How to License Famous Songs
Holding a degree in Business Administration and Programming, Pablo established Legis Music in 2016. With a focus on the royalty-free music industry, he has contributed extensively to the field, authoring over 150 articles on various aspects of music licensing. His efforts have been instrumental in developing one of the most straightforward and liberal music licensing frameworks available today.
Since the beginnings of Legis Music, our first goal has always been to provide our clients with legal music for their audiovisual projects or businesses, betting on platforms that meet all the requirements that a professional could need, such as:
- An extensive music library - Variety of musical styles - Possibility of filtering by gender, mood or topic, among others - Top-quality music - Protection against copyright problems
However, with the exception of Soundtrack Your Brand and Cloud Cover Music which offer famous background music for business, the rest of the platforms we recommend offer music by independent artists.
In other words, none of these companies offer music by well-known artists such as Lady Gaga, Bruno Mars or Beyoncé.
This is something that many of our clients have been asking us for some time now.
They want to use popular music in their projects and businesses but they don’t really know how to license famous songs in a legal and economical way.
For this reason, we have decided to create this complete guide that will solve the most frequently asked questions we have received from our readers.
And we will start by differentiating between the copyright of a song and obtaining the license to use that song.
Difference between Copyright and Music Licenses
- Copyright will allow you to get all the rights to that work. In other words, the song will become your full property, as well as all subsequent benefits derived from it. - The license will allow you to use the song in other projects of your own such as YouTube videos, commercials, movies, radio programs or spots, video games, or mobile applications, among others.
In the first case, it is necessary to carry out a series of steps, such as:
- Determine whether the song is copyrighted or in the public domain. - Identify and contact the copyright owner or artist. - Negotiate the price of the song rights. - Transfer the rights.
In this article, you will be able to know in-depth each one of those steps.
However, the aim of this article is more towards the second option: to obtain the licenses of famous songs.
To do this, we must differentiate between the different kinds of music licenses that exist.
Types of Music Licenses
Music licenses are one of the most important revenue streams for known artists.
Because the songs are copyrighted material, written agreements with the copyright owners will be needed to allow others to use the musical works.
These written agreements are called licenses, which include the cost of the license and the rights of use that will determine how the music track can be used.
In short, if you are using – or are going to use – a well-known song for anything that other people will hear, be it a movie, a video or other audiovisual pieces, you will need a music license to use it legally.
There are currently seven types of licenses.
Whether you buy one, another, or several of them will depend on the purpose for which you want the song.
The synchronization license refers to the musical concession for some type of audiovisual media. That is…
…it will be necessary for any type of content where music and moving images are used simultaneously.
Some examples of this are:
- Television, radio or streaming advertisements (program tunings) - Studio or personal films (soundtracks) - Videogames - Internal Presentations - YouTube Videos
When a song is licensed for synchronization, the composer or editor of the song receives a commission for the use of the composition (score and lyrics).
In the same way, the owner of the rights – usually the record companies – will also receive a commission for the use of the original master recording.
To simplify it we will say that if you have composed a song and you have not sold the rights, you are the editor.
But if you have composed and recorded the song, you are the owner of the master recording and the rights.
In this case, you would have to be paid both commissions.
The master license gives authorization to the person acquiring it to use the song in audiovisual projects.
As you can see, this license is quite similar to the sync license, because both are necessary to use the music in the media but, at the same time, they are slightly different.
Where the synchronization license allows the client to use the composition (score and lyrics) in order to re-record and re-version the song, the master license confers on the client the rights to the original master recording.
In most cases, recording companies usually control the rights to the master license, while authors, composers, and publishers control the sync license.
Therefore, in order to have the “full” usage rights of a song, it is often necessary to acquire both the master license and the sync license.
Public Communication License
This license is perhaps the most common form of music license issued today, which allows you to publicly expose the work either on the street, television or radio among others.
In other words, every time someone plays famous music for an audience, they will have to pay for it.
The ones in charge of billing this payment are generally the Performance Rights Organizations (PROs) which will issue the royalties corresponding to the artists for each use.
This license enables the song to be reproduced through any media and under any circumstances.
It is necessary to be able to record the music on a CD or another device in which the musical track is going to be distributed.
