Music Licensing For Dummies, Smarties, and The Rest of Us.

A few weeks ago, I did a blog discussing a phone call that I got from MTV. They called me (unexpectedly) and asked to license my music. That rocks for several different reasons. For one, it’s rare that an artist deals directly with a music supervisor. Usually its a publishing company, an agency, or somebody like that who is a liason between an artist and the entity who is seeking to license music. Also, it indicates that my music is being acknowledged by people who are in a position to help further my career.

You’ve been hearing licensed music your entire life and probably never thought about it. The legalities of music licensing is the reason why so many restaurants & tv shows don’t sing the traditional “Happy Birthday” song that we all know (if they sing that song, they’d have to pay for it. Long live performance rights.) 
After discussing my licensing agreement on Twitter I soon learned that a lot of independent artists don’t know what music licensing is or how to get their music licensed. While I can’t give you a definitive answer on the best strategy for you to take to get placements for your music, I can give you my point of view as somebody who has been doing commercials professionally and licensing music for the past 5 years. I hope this helps.

As we all know, the internet TOTALLY changed the entertainment industry. The easy availability of music made it so making money off of record sales is no longer as easy as it once was. Why would anybody buy your song if they can download it from somewhere for free? So, while the internet made it so artists don’t necessarily make as much off of album sales, it created an advantage at the same time. It created an avenue by which artists can promote & distribute their music for free! A budding musician can post their music online, build up a following, and start doing shows for the people who think he or she is awesome. Then those fans go online and talk about you. Then blogs write about you. The end goal is a company like…Oh, I don’t know…like MTV licensing your music. If it sounds simple, ummm…just keep reading. The hard part is becoming properly educated in all the business surrounding music licensing and hanging in there long enough for it to actually happen.

It’s waaaaay less expensive for a company to license music from an independent artist than it is from an artist who is signed to a major label. The entertainment industry is struggling to remain lucrative, so over the years more and more independent artists have had success with getting placements. Not only does the company get to spend less money on music that may be just as good as a major artist, but they also get the prestige of being able to expose their audience to something new and cool. It’s a win-win situation, as long as the artist has their business affairs in order. It’s estimated that half a billion dollars trade hands every year through licensing fees. 

Let’s start from the beginning. Music licensing is when a person grants the right to use their copyrighted music for use in different media like radio, TV shows, commercials, videos, and websites. The person who owns the copyright is the licensor of the song and the licensee is the company that thinks you’re bad ass and has subsequently been given the right to use your music. There are several different ways that music can be licensed, that varies depending upon who you’re licensing to and how big of an artist you are (sad but true.) There are plenty companies who’s sole purpose is to act as middle men between artists (licensors) and the entity that needs the music (licensees). Each company has different ways to license music and has fees associated with their services. Some companies that you license music too will pay you money upfront. I once licensed music to Marlboro and received a few thousand dollars upfront in lieu of receiving royalties off the back end. However, some deals pay you no money upfront and the only money you receive is from royalties. That is why artists have to be registered with a performance rights organization such as ASCAP, BMI, or SESAC.
A Performance Rights Organization is the company which you join that collects license fees for it’s members and pay an artist royalties when the artist’s music is performed publicly (that includes live shows, placements on radio, tv, commercials, websites, etc). An artist can only join one Performance Rights Organization (PRO) so I recommend you Goggle “Performance Rights Organizations” and research them so that you can pick the one that is best for you. I am a member of ASCAP. They’re system for registering music online is really easy and the people who work there never have a stank attitude with me when I call and ask a million questions. 

