By guest author Mallory Trice

In 1926, the Warner Bros. studio in Hollywood introduced sound to film for the very first time causing a wave throughout Hollywood and around the globe as other major studios began the switch to “talkies” (pictures with sound).

[1] The world of film and sound had become one, and Hollywood never turned back. The success of film with sound has carried over into modern times, and anyone who watches movies can agree that sound, and especially music, is a significant part of any film. Several decades of great film music exist because of not only technological developments but also successful music licensing. If it were not for the development of technology in the twentieth century, the industry would not have sound capabilities for film, and if it were not for music licensing, the industry would be lacking in poignant, audience-capturing musical moments in film. Therefore, music licensing allows for greater potential for the success of a film and is thus essential to the impact of a film on an audience as well as on the film and music industries.

image_thumb1Music licensing would not be possible without certain key players in the film and music industries. The music supervisor along with music publishers and record labels, working together through negotiations, all make music licensing for film possible and thus contribute greatly to the overall potential for the success of a film. The music licensing process typically starts with the music supervisor, who is a connecting link between the film and music industries. Just as an A&R rep at a record label is in charge of placing the right recording artist with the right song, the music supervisor is responsible for “connecting the right song with the right moving image.”[2] First and foremost, the music supervisor has to honor the “creative vision of the director while still bringing in music that might compel people to be interested in the film.”[3] The music supervisor “handles the process of choosing, negotiating, and incorporating pieces of music into visual media,” as well as “choosing where selected music will be inserted.”[4] The supervisor also oversees budget, film spotting sessions, “live music scenes, music editing and mixing, soundtrack negotiations, cue sheet prep, and acquisition and delivery of all music rights to distributors.”[5] A music supervisor’s job ranges from project to project in degree of creative freedom in choosing what songs to put where in the film, but most of the time, the director’s vision and the film’s music budget will determine many of these choices for the supervisor. Therefore, the most important part of the supervisor’s job is getting the music properly licensed.

Before getting the music licensed, the supervisor must determine (per instruction from the director and/or studio) the budget allotted for obtaining music licenses, how long a particular song will actually be played in the film, and at what point in the film the song will be played (in the opening credits, end credits, or in the middle of the film).[6] The music supervisor must also know if he is trying to get a song cleared only for the festival or theatrical release or if the filmmaker or studio desires the negotiation to go beyond this. Typically these negotiations to get music cleared depend on the budget, but if the budget allows, the music supervisor will need to acquire rights not only to place the song in a film, but to place the song in trailers, on the internet, in theaters, on Video On Demand and subscription based services, and on the soundtrack that corresponds with the film.[7]

The music publisher is the other key player in the music licensing process for film. Music publishers are the main force behind the marketing and promotion of songwriters and their songs. They generate exposure and thus income for songwriters by pitching or song-plugging songs to potential interested parties including record labels and production companies for film and television.[8] Music publishers include Sony BMG, Warner, and EMI, and the music supervisor must figure out which publisher to contact (depending on what song they are wanting to get cleared) and then must request that the music publisher grant permission for the use of their song in a movie.[9] This permission can be granted or refused by the music publisher. If granted, then the music supervisor and publisher can move forward in negotiating a synchronization (or “sync”) license. A sync license, according to Signature Sound, Inc., “allows the user to reproduce a musical composition ‘in connection with’ or ‘in timed relation with’ a visual image”. Once the sync license is obtained, the supervisor has permission to use only the song (notes and lyrics) in the film but not the sound recording.

Therefore, in addition to obtaining a sync license, a music supervisor will often obtain a master use license through the record label or individual that owns the sound recording copyright to the particular song.[10] The reason two licenses must be obtained in most circumstances is due to the fact that “every recorded song contains two copyrights”—a musical composition copyright (for the notes and lyrics of the song) and a sound recording copyright (for the recording artist’s recorded version of the song).[11] In order to obtain a master use license, the music supervisor must contact the master holder (the company or person who controls the rights to the actual recording of a song), which can be anyone from a record label to an individual artist or band.[12] Like the publisher, the master holder can also refuse the request to grant the master use license.

If both the sync and master licenses are granted to the music supervisor, the song is completely cleared for use in the film and for use in other mediums for which the rights have been negotiated and granted. However, if the sync license is granted and the master license is not, the supervisor and filmmaker can opt to use the permission granted by the sync licensee to re-record the song to be placed in the film.[13] Without either the sync or master license, it is illegal to place that particular song in the film.

