Music can make or destroy your film.

And I’m not talking about a bad score or a cheesy tune. No, I’m talking about music rights. You only need one unclear copyright and you can say goodbye to your distribution deal or being shown at film festivals. No one will touch your film until the copyright in question is cleared.

As a filmmaker it is your responsibility to clear music rights. You cannot expect a distributor or film festival to do it for you and if you are a new filmmaker, it is highly likely you will have to do it yourself.

Unfortunately music is not always straightforward to clear and, more often than not, you may have to change your plans. But there are actually things you can do to simplify the process and make sure you deliver the music fully cleared. Here are 5 tips to help you get started.

Tip 1: Know your copyrights!

If you don’t know the difference between a sound recording and a composition, find out! Music licensing is much easier once you understand the basics of how music copyright works.

Tip 2: Do your research!

Research, research, research…. Not everything is straightforward and the mergers and acquisitions that have taken place in the music industry recently have muddled things even further. Ask questions, speak to collection agencies (PRS for Music, PPL), record labels and music publishers; in short do your research!

Forewarned is forearmed and the more you know about what you are trying to clear, the more power you will have when it comes to negotiating. Your research may also unearth problems around the clearance of a specific track, which may make you think you need to go for plan B even before you have sent that first music clearance request.

Tip 3: Have a plan B!

Unfortunately and for many reasons, you may not be able to clear the track that you really want. So come up with alternatives early on. There are approximately 9000 record labels in the UK and several hundreds production libraries so surely there must be something out there that you use….

Bonus tip: avoid writing a track in the script and making it central to the plot or a character. Once again, you may not be able to clear it.

Tip 4: Budget

Regardless of whether you are clearing commercial music via synchronisation licences or commissioning a composer to write a score, you will need to pay for whatever music you want to use. The rule is 10% of the total film budget should go to music but even if you can't stretch that far, remember to put some money aside. There are ways to reduce the music costs and I’ll show you how on Monday but one thing is sure, you can’t get music for free.

Tip 5: Avoid film soundtracks

Film soundtracks have become very popular. They are used constantly on shows like Top Gear and on TV commercials, yet you should avoid using them altogether. Firstly most film scores are the property of film companies, which often make them unclearable. Second, they are very expensive to clear (think thousands rather than hundreds) even if you only use a few seconds. So unless you have a lot of money in your music budget, you are better off using something else.

One option is to hire a composer. A composer is not only much better value for money for you as he will write the music for your whole movie rather than just a scene but also you will have something original which you will own the rights to. Rights of course which could be exploited and bring an additional source of revenue from your film…

Celine Palavioux
Celine Palavioux has over 17 years' experience in licensing music for film, television and advertising. She has worked for record labels, music publishers and was music consultant in both London and Los Angeles for several years before joining the BBC. At the BBC, she was in charge of a team clearing music for programmes by BBC worldwide, and more recently has been in charge of commissioning composers for in-house productions such as Wonders of Life, Human and Africa and designing and delivering copyright training to BBC production teams across the UK. Celine currently runs Music To Picture, a music consultancy offering music supervision services, composer representation and music rights training.

11 thoughts on “5 Tips on Clearing Music For Your Film

  1. Isn't there a possibility of using the traditional/folk songs? Or maybe using Creative Commons free licences?

  2. Tip 2 is the best tip, really DO YOUR RESEARCH. There are unclear ways of obtaining copyright free royalty music. Even though you could be paying to use music for your film they aren't completely copyright free. For example http://www.smartsound.com states in their licensing terms that, even though you pay for a licensed track,if the creator of the music requests royalties from the track being on TV or major film projects, then there is paperwork to fill out from the network your music is pupblically being displayed. Just be aware of what rights are out there but its worth getting Royalty free music. You can check out http://www.smartsound.com/royalty-free-music/ They have a good slection of production music

  3. in these times, do any indie filmakers ever commission original scores? I'm in another network Music Ops Board, which posts numerous calls for music all of which has to be fully owned by those responding the calls. 99% of the calls are for some pop genre or another and stylistic elements are usually prescribed

    real question is this: do any indie film makers have the vision or the guts to distinguish their films with genuinely original scores?

  4. There is an outstanding book from Michael Donaldson called Clearance and Copyright which is an absolutely essential resource to own. A totally complete guide that has you covered from all angles. I have referred to that book for guidance more times than I can count. It has saved me so much time and money over the last year. Really can't recommend it highly enough.
    http://www.donaldsoncallif.com/

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