This is a list of places that are legally required to pay royalties for playing music.
So the world of music licensing seems really lucrative and attractive, right? Well… 
Before you can license your music, there are a few things that you need to consider. If your music does not fit certain criteria, it will NOT get licensed. Period. How do I know? Because I am actually looking at one of my music licensing contracts right now and I’m about to tell you what that criteria is. People charge money for this information, I’m giving it to you for free. WHY? 
Because people used to use my lack of knowledge to take advantage of me, and I never want that to happen to you.
So listen and learn, my fellow artists. If you want your music to have a chance at getting a placement:
  • Your music must be industry standard. If you don’t know what “industry standard” means, you should really go hire somebody that does know. I recently listened to the music of a duo from Chicago. Their creative concepts are RIDICULOUSLY cool, but the mix of their music sounded sketchy. And in an age where the industry standard is vocals that are tuned super duper tight, if your engineer doesn’t do ANY tuning at all to your singing vocals, chances are the singing is gonna sound loose when compared to other music on the market. I personally know a guy who’s ear for music is so awesome that he gets hired to do vocal arrangements for R. Kelly. He’s bad ass, and even HE gets slight tuning done to vocals he works on. The mix of your song makes all the difference, so even if you mix your music yourself, buy a few hours with an engineer in a great room like Plug N’ Play in LA or La Sala in New York or VSOP in Chicago, because sitting down for a few hours with people who have actual industry experience can really take your sound to the next level.
  • Make sure you own your copyrights and masters, and if you have samples in your song, make sure the samples have been cleared. If you don’t own your masters, you don’t control the song. If you haven’t gotten a sample cleared, you are infringing on somebody else’s copyright. Typically, a contract from a company that is licensing your music will include a clause that requires you to certify that you are the owner of the copyright and have the sole power to grant them a license. That same clause also includes a few sentences that say something along the lines of “You verify that you fully control this song and if you’re lying and we get sued for playing your music, we will be held harmless and you are the one who has to deal with it, because you’re agreeing that you have the rights to license this music right now.” I have NEVER seen a licensing agreement that didn’t include a line like that. So make sure you own your copyright yourself and your masters as well, or you’re finished before you started. Trust me, I’ve been there. But I’ll talk about that in another blog.
  • Make sure you have a clean version of your music readily available. I don’t know WHY I have to explain this to people, but some radio stations, tv networks, music coordinators for movies, and websites are actually OPPOSED to profanity! Can you believe it? Gosh! I used to co-host a hip-hop entertainment show on Fox, and on that show my segment included showing music videos from local entertainers. We asked people ON THE SHOW to send in profanity free versions of their video to be aired on the show. You’d be surprised how many rappers think that the words bitch, hoe, pussy, and dick are NOT profane words! So let me be clear: If the name of your song is “Hoes Let Me Fuck That Pussy” or “Bitch I Don’t Want Your Dick Head Boyfriend,” you either need to censor that song drastically OR try to find a company that won’t mind that you refuse to make the censored version available.
For more information on this topic, pick up the latest edition of Donald Passman’s book “All You Need To Know About The Music Business.” I was actually DISCOURAGED from reading this book by somebody who didn’t have my best interests at heart, so I ENCOURAGE you to read it and educate yourself. 
I’m not one of those people who have a “Fuck a record label” mentality. I firmly believe that if you are smart and do things the proper way then when you do enter into a relationship with a label you can actually go into BUSINESS with them instead of just being a talented little dependent who gets mad and pitches a fit when your label isn’t giving you the proper attention. If you’re a serious artist, you need to own this book. No excuses.
I hope this blog was helpful. For my next blog I think I’ll talk about one of the shitty business relationships I had with a “consulting agency” in Chicago. I’ll tell u how I wasted several thousand dollars and what I learned from it. They’re gonna be mad. But ummm…so what? LoL.


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  • Thanks Nikki...very informative

  • Always great to share knowledge, thanks Nikki. Quick add.
    My band Puppetbox was also contacted by MTV. Half our songs are under a publishing company and half are not. MTV was only interested in the songs we as a band owned. Why? Because it is cheaper for them. Fair enough; but as more bands give their music away for free in the hopes of exposure it is even more difficult for anyone to make music more than a hobby. Maybe a publishing company isn't the way to go; but please everyone, attach some value to your music or else large companies will see mypsace/etc as a free source of music for their shows, movies and other money making products.

  • Very good, and glad you feel strongly about letting the cat out of the bag, so to speak... You sound like an Aries. Thanks!

  • Thanks for this post. People really need to stay educated...that is my goal in life is to get artists to be more involved and educated. Thanks so much for supporting the effort!!

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