Music Licensing 101

December 17, 2019

By: Susan Schwartz, VP, Music Supervision & Licensing and Sarah Molloy, Operations Coordinator, TMA Entertainment

A great visual can stimulate the eyes, but nothing permeates the mind like a catchy song.

A good earworm will stay with you all day, sometimes all week or a lifetime, and if you are a brand hoping people will remember your message, a memorable song will go a long way – people can recognize a familiar tune in less than 100 milliseconds.

What is Music Licensing?

When you want music for your brand marketing/advertising campaign, there are a few ways to approach it. First, you can find someone to create original music for you that you can own and use til the end of time. Second, you can license an existing recording that fits with the creative message you are portraying, which is essentially “renting” it out for use in your campaign. And third, you can license that same song, but instead of using someone else’s recording, you can have someone else re-record the song for you.

The latter two scenarios, you will need to obtain a license from the creators or their representatives of that music, which enables you to use music and/or actual recording for your marketing purposes during a specified period of time.

If this is your first foray into licensing music for a product advertisement or piece of branded content, the process can be daunting and very confusing.

Securing great music can be both expensive and complicated, but despite the challenges, the benefits of using music in the right way are endless, from brand recognition and recall to connecting consumers emotionally to your product.

In case you’re thinking of using a piece of music in your next campaign, we created a brief guide filled with pointers to help ease the pain of music licensing.

Music Licensing Basics

Let’s discuss the two licensing scenarios with a bit more detail.

Licensing Actual Recordings

If you’d like to license the actual recording that hooked you in the first place, then you will typically need to work with two separate entities. One is the owner of the recording or “track,” commonly known as the “master.” This is most often a record label, which will almost always have a division specifically geared to help you license music. The other is the owner of the underlying music, the actual musical notes and lyrics, which may be administered by a publishing company. This is known as a synchronization or “synch” license, the origins of which date back well over a hundred years, when music was played on mechanical playing devices like player pianos.

Who Owns the Rights?

Once you know what kinds of licenses you are looking for, you will need to negotiate these licenses from all parties involved who helped create that piece of music, including the artist (via their record label if they have one) and the composer(s) (via their publisher(s) if they have one). We generically group these parties together and call them “rights holders,” and everyone involved needs to agree with how you want to use their music, and of course, their compensation.

Licensing Music & Lyrics

If you find that licensing the actual recording is too expensive after getting potential pricing from both the record label and music publisher and you only want the rights to re-record the song, then you just need to go to the publisher. In this case, you are licensing just the underlying copyright to the song (think of it as what you’d see on sheet music – the musical notes and lyrics).

Another bit of helpful industry jargon we used above is the term “synch”: what you are doing by licensing music is negotiating for a synchronization license, or synch for short. Synch is the term we use that allows you to pair the music with your marketing visuals, like a commercial or branded film.

Insider Pro Tips:

In order to get timely answers from the rights holders, anticipate their questions and make it as easy as possible for them to get you the answers and price quotes you need. Be as specific as possible about the terms you need a license for:

  • Title of song/track you seek
  • Name of artist, if you are planning on using the original recording.
  • Names of writers (if you know them)
  • If you are re-recording, are you altering any lyrics and if so, indicate all lyric changes
  • If you are re-recording, make sure your recording sounds nothing like a recording which already exists
  • Territory (i.e. U.S., Global etc.)
  • Length of license (i.e. # of weeks, months etc.)
  • Where will this run (Television, Internet, Radio, etc.)
  • Anticipated initial airdate
  • Exclusivity category (if any) – this means that while you are using the song in your campaign, no other advertiser can use it in your product category; normally buying category exclusivity will carry an additional cost
  • If you are planning on using an original recording made famous by an artist, include any additional info you feel will make your concept attractive to them
  • Make sure you have the creative concept (i.e. storyboards or a written description of the storyline) on hand in case it is requested by a rights holders; typically this is not needed until you request formal approval from the writer/s (or artist and writer/s) but in some cases, it is needed in order to even get a general idea of potential cost, especially when iconic artists are involved

What Will it Cost Me to Get the Rights?

Since every song is unique, costs for licensing vary based on several factors: the length of the term, where your content will air, the number of content executions you will produce, whether you desire category exclusivity, etc. Costs can range anywhere from a few thousand dollars for a completely unknown song to high six, and sometimes seven, figures for an iconic song or artist. 

The Final Step

Once you’ve decided on the music to use within your initiative, upon your confirmation, the rights holders will supply you with draft licensing agreements. We always recommend these be reviewed by licensing experts due to the many nuances in the music industry.

what is on paper is not always what is done in practice and it is very valuable to have seasoned veterans guide you through this step.

Before you go live with your campaign, make sure you have all the necessary paperwork in place (confirmations, licenses, and any union contracts which may apply) as this is business best practice. Sometimes it’s not possible to accomplish if you’re in a time crunch, but if you can, you’ll have much more peace of mind knowing the legal bits are in order prior to the first airdate.


Whew. We know that’s a lot of information – music licensing can be a complicated business, but hopefully this guide helped lay out the basics to get you started. If you still feel like you need to know more, we’re here to help; we’ve been doing this a looooong time! Contact our synch team at TMA/Platinum Rye: Susan Schwartz or Larry Weintraub.