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Licensing Your Music: Where to Begin?

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Nick is a singer-songwriter and music business professional based in Denver, Colorado. Expanding his music career through the internet!

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Why License Your Music?

In the digital age, the game is constantly changing for musicians. It is easier than ever to self-produce, release, and market your music. As the need for record label representation dwindles, the inter-workings of the music industry become more and more catered to the independent artist. Not unlike recording and marketing your music independently in 2018, the process of licensing your own music independently has also become streamlined and licensing resources (music libraries) have become much more accessible for DIY artists. So, why should you license your music?

Think about it this way: every movie has a soundtrack, every TV series has intro and outro music, YouTube channels use licensed theme music, characters in your favorite show walk into a pub and there is music on the juke box in the background, commercials all have jingles or instrumental music in the background and so on... The music which is 'synced' up to these various media platforms is licensed by the copyright owner (i.e. you as an independent musician) to the company who wishes to use the song. This type of placement is referred to as Sync Licensing, which comes from the idea explained above where a song is synchronized with a commercial or a movie.

A great way to get sync licensing placements as an independent artist is to sign up and list your music in music libraries such as Songtradr, AudioSparx. One alternative to using these sites is to bundle your licensing needs with digital distribution through a digital distribution company such as CDBaby. Services like these have been the catalyst in shifting the traditional model of music licensing which was heavily controlled by gate-keepers at major publishing companies, but now is in the hands of independent musicians, allowing them to be able to take control of their licensing career.

Synchronization Licenses Explained by CD Baby

Important Considerations when Licensing your Music

As a musician your income is generally broken down into three different income streams: 1.) playing live shows 2.) selling records & merchandise 3.) licensing & publishing your music. Playing live and selling records are both relatively straight forward concepts and it makes sense that artists are able to do these things independently in the 21st century. However, licensing and publishing are much more in depth and legalistic which generally makes artists cringe and run the other way as quickly as possible.

As you delve into licensing music, you will want to familiarize yourself with music copyright laws, so that you can understand the fundamental difference between a musical composition copyright and a sound recording copyright. As you may have guessed, the intellectual property of the song itself is a musical composition copyright, which is held by the composer or songwriter.

Generally when signing a contract with a record label, you forego the rights to the master recordings of your own songs. Therefore giving the label the legal right to use the master recording however they want. When you own the master recording you hold the sound recording copyright. This is what allows labels to sign artists, then "shelf" them if their record sales aren't impressive, which often results in very messy legal battles between artists and labels. To learn more about copyright law follow the link in the resources at the bottom of the article.


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After gaining a solid grasp on how copyrights work, and after filing your own copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office, now it's time to register with a PRO (Performance Rights Organization) as a composer! PRO's are organizations which act on behalf of artists to collect and distribute royalty payments for the use of their songs. ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC are the "Big Three" when it comes to performance rights organizations.

ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) and BMI (Broadcast Music, Inc.) offer essentially the same service to musicians. The main differences between the two organizations is that ASCAP is a non-profit run by composers and publishers, and costs $50 to register as a composer and $50 to register as a publisher. Whereas BMI (also a non-profit) is run by a team of music business professionals and membership is free, as a composer. The caveat being that the price to gain membership as a publisher is between $150-250. We will talk more about the significance of registering yourself as both a songwriter and a publisher later (Hint: It has to do with only making half of your songwriting royalties, vs 100% of them).

SESAC is unique becasue it is invite only. It is a great PRO and members seem to love the benefits, but if you are just starting out in your songwriting career you will want to stick with BMI or ASCAP since you won't be on the radar of SESAC until you gain traction in the music industry.

Oliver Tree's Song 'Movement' is featured in the Apple Ad above. Initially when I saw this ad for the first time, admittedly I had not heard of Oliver. After a quick sift through his website, it is apparent that he has funding behind him via Atlantic Records, a major record label owned by Warner Brothers who have signed the likes of Bruno Mars, Ed Sheeran, Aretha Franklin, Led Zeppelin, Jay Z and many other iconic artists throughout the years.

This is all to say that the licensing agreement and sync placement of 'Movement' on Apple's ad is a textbook case of how the traditional model of music licensing operated. Step one: get a record deal. Step two: the label dictates licensing contracts, since they are the owners of the master recording.

For your average musician trying to license their music there is also a two step process. Step one: record your music. Step 2: gather all of the necessary metadata, images, etc. which are instrumental in setting yourself apart in a music library.

Obviously you can't just upload your songs to a database and get a call from an Apple representative the next day offering you tens of thousands of dollars for a sync deal on their commercials. However, if you apply the same way of thinking about how music licensing works on a macro level, then you are able to more easily how to navigate the process as a low-bugdet DIY musician because you understand the process itself.

One Last Thing to Pay Close Attention To when Licensing Your Music Online: Metadata

You may have heard the word metadata associated with html or Google AdWords, but it is often overlooked as an instrumental (no pun intended) way of increasing your odds of being recognized in a music library. So what is Metadata? In the case of music libraries it is the list of keywords which you enter in which allow people to find your content based on their searches. Most artists don't think much of this step in the process and generally use 10-15 keywords max. In a competitive online marketplace like music licensing libraries, having amazing music won't cut through the crowd, but strategic use of words which are associated with your musical content will!

The best way to beef up your metadata is to use an online thesaurus to find synonyms for the obvious words that come to mind. One example could be a break-up song. The obvious emotions associated with break-ups are: hate, love, heartache, pain, remorse, doubt, etc. but if you type any one of those words into an online thesaurus you will quickly see that there are many ways of articulating these feelings, hence many very specific words that people may be searching when trying to find songs to license. My personal rule of thumb is to get as many keywords and phrases gathered as I possibly can that pertain to the lyrical content as well as the style of the song. Check out the link at the bottom for more on utilizing music metadata!

Go License Your Music!

Hopefully by now you can see that it IS possible to make money licensing and publishing your music as an independent artist in the 21st century...

However, this doesn't do you any good unless you have a plan to utilize the opportunities in front of you. So where should you start?

My advice: take some of the terminology I use in this article and do your Googling due diligence. Figure out how music licensing worked traditionally and compare that to the modern day model. This may sound goofy, pretentious, vague and not helpful, but the internet is a hot bed for good information if you know how to research the right way. Happy Licensing!

Additional Resources