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Getting in Tune

If getting music rights to your film seems as daunting as a trip to the DMV, you're not alone. Here's a step-by-step guide to make it through the maze.

By Kristen Paulson

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Attention indie film producers.  It's time to acquire music rights for your masterpiece.  You'll need to obtain synch licensing.  You won't find this at the DMV...

That's probably a blessing, considering the surliness of the average Department of Motor Vehicles employee. A few years ago, the DMV was convinced I was a man with a DUIon his license who lived in California. They refused, on these high moral grounds, to renew my license. Hmmm.

Synchronization ("synch") licenses allow a licensee (that's you) to bundle music together in timed relation with visual images or motion pictures to create an audiovisual work (music fixed to a picture).

They're obtained by movie producers (again, you) in order to publicly exhibit and/or broadcast movies and must be negotiated on an individual basis between the copyright owner and the prospective user (that's you, the film producer). There is no set fee.

To Get Help or Not to Get Help: That Is the Question

One of your first queries might be: Do I want to do this on my own or get help? I spoke with Barbara Brunow, an extremely patient woman who does synch licensing at Finell-Brunow Associates, for this article. She's one example of an intermediary who can help if you decide you're not a synch-licensing do-it-yourselfer. Using an established music clearance and licensing company can speed the process of obtaining a favorable license.

This process can be confusing for those who aren't familiar with the music industry and its terminology (like myself). Fort Point Entertainment can also help arrange synch licensing. For more information about Fort Point's services, see our May issue.

For those whom decide to go it alone, here's an overview of how to get in synch.

Step 1: The Recording

Are you using an existing recording or re-recording the music?

If you want to clear an existing recording, contact the record company that owns the master or recording. To locate the company that owns the master, look on the CD jewel case for the record company name.

Not to dissuade you from using an existing recording, but frankly, if you use your little brother's garage band to re-record your music, it's going to be cheaper and simpler. You'll still have to obtain synch licensing but will only have to deal with the music's publisher. You should consider the cost of booking studio time and contracting musicians. If you use an existing recording, you'll have to deal with both the publisher and the record company.

Step 2: Usage

Ask yourself a couple of questions to determine usage. This information will be useful later in your licensing negotiations with the publisher:

  • How long is the music I wish to clear? Two minutes? Forty seconds?
  • What is the duration of time I want to use the music? This is called the term.
  • What is the territory I want to cover? The U.S., the U.S. and Canada, worldwide? Consider that the more extensive the coverage, the more costly it will be.
  • What's my budget?
  • What kind of songs am I using -- popular or currently unknown?
  • What type of work is this -- commercial or educational?
  • Where is the song used -- on the opening or closing credits or regular scene?

Step 3: The Right Stuff

It is vital that you know the rights you need before you approach a publisher, who will issue your synch license. The rights involve where and how you plan to show your film.

Listed below are rights you can negotiate. "All rights" is very expensive, and perhaps not in the average indie filmmaker's budget. It's more expensive to buy rights individually, so if you can negotiate a theater package, for example, it may be preferable.

  • Television: Be specific with what you want here. Most television companies clear for TV with options for video. Various TV rights exist to license "free or over the air TV," or what we determine as TV you can receive from antennae. Most major TV releases are worldwide, therefore received in a larger area. There is also basic cable and basic channels. Companies like HBO just license for subscription, or premium, TV.
  • Video
  • Theatrical or "broad" rights. These are the most expensive rights to purchase.
  • Non-Theatre. For example, a film festival, a convention or an employee training. This is for usage specifically not for public viewing.
  • The Internet: Web sites, digital streaming, MP3, software, CD-ROM. No one is sure how to control Internet rights. They are the wild, wild West of rights.

Step 4: Making Contact

The above will help order your thoughts prior to taking your next step: contacting the music's publisher. Warning: This part can get a little tricky since all the songs you wish to clear, or obtain licensing for, could potentially have multiple publishers.

Luckily, the copyright owners and publishers are almost always the same entity, which makes the process saner. Some examples of music publishers are BMG, Warner, and EMI. If you're lucky, all the songs you want to clear will be represented by the same company (i.e., ASCAP). Some companies are both publishers and administrators, for example, Warner Brothers. You must go to all publishers involved, unless one of them represents all of them.

If you don't know a song's publisher there are several places you can look:

  • Check out the CD's jewel case.
  • If you don't have a copy of the CD, check with BMI, (www.bmi.com), ASCAP (www.ascap.com) or SESAC (www.sesac.com), performance societies that represent songwriters and publishers. On the BMI Web site, for instance, you can search by the following criteria:

o Song title
o Writer
o Publisher
o Artist

As an experiment, I typed "La Vida Loca" into their search engine, and it gave me the publishing information (there were multiple publishers) with contact names and phone numbers.

Give the publishing contact the song, writer, publisher, term and the length of the music you wish to use. They'll give you a quote. If it's not within your budget, consider eliminating some songs from your soundtrack to lower the fee, or using less popular tunes.

Step 5: In Synch

Depending upon the particular song(s) and scope of the license, it may take anywhere from a few weeks to several months to research, negotiate and finalize a music licensing agreement.

Like my unfortunate incident at the DMV illustrates, there are pitfalls. Just finding out who owns the copyright to an obscure song can be a major task. You may also find that someone else currently licenses the song you wish to use who has contractually restricted its use by others.

It is also possible that a request for a license may be denied if a composer doesn't want to be associated with a particular product or project. Finally, the cost to license a particular piece of music may be prohibitive.

However, you, the indie film producer, can obtain synch licensing with some patience, persistence and flexibility. Hang in there -- and you'll end up in synch.