5 Tips for Securing the Right Music for Your Film

KCRW’s resident DJ Dan Wilcox recently discussed the trials and tribulations of Music Supervision and offered the following advice on securing the right music for your indie film – not to be confused with “securing the rights” – but rather securing the RIGHT music.  As filmmakers know, this portion of post-production is vital for the success of every film.  And not just picking out music that’s affordable or available, but choosing and securing the music that adds an whole new dimension to your story.  We found these tips wanted to share them in hopes they’ll be helpful.


1) Hiring A Music Supervisor

What is the ideal stage of production for a Music Supervisor to start working on a film? “I like to come onboard a project as early as possible,” said Wilcox. “There are a few reasons for this. In the pre-production stage, it’s good for a Music Supervisor to take a look at the script to see how much music the script calls for.”

This is especially vital for new filmmakers who need a Music Supervisor’s input on their script. “Music Supervisors can give you their expertise, before you shoot something on-camera, for things that you can’t really work around in the editing room.” For example, a simple onscreen discussion where specific lyrics are quoted can potentially lead to legal issues that a first-time filmmaker would never dream of getting slammed with. “You would be surprised at the things that people don’t necessarily think of. Being able to share ideas with a director before production is great so that it’s not all a post-production process.”

2) Selecting The Right Tunes

Are songs by famous artists even a possibility for low-budget filmmakers? “Neil Young is known for being the most precious about his work. Then there are people like David Bowie, who is known for being very generous when working with people with smaller budgets.” Try not to limit yourself so early in the process with music that may not work with the tone of the film. “It’s about what works best in the film and what you’re trying to convey and what really moves you. If that is something that is ultimately expensive then there are ways to cut corners, but having a really good product is the most important thing.”

Persistence is key. “When I worked in advertising, a woman once told me, ‘fast, cheap, good. Pick two because you can’t have all three.’ That kind of applies to licensing your music. If you don’t have money and you want something good, then you have to have time to seek out the opportunities.”

3) What Does MFN Mean In A Contract?

There are two sides to a song: the master side, which is the actual recording that you hear, and the publishing side, which is the composition, the notes, the lyrics and the melody. The rights to the publishing side are known as synchronization rights.

“The sync rights are typically the same price as the master rights, and in some cases different people own pieces of the song. Someone might own 30% of a song and someone else might own 70% of a song. That’s where Most Favored Nations (MFN) comes into play. For example, say you’re trying to license a Vampire Weekend song. Their publishing is through Universal but their master is through an independent record label. The label doesn’t want to know that you’re paying Universal $50,000 and you’re paying them $20,000. So, MFN refers to the two sides that want equal and fair compensation compared to the other. MFN is often in the contract when they sign so that no one is getting screwed.”

4) Budgeting for Music & Negotiating A Fair Deal

When budgeting for music, Wilcox recommends setting aside “something around 2% to 4% of the overall budget” as a good guideline to for small indie films. “If your film costs $1M, then $20,000 – $40,000 is a good nominal range if you have a dozen cues, but it all depends on the amount of music your film calls for.”

Say you have 10 songs to secure rights for and a $10,000 music budget. “A way to be able to go a long way with making an impact is taking your music budget, splitting it equally to $1,000 per song ($500 for each side), and then making it equal when you’re approaching artists. When negotiating, tell them ‘we have $500/side. Are you in or are you out?’” Let them know that that is your set price for all of the music you are licensing. “That approach is helpful and fair and it resonates with licensors, even if its less of an offer than they would like.”

5) Protecting Your Work

“There’s the creative part of Music Supervisions, but it can also have a legal component, which can be complex and freaky. A good music supervisor is a wealth of knowledge when it comes to legalities.” However, “Music Supervisors are not lawyers and it’s always good to have a lawyer working with you on your film. You’re going to need it for a lot more than music. There are a lot of free services available. For example, California Lawyers for the Arts has services that they can donate. It’s always good to have a lawyer working with you.”

By Lee Jameson / Film Education Coordinator

Special thanks to Film Independent


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