How Do Songs Make It to Movies and TV?

Once upon a time, musicians and songwriters made most of their money from doing what they do best: writing music and playing it. A new song would come out and become a hit on the radio. A record label would release the album on the latest physical format. And they would sell millions of physical copies, generating the bulk of the music industry’s then-robust profits. Of course, not all albums went platinum, but that was the goal of every release. The advent of digital downloads and streaming changed that. Sales plummeted and major record labels folded. The music industry was changed forever.

So, how can people in the music business today make money and keep the industry afloat? There are several ways for the creative business person to make a living in the music industry, but perhaps the most well-known is getting music into movies and TV. The film and TV industry has weathered the digital revolution far better than the music industry. Besides, every time a song is used in a film, show, commercial, video game, or any other visual medium, the author or copyright owner of that song is, by law, owed royalties.

Moreover, many of today’s hottest pop stars got to where they are because their music was featured in a TV show or film. Understanding how all of this works is paramount to being successful in music business today — so much so that the study of the copyright law, publishing, and licensing involved with placing music in TV and film is at the core of modern graduate degree programs like the Frost School of Music’s Master of Music in Music Business and Entertainment Industries (MBEI).

What Kinds of Music Make It Into TV and Movies?

Most people can name numerous examples of popular artists’ music in visual media, like “Is There a Ghost” by Band of Horses in the iconic iPod commercial or the seemingly endless string of car commercials that use songs by The Black Keys as their sonic foundation. Remember that dramatic scene in The Crow when the chorus of “Big Empty” by the Stone Temple Pilots erupted from the movie theater speakers, sending chills through the audience? These visual and auditory moments are locked together, inseparable. TV and film directors can use any kind of music, as long as it creates emotion that lifts the visuals to Hollywood perfection.

Can I Get My Music Into TV and Movies If I Am Relatively Unknown?

Absolutely, if you are willing you put in the work or establish a relationship with someone else who will put in the work. It is a common misconception that only big-name artists and pop stars get their music featured in movies, popular TV shows and commercials. The majority of music you hear on network TV shows is usually by lesser-known artists, and with good reason. Using a Lady Gaga song in a TV show would be extremely expensive, but using a song that sounds like a Lady Gaga song is relatively cheap. Every production has a budget, and music from popular artists doesn’t often fit within that budget. That being said, you do not have to copy a pop star’s sound to get your music on the big screen, but it can definitely help.

Who Decides What Music Gets Used for TV and Movies?

Generally, the person responsible for placing music in TV and movies is the music supervisor. They look for music that fits the mood of the scene, whether it is a simple background instrumental piece or a prominently featured vocal song. The music supervisor brings their plan for music placement to the film or show’s director and makes edits and revisions where necessary. These music supervisors are the masterminds of a film’s musical design, and they are the only way in, unless you happen to know Ridley Scott or Tom Hanks.

How Do Music Supervisors Find Music?

Sometimes music supervisors solicit music directly from songwriters. They may put out open calls for a song that sounds like some other big-name song. You can find out about such open calls and pitching opportunities from online resources for musicians. TAXI is one such resource, connecting independent songwriters, artists and composers with decision-makers in the music industry. But more often, music supervisors get their music from other people and companies they trust, generally publishers and music libraries. The publishing company or music library has already amassed an extensive catalog of music for whatever mood, lyrical bent and length the music supervisor needs.

What Do Publishing Contracts, Licensing and Royalties Have to Do With TV and Movie Placement?

Publishers build their catalogs by working with songwriters they have contracted with. Generally, but not always, songwriters assign copyright ownership to the publisher for specific works, in accordance with the publishing contract. The publisher then negotiates fees and issues synchronization and master-use licenses to music supervisors for the use of these works, although master-use licenses are issued by the song’s owner, which can be the publisher, the songwriter, or the record label (all depending on contractual agreements).

If you license your copyrighted work directly to a music supervisor, you are entitled to all associated revenue. But if that title is in contract with a publishing company, then the publisher and you as the songwriter split revenue as per contractual agreement (usually between a 50/50 and 70/30 split). This revenue comes from license fees as well as public performance royalties collected by the songwriter’s performing rights organization (like ASCAP or BMI), mechanical royalties, etc. This may seem confusing, but understanding copyright law, licensing, and royalties is essential for making the most of TV and film placements (and deciding whether or not to sign on with a publisher or label).

Regardless of how well-known you are as a songwriter, there are clear paths toward getting your music into TV, movies, video games and other visual media. This can be a lucrative source of income for musicians, but the legalities of contractual agreements can be complex and hard to sift through. Programs like Frost’s MBEI can help demystify the intricacies of music law concerning visual media placement, while at the same time giving you an understanding of the many opportunities to make money from your music.

Learn more about Frost’s online Master of Music in Music Business and Entertainment Industries program.


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