Along with obtaining licenses, the parties (the supervisor and the publisher, songwriter, and/or label) must negotiate the terms of the licensing agreement for each song. These terms include names and addresses, the date the contract becomes effective, specific uses permitted or restricted, length of time the agreement lasts, amount of compensation (royalty to be paid by Licensor), warranty “that the Licensor has the rights that the Licensor claims,” audit rights of the Licensor, “sanctions for breaching terms of the License,” credits to be given writer and publisher of the music being used/licensed, and the territory for use.[14]

One recent music licensing business model that has emerged on the international entertainment scene is found in a company called the Cutting Edge Group, based in London. The Cutting Edge Group, according to their website, “is the leading international full service provider of music for film, television and advertising industries.”[15] According to The New York Times article “A New Model for Film Music” by Michael Cieply, Cutting Edge, under chief executive Philip Moross, bought the music of The King’s Speech while the film was still in production. Essentially, on the one-hundred and twenty-four film projects they have contributed to, Cutting Edge acts as an investor by purchasing the music of the film up front, inflating the music budget for the film’s producers before music licensing takes place. In the case of The King’s Speech, Cutting Edge’s investment led the producers to bring renowned French composer Alexandre Desplat onto the project along with the London Symphony Orchestra to record the classical pieces in the film’s soundtrack (two choices they would not have had had they not sold the music to Cutting Edge).[16] The producers had to give up their rights to the music but it was a small price to pay according to one of the producers, Iain Canning, who explains that the producers just wanted to obtain “the music that would do the images justice” and they did just that.[17] So, in turn for giving up their rights to the music, the producers of The King’s Speech got funding to enhance the music of their film in the way that they wanted. And indeed, this exchange paid off. One of the twelve Oscar nominations that The King’s Speech received was for Alexandre Desplat’s score, something that may not have been achieved without the help of Cutting Edge.[18] As film music budgets have been dwindling due to the negative effects of piracy and cheap downloads, the Cutting Edge film music model could change that by giving producers (especially independents) an opportunity to increase their music budget, and thus their m


usic licensing leverage. This situation serves as an example of how efficient and creative music licensing for film can bring about much success for both the film and music industries.

Not only will well-chosen music impact the movie-going audience (and the Academy, like in The King’s Speech), but, according to an interview conducted by Rob Carnevale on with music supervisor Randall Poster (The Darjeeling Limited, The Royal Tenenbaums), music in film is “one of the most effective ways for musicians to gain an audience.”[19] When a music supervisor does his job well, the film, the artists whose music are in the film, and the audience of the film gain something they want. The film gains greater revenue potential. The artists in the film gain exposure and income from royalties, and finally, the audience can gain a meaningful experience as well as a potential attachment to a certain band, filmmaker, or film, creating a fan base for either artists, filmmakers, films, or all three at once. From the Warner Bros. introduction of t59418_1389751913862_1534020024_30892[1]alkies to The King’s Speech, audiences have experienced great musical moments in film, all made possible by music licensing.

Mallory Trice is a recent Belmont University graduate with a degree in Vocal Performance and Entertainment Industry Studies.  She resides in Nashville where she assists independent film productions as producer, assistant director, or production assistant.  So far, her favorite film soundtracks are The Departed, The Talented Mr. Ripley, and any Wes Anderson film.


[1]Biagi, Shirley. Media/Impact: An introduction to mass media. 8th ed. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth, 2007.

[2] Howard, George. “Supervision.” 8 March 2007. 18 April 2011 <>.

[3] Howard

[4] Shrum, Barry N. “Music Licensing.” Entertainment Law and Licensing. Belmont University, Nashville. 18 Apr. 2011. Lecture.

[5] Shrum

[6] Paulson, Kristen. “Getting in Tune.” 1 July 2000. 19 April 2011 <>.

[7] Paulson

[8] “Music Publishing 101.” NMPA. National Music Publishers Association, 2010. Web. 27 Apr. 2011. <>.

[9] Paulson

[10] Signature Sound, Inc. “11 Most Frequently Asked Questions About Music Licensing.” 19 April 2011 <>.

[11] “Music Publishing 101”

[12] Howard

[13] Howard

[14] Shrum

[15] “Cutting Edge Group.” Cutting Edge Group | Home. Cutting Edge Group. Web. 27 Apr. 2011. <>.

[16] Cieply, Michael. “A New Model For Film Music.” 30 January 2011. The New York Times. 23 April 2011 <>.

[17] Cieply

[18] Cieply

[19] Carnevale, Rob. “The Darjeeling Limited–Randall Poster Interview.” 18 April 2011 .