The distribution license -also called mechanical- is used to authorize other companies to commercialize the song, i.e. that it appears in different points of sale.
This distribution can be in two types of format:
- Physical format (through CDs, vinyl records, etc.), which is produced in record labels or department stores. - Digital format (in MP3, WAV, etc), which will be given in platforms such as iTunes or Bandcamp.
In either case, the distributor takes a commission on the sales produced.
Print Rights License
This type of license refers to the physical copy of the score that an artist has created, and is required when someone prints a compilation of scores or at any time they are reproduced.
It is a type of license that is very common in theatrical performances.
Theatrical licensing is necessary whenever a copyrighted musical work is to be performed on stage in front of an audience.
What licenses do I need to get to use the familiar song?
From the licenses you have seen above, there are two of them that you will need to purchase in order to use a certain song: the sync license and the master license.
You have already seen that both are very similar but slightly different.
- On the one hand, there are the publishing rights (Sync License), i.e. the rights to the written song, which belong to the composer, lyricist and/or music editor. - On the other hand, there are the phonographic rights (Master License), in other words, those of the particular recording, whose owners are the record label and the interpreter or interpreters of the song.
For your better understanding, I’ll give you an example:
The record label Universal Music controls the publishing rights of the work “White Christmas”, which was composed by Irving Berling. If you wanted to use the recording of “White Christmas” interpreted by Bing Crosby, you would need to contact Universal Music who, apart from having the editorial rights of the original song -the lyrics-, are also the owners of the phonographic rights -the master recording- of this version of the song. In case you prefer to use this same song but reversioned by Gloria Estefan, you would need to contact Sony Music, which would have the rights of the master recording, but also Universal Music, which maintains the rights of the lyrics of the song.
That’s why you need both licenses to be able to use any famous song.
How do I get permission to use a song?
The first thing you should know is that this is not a straightforward process and it always takes a lot of time and effort, with no secure outcome, as there isn’t a standardized way to get a license.
You need to discover who is the copyright owner of the song you want to use.
Sometimes it may be the same artist but usually, it is the label companies that have recorded the content.
The three most important worldwide are Universal Music Group (UMG), Sony Music Entertainment (SME) and Warner Music Group (WMG).
A good practice to follow would be finding the contact details of publishers through Performance Rights Organizations, as all professional composers and music publishers belong to one of these organizations.
Depending on the country you are in, the main copyright regulators of musical works are:
Practically all of these PROs will be able to provide you with sync licenses for the famous songs you’re looking for.
This is because almost all artists, composers and publishers are members of these organizations.
However, as explained above, apart from the sync license you will need the master license and, to obtain it, you will need to contact the record companies of those songs.
Once you discover the copyright company of the song, the next step is to contact them for letting them know of your interest and find out the requirements and price of the licenses.
How do I contact record companies to obtain licenses for a famous song?
Nowadays, the most normal and established way is to write them an email.
Although if you’re old school, regular mail letters are also welcome.
The content of this email or letter would be:
- Identification of yourself and the reason for the contact - The song or songs you want to use - Usage media (TV, radio, film, video, etc.) - The purpose for which you want to acquire the licenses (Commercial or non-profit) - The approximate number of expected views
The last two points are quite important because if you do not expect a large number of reproductions or have a non-commercial purpose, you could try to ask permission to use the song for free.
However, in order to avoid numerous return mailings, it is best to provide as much information as possible about your specific case.
What can happen if you don’t get permission?
In most cases, you will get the licenses you need.
The problem is usually the money you need to pay for that permission.
However, if it happens that you are not allowed to use the song or the amount of money is too high for your possibilities, what you should never do is use the song without obtaining the licenses.
This is illegal, and you could receive harsh financial penalties, which can be followed by legal and penal liability in the worst-case scenario.
To avoid these legal headaches and costly fines there are three possible solutions:
- Paying the amounts required for licenses 2. Use online platforms that license famous music 3. Use royalty-free music platforms
Next, we’re going to go one by one looking at these solutions, so we’ll start by answering the next question.
How much does it cost to license a familiar song?
The simple answer is that there is no set cost.
In other words, the cost of licensing a famous song can vary quite a bit.
