulsory license for either synch or master licenses. Because there is no compulsory license for the synch or master usage, the producer must negotiate both of these licenses, and either the master holder or the publisher can deny the request.

In reality, the producer will approach one of the parties (the label or publisher – typically, publisher first – see below for why), and see if they can get the writer interested in the synch (most writers, of course, are falling all over themselves to have their music used).

The producer makes the publisher/writer an offer, and then tries to shift the burden of the master clearance to the writer/publisher. At that point, they (both producer and the publisher/writer) push on the label to clear the master side (most labels, of course, are falling all over themselves to have their music used), and a deal is struck. 

The fee is divided (typically evenly) between the publisher for the synch rights and the master holder for the, er, master rights.

Sometimes, the publisher will want to do the deal, but the label won’t. In this case — as you saw, for instance in I am Sam, where the publisher for the Beatles cleared the synch rights for the song, but the label wouldn’t make a deal for the master usage — the producers used different masters (i.e. they had artists cover the songs).

It doesn’t work the other way; if the publisher won’t grant the synch license, the party is over – this is why producers go to publishers first: they’re the dispositive party.

Importantly, in the US, when the Ad or TV show or Movie is publicly performed on TV (i.e. it’s broadcast), a performance royalty is generated for the writer and publisher of the song (often the same person). The performer (i.e. the person on the master) sees none of this performance royalty. Do note, that no performance royalty is generated from public performance in movie theaters, as they are (wink, wink, nod, nod) exempt from paying public performance royalties.

Additionally, in 1995 Congress enacted the Digital Performance Right in Sound Recordings Act (DPRA). This act — in conjunction with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1995 — created a performance royalty obligation to be paid by webcasters whenever they broadcast a ©’d work over the Internet. Significantly, this performance royalty compensates the performer and content owner (i.e., label) of the work. The publisher and writer are still compensated when their ©’d works are publicly performed online via the Performance Rights Organizations (ASCAP, BMI, SESAC), but now — due to the DPRA — the featured performer and content owner are also compensated. This brings the US in line with the rest of the world (with some glaring exceptions, like North Korea) with respect to paying a performance royalty to both the writer and performer. Of course, to date (though efforts are afoot to change this) this only applies to public performance when it is digitally transmitted; for terrestrial radio (i.e. FM/AM), only the writers are paid a performance royalty. SoundExchange collects from webcasters on behalf of their registered members. SoundExhchange’s authority to collect for/distribute to these SRCOs comes from a designation by the Librarian of Congress and the US © office.

So, when you’re watching Hulu and an ad comes on with music underneath that has been licensed by a producer of the ad from a label/artist, both the performer and the writer of the song are paide a performance royalty.

Please note, the above really only scratches the surface with respect to licensing. There are, of course, complexities. For instance, when doing a deal for a TV show, you also have to factor in home video, etc.

However, if you don’t understand the above, you sure won’t be able to dive deeper.
Hope this helps. Leave me questions in the comments.

Q&A with Charlie Degenhart

There’s a new EP in town that’s sure to get you groovin’. With a full sound and a whole lot of soul, Charlie Degenhart’s music can’t help but makes you feel good. This week COREnered is flying out to Nashville to talk with Degenhart about how life inspires his sound, and he lets us in on his favorite spot to discover new music.

Charlie Degenhart

  1. What is your first musical memory?
    Well, before I was old enough to have the money to buy records, I remember recording songs off of the airwaves by sitting this big old, red-plastic tape recorder I had up against my AM/FM clock radio. I’d be hanging out in my room and when I heard the first bar or so of tune I liked come on the radio, I’d jump up and hit the ‘record’ button on the tape recorder. So you had this ‘indirect’ sound, full of hiss and everything. . .and you’d always miss the first couple of beats, but it didn’t matter. Capturing great songs so that I could play them back over and over was such a rush!
  2. What was the first concert you ever went to?

    My first concert was a free Chicago performance at beautiful Fairmount Park in Philadelphia. . I’m thinking around 1989? (I think I might still be hung-over from that one. . .)

  3. What or whom do you go to for musical inspiration?

    Life. . . that happens to me and that happens to my family and friends. Some folks take pictures with a camera, I use a pen and a guitar to mark my passing through this life.

  4. Without using the words “alternative,” “pop,” or “rock,” describe your sound.

    Describe my sound? Lyrically thick, romantic, groove-heavy, pretty-melody-laden, at times edgy, acoustic-based (yet usually electrified and/or horn-intensified), psychedelic and smart. . . on a good day, that is. (On a bad day? A lot of pitchy noise.)

  5. Stones or Beatles?

    Stones or Beatles? Absurd question. Darkness or Light? How can one exist without the other? Stones for groove and attitude. Beatles for lyrics and melody, and “positivity.” My world would be chaos if not for an equal balance between the two.

  6. What’s your dream collaboration? 

    Easy⎯Daniel Lanois. I love his sonic world.

  7. Do you find the song or does the song find you?

    Songs find me. I keep the pen ready. I watch you all and let you bring the songs to me.

  8. How do you discover new music

    I’d be lost without Grimey’s New and Preloved Music shop here in Nashville. I tend to buy new things on vinyl. Listening on vinyl helps me to maintain a proper reverence for and ritual around the listening experience. Every couple of weeks or so, I’ll go into the store and just ask what I need to have…and their e-mail blasts keep me hip to anything out there I might be interested in.

