Licensing music for TV, film, commercials, recordings by other recording artists, and other types of mixed media production is one of the most important sources of revenue for modern songwriters. Whether a relatively unknown indie-folk songwriter, a pop star, or a mainstream country songsmith, songwriters can earn substantial income by licensing music, both up front in contracted licensing fees and, often even more, in the long term with residual income from royalties.
Getting songs placed in TV shows and movies can also help the artist gain widespread exposure. Many songwriters' careers were made by audiovisual placements, even commercials; think of Feist's and Band of Horse's rise to stardom following their iconic song placements in iPod commercials. And, often, pop stars' recorded songs are actually crafted by professional songwriters who earn a substantial amount of money from licensing their songs to the recording artist and record label. Imagine you wrote a hit song that Britney Spears recorded and released in the 90s. The sales of that album generate tens of millions of dollars, resulting in millions of dollars in your pocket in mechanical royalties alone, let alone all other licensing fees and royalties.
So you want to license out your music, make tons of money, and live the good life, right? This is an important step to a sustainable career as a songwriter. But before even getting into publishing deals, licensing contracts, royalty breakdown, submission services, music libraries and the many other facets of licensing out your music, you should start with the basics: What to do first. The Frost School of Music's online Master of Music in Music Business and Entertainment Industries (MBEI) curriculum includes extensive coursework devoted to these building blocks of successful, smart licensing.
What Is the First Step in Licensing Music?
The first order of business when submitting songs for licensing is copyrighting those songs. Technically, in the U.S., the moment a song (which is considered a work of intellectual property) is written out (like sheet music) and/or recorded, that song is considered copyrighted. The original songwriter has sole, exclusive ownership and rights to use that song in all formats, unless they assign those rights to someone else (say, in a publishing or record deal).
Copyright law differs internationally, but is generally easy to research country by country. And many countries are part of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), which simplifies this process and regulates a certain set of standards.
But Should I Still Register My Songs with the U.S. Copyright Office, and How Do I Do That?
Even though your song is copyrighted from the moment it is physically written or recorded, registering that song with the U.S. Copyright Office is smart and often necessary, both to legitimize the song's creation and protect against future legal issues. (Copyrighting your songs is a requirement for most licensing and publishing contracts.) If a country star rips off your song and you failed to copyright it, you may find yourself in a court battle with the high-powered legal team of a major label. Good luck with that.
Copyrighting your music takes a bit of time, but it is a straightforward process. The Electronic Copyright Office (eCO) has an online registration system tailored to make this process as painless as possible. Once you have a digital sound recording of the song (with both music and melody/lyrics, if applicable), you can register it through eCO. You can also register an entire collection/album of songs at once, which is much more efficient and costs the same.
You start the process by setting up an account, proceeding through the digital forms and entering all the appropriate information for your recording. The language you use to enter titles and such is somewhat antiquated. For a simple breakdown of that language, read David Nevue's article titled "How to Copyright Music." Courses offered online through Frost's MBEI degree program also cover these issues.
After filling in all of this information, pay the fee (see eCO's website for current fees) and upload your music. The Copyright Office can take six months to a year to review your registration and grant the full copyright, but for legal considerations, the copyright is officially registered at the point you finish your end of the registration process.
What About Metadata?
You have probably run into the confusing world of metadata and tagging song files if you have submitted a song to iTunes or Spotify, or uploaded a performance to YouTube. Like it or not, you will need to understand metadata and tagging song files if you want your music to be easy to find and appropriately labeled in any digital form. This also allows film music supervisors and others to automatically view song data and include all parties to be paid when submitting cue sheets for their TV shows, movies, etc.
Essentially, metadata is bits of data/words "tagged" to your music file that will automatically pull up correct information on that song, such as song title, album title, composer, performer, genre, year of release, etc. You can (and should) even "tag" your files with extras like album artwork to pop up with the song when it plays on iTunes or Spotify. All of these bits of information can help direct people to your music and remember who you are, no matter the digital format.
Metadata is covered thoroughly in Frost's MBEI coursework and industry articles (such as this piece from Sonicbids or this blog from Solveig Whittle). There are also services that assist you in editing your files' metadata (such as downloadable editors like Mp3tag). And you can edit your basic song file data within iTunes or Google Play before uploading them.
If you want to start making money through licensing and publishing work, this is the place to start. Study up on copyright law and metadata use, and then move into the dense world of understanding licensing, royalties, publishing contracts, performing rights organizations and other matters. Publishing companies can obviously help take care of these nuts and bolts; they are essential to publishers making their cut as well. And publishers are the ones who develop relationships with labels and music supervisors, submitting and promoting the use of your music.
But landing a publishing deal can be hard until either you are an established recording artist or a songwriter with a solid reputation. Thankfully, services like Sonicbids, CD Baby and Taxi (and music business graduate programs like Frost's MBEI) are aimed at both industry business people and the do-it-yourself songwriter. They can greatly assist you with information and services to help launch your publishing work.
Sources:Solveig Whittle: How to Edit Your MP3 Metadata
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