Music Licensing

You’ve finally gotten the dream gig; an infomercial project for a new kitty litter that’s odorless, is self-cleaning, and doesn’t trickle sand all over the floor when the kitty exits the carbon filled polycarbonate self-contained box. Hot dog! You’re on your way to infomercial fame as the editor that can do it all! The owner is hot to get the infomercial completed and the only thing you’re missing is the music. During the last production meeting, it was decided that the piece needs a laid back pop/folk groove with a hint of techno. You’re confident nothing in your music library even remotely fits that description, so now what? It’s time to investigate music licensing.

License This

You’re already familiar with buyout music libraries, right? The pay-once, use-forever business model works well for lots of projects, regardless of size or scope. Of course, there are limitations. Selection can be frustrating when you’re looking for that perfect song, a competitor could be using the exact same song for their product and, as we all know, the music sounds pretty cheesy sometimes. These are all great reasons to look elsewhere for music options. Over the past few years, several music licensing sites have popped up on the Internet.

Before we get too deep, let’s define our terms. For the purposes of this article, when we mention music licensing, we’re talking about production music from independent or lesser-known artists. We’re not discussing how to license your favorite Michael Jackson track for a project. While that’s theoretically possible, it’s highly unlikely and very expensive. Since none of us have Superbowl budgets, the music we’re investigating is a little more affordable.


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A quick Google search for ‘online music licensing’ yields many options. One of the big fish – so to speak – is Rumblefish. This vendor is interesting in that it has two options for music licensing: you can license music for YouTube-type videos under its Friendly Music banner or use its normal Rumblefish offerings for every other type of project. License fees run from $2 up into the stratosphere, depending on the kind of music you want and how you will use it. Other online music licensing services include Jamendo, Magnatune, BeatPick and many others. Each has its own rules, rates and music offerings. Most allow you to search their musical choices by genre, style, mood and other criteria. Once you’ve narrowed the field, online music players offer a sample of the tune and give you the opportunity to license it right away with a typical online shopping cart.

Sticker Shock

If you’ve never licensed music before, you might be surprised with the fees. Licensing firms use different price structures based on your application of the music. For instance, using the scenario from the start of this article, you need to license a song for a nationwide broadcast application. After a few minutes of searching the music at Rumblefish, we find the perfect track and add it to our cart. When we go to checkout, we’re presented with a number of questions about the specific use of the track. Applying the best answers for this infomercial, the online wizard gives us a price of $17,325. Ouch. Keep in mind that your answers to the application questions determine the price. Change any of these fields and your price could go up or down, depending on the license agreement with the artist for this particular song. Just one or two changes in the application of the track could quickly slice the big number in half.

Application Is Everything

Maybe you don’t need to license a track for national distribution. Maybe your usage is a little more mundane, like an internal training video or even as simple as background music for a YouTube video. Many of the same vendors are available for these options too. Using the same track we found before, but changing the criteria for use in a wedding video, the license fee shrinks to only $16. You’ll find similar results with other suppliers and, at these prices, music licensing becomes very attractive for just about any project.

Video for sharing sites offers another opportunity for music licensing. Let’s say you’ve just created a complete how-to video showcasing your latest Rube Goldberg contraption. You believe that some silly circus-type music would be the perfect underscore for the video, but you don’t have anything like that in your music library. You could go the same route as seemingly everyone else online and just grab something from iTunes. You know this violates copyright law, but who’s gonna care, right? This is probably the quickest way to get your video removed from the sharing site. What if you could get music legally for a couple of bucks? You can. If your only use for the song is background for something like a YouTube video – non-commercial, of course – then fully legal, licensed music is available for your project at a very affordable rate.

But wait. When you buy ‘normal’ music online, it only costs a buck per song. Why is this stuff more expensive? The answer is fairly simple. When you buy a track from your favorite artist and download it to your computer, you’re not really buying the music. As far as the music company is concerned, you’re actually licensing the music for your own personal use. This ‘license agreement’ between you and the music company doesn’t include application in production, broadcast or Internet video. These types of usage require a separate license and cost significantly more, depending on the artist and popularity of the song – if the music company will even allow it.

It’s Your Turn

We don’t have the space in this column for a full tutorial on the legal issues surrounding music licensing. The good news is that it’s not really necessary for most applications. Now that Internet-based music licensing services are available to all, it’s easy to find and legally acquire music tracks for just about any video project, large or small. It’s not for everyone all the time, but it certainly opens new possibilities for any production and, after some research, you’ll have a much better idea how much to budget for music in your future projects.

To read up on some of the legalities of music licensing and copyright issues, check out attorney Mark Levy’s feature, Fair Use vs Copyright.

Contributing Editor Hal Robertson is a digital media producer and technology consultant.

The Videomaker Editors are dedicated to bringing you the information you need to produce and share better video.