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Music creators can get paid whenever their music is used, but how does this actually work?

Songwriters, Composers, Arrangers, and Producers can all earn significant sums of money from licensing their music for commercial use in movies, television, advertisements, YouTube videos, video games, and other forms of visual media.

If you are making music and want to learn how to get it licensed, this post will explain how to set yourself up to earn money from licensing deals.

Here’s what you need to know about music licensing:

  • What is music licensing?
  • Know your terms: some definitions
  • Different types of music licenses
  • Steps you can take now to license your music
  • What are sync rights and how are they different from licensing
  • How much can you really earn?

(Disclaimer: The author of this article is not an Attorney. The information contained herein should not be taken as legal advice. For specific legal questions, always consult with a trusted and qualified Music Attorney.)

What Is Music Licensing?

Music licensing is the main mechanism by which the owners of copyrights for musical works (i.e. artists) are compensated for the use of their work. Licensing agreements give certain rights for the use of musical works, and can also limit usage in other ways.

Typically, music is licensed for use in broadcast media including films, radio, TV, commercials, webcasting, podcasting, and theater productions. There are separate licensing agreements for printed music, such as sheet music used in collections.

Music licensing covers any public performance of a work (playing a recording in a place where people are gathered such as a bar, restaurant, or amusement park is also considered a “performance”). Music licenses are the main way that artists earn royalties for the use of their work.

Anyone using a song (not their own) for a project that others will hear, needs a music license to use it. The license grants permission for use from the copyright owner, dictates how the song can be used, and for how long. It’s not as complicated as it might seem at first glance, and it doesn’t have to cost much money up-front for the artist, so if you compose or produce music it’s definitely worth pursuing music licensing deals.

I’ll recommend some things you can do now to prepare to license your work, and suggest some of the most important aspects of music licensing for you to learn about. Knowledge is power, so get ready to educate yourself on the ins and outs of earning money from licensing your music.

Know Your Terms: Some Definitions

Here are some important useful terms you will likely encounter when researching music licensing, with brief definitions:


The agreement by which the copyright owner gives permission for someone else to use their musical work in a broadcast, recreation, or performance. There are different kinds of licenses, which can be based either on a flat fee for a specific time period of use, on royalties based on unit sales of physical copies or tickets sold, or on total revenues resulting from distribution (more on this later). Some licensing agreements provide for additional royalty payments when a film in which the music is included earns above a predetermined threshold.


The person or company to whom the work is licensed; the purchaser of the license.


The owner of the copyright for the musical work, usually the artist, Songwriter, or Composer. The person or entity issuing the license.


The playing of live or recorded works, including radio; TV; webcasting; podcasting; streaming; etc., to multiple listeners in a setting such as a restaurant, nightclub, or retail store.


A public performance of a musical work, whether live or recorded. A performance could be an adaptation or changed version of a piece (e.g. a “cover”). Playing a music recording (tape, CD, streaming, etc.) in public is considered a “performance” of the piece, as is a song played on the radio. A license is required even if using only a small part of the song.


A Publisher is considered the owner of the copyrighted work. Most Songwriters form a publishing company to hold the rights to their work or sign a deal with an established publishing company. Before recordings, most music was sold as printed sheet music, or on player piano rolls. Hence, the term “publisher” is still in use today, though it’s perhaps an outdated term for our digital world.

Performing Rights Organization (PRO)

Companies that represent artists’ performance rights for copyrighted musical works. The largest in the US include the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), Broadcast Music Incorporated (BMI), and the Society of European Stage Authors and Composers (SESAC). These companies use a blanket license to collect and distribute performance royalties to the copyright holders, usually based on a complex formula of how many times a song was played.

Synchronization Licensing (Sync License)

When music is licensed to be synchronized with moving pictures in a movie, television program, video, DVD, cartoon, or video game. This applies to theme songs, source music (music heard playing from a radio in a movie, for example), and background music.

