Attention, Filmmakers: 4 Tips for Getting Music Rights

What challenges and issues should a filmmaker prepare for during the music-licensing process? Experts at DOC NYC filled us in on some tips.

How can filmmakers get through the arduous process of clearing and gaining licensing rights to use copyrighted material in a project? Earlier this week, a DOC NYC Masterclass on Music Rights tackled the topic with experts in the music rights and licensing field, including Doug Bernheim, a music supervisor; Chris Hajian, a composer; Aileen Atkins, former SVP and GC of Napster and CinemaNow; Jonathan Finegold, owner of Fine Gold Music, a licensing and publishing company; and moderated by Andrea Connistraci, a transactional attorney.

Here are some highlights from the Masterclass:

Don’t get music rights right away, but don’t wait until the end.

Bernheim suggests that, unless you’re doing a music documentary for which certain songs are vital, don’t pay to get songs licensed before you actually make the film. A lot of times the song you have in your head doesn’t actually work as well in the finished product. Ask for expensive rights upfront when you do get to the licensing part of the ordeal—don’t wait until you’re ready to screen and assume Fair Use will cover you. Even music used fleetingly, diegetic or in the background, can render a scene unusable if you don’t have the music rights. Fair Use, which Atkins jokingly referred to as “Fair Excuse,” rarely applies the way people think it will.

Err on the side of generous with your music budget.

You have to pay master rights and publisher rights, a.k.a. sync rights, for every song. That means that every single writer on any given song needs to approve its use in your film, which can be costly, both time- and money-wise. Also, ask for the same fee across the boards when negotiating with third parties, i.e. if David Bowie lets you use “Modern Love” for X amount of dollars, ask everyone else who isn’t David Bowie if they could use his price as a standard in this instance. Who thinks they deserve to charge more than David Bowie?

A score is often better than a soundtrack.

Hiring a composer to pen original music for your film is both financially savvier and creatively more rewarding, as the music is unique to your film, and viewers will have no pre-conceived emotional attachment to any of the music.

Most importantly, hire an expert.

Music licensing is tricky, and you really should hire an expert if you have any questions. This was emphasized strongly by all members of the panel, all of whom have seen films get into trouble when music rights muck up the works unexpectedly, something that could have easily been remedied by an expert.

Special thanks to Indiewire for this one.

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