Tips to Sell More Music Online: Blog Promotion

I6  MP3 Blogs can cause significant music and gig ticket sales There are currently tens of thousands of MP3 Blogs with more springing up each day. If the MP3 blog community embraces your band, you could potentially have thousands of them talking about you and providing MP3s of your songs to hundreds of thousands of music fans. What better way to get the word out than by a real grass roots campaign of music fans talking about you because they love what you do. With the Internet, they have a vehicle to communicate with the world.

Continue reading Tips to Sell More Music Online: Blog Promotion

COREnered: Q&A with Heather Rigdon

She grew up treading the waters of a traditional upbringing while singing in her father’s church and has learned to master a voice of romantic reason. This week’s COREnered takes flight with sultry jazz songbird, Heather Rigdon, who has the ability to seduce you into a hypnotic state of enamored listening. Fly with her below to uncover a little more of her songbook’s influences and intimations.


  1. What is your first musical memory?
    Falling asleep under the pew of my father’s church to the whir of a hammond b3 punctuated by clapping on the off-beat. My father was a Pentecostal minister and much of my early musical memories where spent in church. Sacred songs, hymns, choir and congregation songs were the main part of my musical exposure. We were not allowed to watch PG rated movies so most of my secular musical exposure was through Walt Disney and black and white musicals (some technicolor). My father was a fan of Ray Charles, and my first experience with ‘secular’ music was through this very 8 track.
  2. What was the first concert you ever went to? I grew up with the best musicians. Most had never been to school or had a lesson in order to learn their instrument… most learned and played ‘by ear’. There were no chord charts or sheet music in our churches and there were no harmony lines for the choir to learn. We felt it… and heard it more than “learned” it. The Lanny Wolfe Trio was my first United Pentecostal concert. They were from JCM College of Ministries–one of our many sanctioned Bible Colleges. My first official ‘secular’ concert was U2 at 25. I was amazed at the energy. It was very similar to the energy I had been raised on and had experienced in church. We had full bands and our drummer had to be contained in plexiglass as a general rule because they loved to play as hard as John Bonham.
  3. What or whom do you go to for musical inspiration? Anyone that has something to say whether it be through the lyrics, melody or groove. The magical ones have two out of the three. Nina Simone is one of the rarities. She has soul, songs, and melody. Leonard Cohen is a wordsmith and always engages your mind and your body in his songs. Annie Lennox for her raw emotion. David Bowie for his showmanship. Tom Waits for his love of the dark and obscurities of life. The Muppets and heroes/heroines in any of the Walt Disney cartoons whose songs are as relevant to children as they are to adults.
  4. Without using the words “alternative,” “pop,” or “rock,” describe your sound. Straightforward jazz three piece with seductive, soulful vocals. I grew up singing soprano, although I was really an alto whenever the choir director needed another soprano. I stripped my voice a bit, which gave me an interesting texture. Not being allowed to experience current pop culture growing up–my voice matured inside a vacuum–insulated from the current sound, making it unique. As far as pitch goes, I truly believe you either hear pitch or you don’t. It’s almost impossible to teach or learn. Songs are simply communications, and each time I sing, I try to make sure I am open and sincere–then the song transmits more than words and communicates the heart of the song.
  5. Stones or Beatles?The Beatles. Melody masters who captured the innocence of the human existence in the simplicity of their lyrics and their bravery to record the life they were living out. It is hard to say though… the Stones appeal to the raw animalistic side of me where the Beatles romanced my mind and wanted to “hold my hand”. But I’d have to say Beatles…it’s time for the 50’s to come around again–and why not, I’m the new Doris Day–whatever will be, will be.
  6. What’s your dream collaboration? Jeff Cohen and Nina Simone–either one or both. Leon Russell would be a close second. I would love to simply be in on a writing session with any of them and watch how that process went. I benefit by watching the masters. Each one has their own method and in seeing all their different methods I am more apt to be open to my own; however it comes.
  7. Do you find the song or does the song find you? The song always finds you, but the muse is a gentleman. Music will not ask of you something you are not ready to give. Sometimes I wake with a melody, sometimes I have chorus and melody then trust Cliff Goldmacher (my co-writer and producer) will know how to work it out. Second verses are the hardest to write and sometimes knowing when to write a bridge or leave it out is harder. It always comes to me. It may come through different forms or avenues…but it does come to me as long as I’m listening. My only responsibility is to be open to it.
  8. How do you discover new music Living aware, surrounding yourself with people who are chasing their passions, and staying open to the lessons they can teach. Music is in everything. Listening to what people say and try to turn it different ways till you’re able to see it in a new light. There is nothing new under the sun, but each person brings a new perspective which makes for infinite possibilities. It can be like that or as easy as a friend says, “hey, come check out this band.”

Boy oh (Tommy) Boy – 80% of you make music that is "crap"?

Yesterday, Tommy Silverman stated that:

“…80 percent of all records released are just noise — hobbyists. Some companies like TuneCore are betting on the long tail because they get the same $10 whether you sell one copy or 10,000,” he says. “Those are the people who are using TuneCore and iTunes to clutter the music environment with crap, so that the artists who really are pretty good have more trouble breaking through than they ever did before.”

He further, claims that “79,000 releases sold less than 100 copies last year.”

I think Tommy had a cameo in Hot Tub Time Machine as he sure sounds like its 1985 again.  It’s almost sounds like the old mean neighbor from next store telling those darn kids to get off his lawn! Continue reading Boy oh (Tommy) Boy – 80% of you make music that is "crap"?