Master Use Licensing

Relates to the use of a specific recording to be used in a movie as a soundtrack, or background music in a film.

Mechanical License

An agreement between a music user and the owner of a copyrighted composition that gives permission to release the song in an audio-only format (interactive audio streams, digital downloads, CDs, vinyl). This permission is sometimes referred to as “mechanical rights.”

In the next section, we’ll take a closer look at the different types of music licenses commonly used in the music industry, including mechanical licenses.

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Different Types of Music Licenses

There are at least six different kinds of music licenses: mechanical, sync, master, print, theatrical, and public performance licenses. I’ve defined some of these in the previous section; and here’s a bit more about how each license is used:

Mechanical License

Mechanical licenses apply to any tangible reproduction of an artist’s work (i.e. a recording), such as the manufacturing of CDs or the distribution of recorded music in any physical form. Mechanical licenses cover agreements with labels, distributors, and Publishers and usually stipulate a certain payment for each copy sold. A mechanical license is also required when recording a cover song for a release, even if the song is changed or adapted, or just a small fragment is used.

Synchronization License (Sync License)

This type of license is for music used together with visual media. Uses range from commercials on TV to streaming ads, YouTube videos, films, training videos, and video games.

Master License

The rights to the master belong to the owner of a specific recording. Master licenses are commonly issued together with a sync license.

The master license allows the use of a specific recorded version but does not allow the user to re-record the song, for example, make a cover of the song, or edit it. Since some record companies fund recordings, they might own all or part of an artist’s master recordings.

Print Rights License

As the name implies, the print rights refer to printed copies of sheet music. It applies to printed sheet music compilations, and whenever printed copies of sheet music for a song are created or reproduced.

Theatrical License

Widely used in the theater industry, allows for an onstage performance of a song with an audience present.

Public Performance License

One of the most common types of music licenses, is used for any broadcast of an artist’s work. This includes concerts, but also music played in businesses or any place frequented by the public, such as a restaurant, bar, or store. Most public performance licenses are administered by performing rights organizations (PROs) such as BMI, SESAC, and ASCAP who collect music royalties and distribute to artists based on the number of plays of their songs.

Steps You Can Take Now to License Your Music

Now that you have an idea of the types of licenses commonly issued today, what can you do to take advantage of the opportunity music licensing offers to earn money from your music?

Here are some immediate action steps:

2. Plan Your Publishing

Start your own publishing company or sign with a Publisher. In order to get licensing deals, get paid sync fees, and collect royalties you need to have your music published.

3. Join a PRO

Join one of the Performing Rights Organizations (PROs) and register your songs. As a member of BMI, ASCAP, or SESAC, you will have use of their blanket licenses, and they can collect your fees and pay you for use of your music. Compare by reading the info on their websites, and talking directly to their member services people.

4. Get Your Tracks Ready

Choose some tracks from your catalogue to export into high-quality MP3 (preferably 320kbps) and WAV files (preferably 24bit, 48kHz). You should also create instrumental stems of your songs, in case the lyrics don’t fit with the intended use.

5. Metadata is a Must

Embed all tracks with complete metadata. Metadata is crucial so that prospective licensees can contact you, get your permission to use the song, and use the correct kind of license. Metadata includes: The title of the album and track, Composers/Writers, contact info, date of recording or release, length of the track, genre, and sample rate.

6. Create a Catalogue Spreadsheet

Get a spreadsheet together with notes about each song, description, and possible keywords that will be useful for anyone searching music libraries. This will also allow you to track song placements and payments.

7. Submit Your Music

Research music libraries and submit your music.

Pro Tip: Don’t sign any exclusive agreements to submit your music to music libraries.

8. Research Music Supervisors

These are people who work to place songs in movies, ads, and TV. Build relationships with them. Be professional, helpful, and friendly. Music Supervisors have a lot of challenges and they appreciate people who make it easier for them to do their job.