If it is a song by a small independent artist, the cost of a license could be between $50 and $150.
However, if you’re looking to license famous songs by top artists, the price can skyrocket to several thousand dollars without any problem.
In fact, by acquiring some licenses from record companies, they could include in the contract a percentage of the revenue earned through that license.
For example, if a famous song is played in your film, it generates a million-dollar of turnover, and in the music license contract a 1% of the income has been established, apart from the cost of the license itself, an additional 10,000 dollars will have to be paid to the record company.
There are also cases in which there is a charge per second for the use of the song.
That is to say, if the song costs $500/second and you use 10 seconds for your advertising wedge, you will have to pay $5,000.
Nevertheless, the cost will depend on the medium in which it is used, the seconds used, the agreement reached with the record company, and so on.
But remember that in all cases the fees are negotiable and not all publishers and record labels charge the same quantity.
Probably the amounts you are seeing may seem astronomical to you, but they are not only real, they can also be much higher.
It is for this reason that many people look for other alternatives that are much more affordable.
This is the case of FyrFly-SongFreedom.
Specialized Online Platforms
There are some online platforms that offer licenses for famous songs or versions of them.
Easy Song, for example, is a company that acquires, collects and provides music sync licenses for different types of audiovisual use.
In fact, it is the first company to offer pre-authorized sync licenses from the world’s most representative record labels and publishers such as Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment and Warner Music Group.
This platform makes it possible for anyone to legally use quality music in their projects, from copyrighted music to new indie tracks.
All without the hassle and expensive process of obtaining the licenses you already know.
How does it work?
You’ll understand it better with the following example.
Let’s suppose you want to add one of your favorite songs – let’s say, “Sunday Morning” by Maroon 5 – to your new YouTube video. You go to Easy Song, purchase their custom license service and they prepare the requests, negotiate, and process the licensing for you.
How much does this service cost?
As you can see on their pricing page, Easy Song offers their team of licensing experts for you starting at $299.
For cover songs, these can be easily obtained within one business day for a small fee of $16.99 or less.
That’s why is one of the first online sites to offer music solutions that allow songs that everyone knows and loves to be used legally, making it easier for content creators and allowing rights owners to earn more revenue.
Other alternatives: royalty-free music platforms
At this point in the article, maybe you’re considering that playing famous music is not as easy or cheap as you thought.
Luckily, there are other options that, while not providing familiar songs, offer premium music from independent artists.
Epidemic Sound: Specially created for Youtube and social networks. The difference between Epidemic and other similar services is that, in addition to being able to purchase individual licenses for each song, it is also possible to access the entire music portfolio through a monthly subscription that starts at $15/month.
Artlist: With an extensive music library, it is very similar to the first two, however, the subscription is paid annually rather than monthly. ($199 a year in a single payment).
As you’ve seen throughout the article…
…licensing famous songs is possible as long as you have the necessary resources.
Doing so in the normal way – through the PROs and record companies – can be tremendously expensive and, in many cases, an economically inefficient method.
However, if in the end, you decide to obtain licenses for a certain popular song, you have already seen what you will need:
- Both the sync and the master license for that music track - Contact with the PROs and the record label of the song - Ask them for permission by email or ordinary letter, providing all the details of the use of the musical track. - Once the agreement has been negotiated, read in detail all the terms of the contract - Make the payment of the licenses, as long as you are in agreement with the agreement.
If you do it this way, even if it is a long, time-consuming and costly process, you will have no problems of any kind.
However, it is better to do so than to use the song illegally.
You know that if you do so, you will almost certainly have to face harsh economic penalties that could bring associated legal and penal responsibilities.
And if after all the information you have now you think that licensing popular music is too expensive and complex, you can always take a look at the platforms that offer royalty-free music licenses, like the ones we mentioned earlier.
- Difference between Copyright and Music Licenses
- Types of Music Licenses
- What licenses do I need to get to use the familiar song?
- How do I get permission to use a song?
- How do I contact record companies to obtain licenses for a famous song?
- What can happen if you don’t get permission?
- How much does it cost to license a familiar song?
- Specialized Online Platforms
- Other alternatives: royalty-free music platforms
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