What Are Sync Rights and How Are They Different from Licensing

As described above, sync rights apply only to the use of music with moving pictures, in films, YouTube videos, TV shows, commercials, training or internal communications videos, and games. Sometimes referred to as “syndication,” sync licenses pay royalties to copyright holders (artists or their labels) based on either a time period of usage, number of broadcast streams, or financial benchmarks.

Artists can receive an up-front synchronization fee, and also collect royalties. Sync rights are less broad than some other types of licenses because they don’t cover broadcast performances without visual media, such as concerts, radio, or music played in the background in restaurants or stores.

How Much Can You Really Earn?

The answer to this is that it depends. On the low end, I’ve seen deals that paid $1,400.00 for a 3-month song placement in an online video, and I also know Songwriters who have made their living for decades from sync rights for a single song placed in a television series or use repeatedly in advertising. In my view, $1,400.00 is much better than nothing.

An established Songwriter once told me that it required wheelbarrows to bring all the money into his house from a famous song he wrote! He was joking, most likely, but there are certainly songs that have earned millions of dollars for their writers or performers, usually over many years. The same Songwriter told me that his songs are like his children: “Because they will take care of me in my old age.”

As with so many things in life, luck certainly plays a role in music licensing. If your song just happens to get chosen for a high-earning placement, you will be one of the lucky ones. I believe that there are things you can do to increase your likelihood of having incredible luck.

In addition to being prepared by educating yourself on music licensing, you should network avidly, consult with other established music industry professionals such as Music Attorneys, A&Rs, Professors, Music Supervisors, Agents, Publishers, and Songwriters. It’s up to you to make sure you are promoting yourself and your music properly.

Some Final Thoughts on Music Licensing

It makes a lot of sense to get to work on licensing your music, not only for the potential financial rewards, but also for the satisfaction of hearing your music used in conjunction with visual media and in broadcast performances. It’s a great feeling to hear music you wrote being played in a public space, or on TV or the radio. This, along with getting paid, validates that your music has value in the eyes (ears) of others.

As with any aspect of business, there are challenges in getting your music licensed. Probably the biggest is that there’s a lot of competition. However, the amount of visual media content created and consumed is increasing rapidly every year. This means there are more and more opportunities for musicians to break into the world of music licensing.


How much money can you make licensing music?

Alison Stolpa (Careers in Music Staff)

How much money you can make licensing your music depends on how well-known you or your song are. Most indie artists make a few hundred to a few thousand dollars on a licensed track. On the other end of the spectrum, you have the famously expensive-to-license Beatles tracks.

According to The Telegraph,1 the Beatles track “Tomorrow Never Knows” was licensed for play in an episode of the TV show Mad Men for $250,000, a figure they state is “$150,000 higher than the usual outer limit for licensing.” Even more incredibly, Danny Boyle’s film Yesterday is alleged to have paid $10 million to license the Beatles tracks used within the picture!

How can I publish my own music?

Alison Stolpa (Careers in Music Staff)

Here’s the process for publishing your music:

    • Create an original work.
    • Decide on the songwriting split: who wrote which parts/percentage of each song?
    • Copyright the song
    • Register with a performing rights organization (PRO) like BMI, ASCAP, or SESAC

For a more in-depth look at music publishing, check out this blog.

Is music automatically copyrighted?

Alison Stolpa (Careers in Music Staff)

Not necessarily. When you record or write out the music for song, it starts the copyrighting process. However, that doesn’t mean it has copyright protection, which is what most people mean when they discuss music copyrights. To receive legal recognition of your work as a Songwriter and, most importantly, legal protection of your work, you MUST register a copyright with the US Copyright Office.

  1. 1Power, Ed. "Yesterday's $10 million question: why is it so difficult – and expensive – to license a Beatles song? ". The Telegraph. published: 27 June 2019. retrieved on: 10 July 2020
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