What is music licensing and how does it affect the music industry as a whole? Neal Sawyer explores how licensing helps musical artists
Imagine films without music. There'd be no Celine Dion foreshadowing the whirlwind romance between Jack and Rose. No trepidation from the Ennio Morricone-penned "The Good, The Bad and The Ugly" in the timeless Western of the same name. It's simple, films need music. But could this quid pro quo relationship save the music industry?
What is music licensing?
The marriage between moving images and music is nothing new. The relationship dates back to 1908, when Camille Saint-Saëns wrote an original score for the short film L'assassinat du Duc de Guise. But the story of music licensing dates back even further, and there's an unlikely hero.
Leon Luis, owner of Altar Boy Music Publishing, says, "If it weren't for Queen Anne, there’d be no music publishing industry. The first copyright act ever was the Statute of Anne passed in 1710 during her reign, and it was imperative to protect authors of books from the rampant copying of their works. Since its inception, it's remained the same, other than amendments to the length of copyright term."
"Music licensing is very much comparable to real estate"
So thanks to the Statute of Anne, songwriters hold ownership of their songs. In turn, companies need a licence to use copyrighted songs in films, TV shows, commercials, or any public performance. A lucrative windfall for musicians.
It’s the role of a music publisher to exploit songs for profit and serve as intermediaries between composers and production companies.
As Leon Luis explains, "Music licensing is very much comparable to real estate. When you write a song, it's your house. If someone wants to rent the house, they need to go to an estate agent. When someone wants to rent your song, they go to a music publisher."
Is music licensing the golden ticket?
The thought of payment for their work is music to the ears of songwriters. Music licensing fees overshadow Spotify royalties by whopping sums. With musicians finding it harder than ever to make a living, what was once seen as selling out is now an acceptable career move. It’s OK to have your song on a commercial, and placement on a TV show is just savvy marketing.
Money aside, there’s the prospect of a new audience—an irresistible dangling carrot for lesser-known artists. So much so, they’ll accept a reduced licensing fee with the perk of exposure in mind.
Music licensing has launched the careers of many artists. The iPod Nano commercial in 2007 featuring “1234” by Feist flung the singer-songwriter into the UK Top 40. It remains her biggest-selling single to date.
Established artists aren’t averse to the licensing payday either. The famed John Lewis Christmas advert featured the Oasis song “Half a World Away” in 2015. The windfall even had Noel Gallagher re-considering his dislike for Christmas.
“When John Lewis put my song in an ad at Christmas, I loved that. ‘You know what, Christmas is alright, I’m going to give Christmas a second chance’…” Noel quipped.
"We are living in a bumper time for video content, and each production needs music"
A well-placed use of a song is the golden ticket for artists and record labels. Yet, unlike in Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, there are more than five tickets up for grabs.
Besides the outreach of commercials, we’re no longer confined to five TV channels. Nowadays, Sky and streaming platforms such as Netflix and Amazon Prime are churning out films and TV shows non-stop. We are living in a bumper time for video content, and each production needs music.
Out with the new, in with the old
For new artists hoping to jump on the gravy train, it’s not that straightforward. Although music licensing is a portal for new bands, the film industry, unlike their music counterparts, isn’t fussed about musical trends.
The truth is, music licensing is a drawn-out process that can take many years to crack. Instead of having the finger on the pulse of musical trends, music departments seek what's right for the project. Directors set films and scenes in various eras, so a song recorded during the same time span is often the perfect choice.
Social media was ablaze with youngsters proclaiming their love for Kate Bush thanks to her placement on Stranger Things. Some were not aware that she released "Running Up That Hill" back in 1985. As the show captivated viewers, the song rushed to number one in the charts.
"Running Up That Hill", without a re-release, remix or marketing campaign, reached the summit of the UK chart almost 40 years after its release. Therein lies the power of music licensing.
Songs have no shelf life in the world of music licensing. The same can’t be said for a music industry that’s plagued with ageism.
The dark side of music licensing
We’ve seen a shift in musicians’ approach when searching for a shot at the big time. Yesteryear, record label representatives shielded a tidal wave of emails from artists. Now, the tables are turning.
Music supervisors choose songs to meet the needs of directors, producers and editors. As a result, some can receive over a thousand emails per day. Picking music isn’t their only role. There are legal tasks and sometimes fee negotiations. With the workload, even the most avid music fan would find it difficult to listen to the volume of requests.
What’s more, the life of a music supervisor is far removed from the glitz and glamour of Hollywood. As Leon Luis states, “TV and film bosses take advantage of music supervisors. I know of some waiting for payment 5 years after completing a project.”
"A new set of industry standards will go a long way to creating a more robust and fairer music licensing sector"
Such treatment has forced the hand of music supervisors. The Music Needs Supervision Campaign is fighting back, and hopes to improve industry standards. Nora Felder, the supervisor, who won an Emmy for placing “Running Up That Hill” in Stranger Things, is a notable member endorsing the movement.
Despite music being integral to TV and film, the treatment of supervisors suggests all that glitters isn’t gold. A new set of industry standards will go a long way to creating a more robust and fairer music licensing sector. That can only be a positive for the music industry.
The hidden secret of music licensing
So there are chinks in the armour. The news broke in 2021 that Netflix agreed a deal with BMG for exclusive music publishing rights. Once again, the powerhouses take control, leaving small companies and independent artists battling for a piece of the pie.
In the meantime, it pays to look at the bigger picture. Music licensing covers a broad spectrum. While the Hollywood blockbuster is always going to be a tough nut to crack, music is omnipresent. Whether popping into a shop for groceries, having a drink in a pub, or eating a meal in a restaurant, when you hear music, it's licensing at work.
Having a song played in local business may not have the same impact as placement on the end credits of a Netflix smash, but it serves as a breakthrough nonetheless. Moreover, it is a means for musicians to receive royalties, and that alone is a positive for the music industry and the UK economy as a whole.
Music licensing is here to stay. From Mozart selling his sheet music in the 18th century to the modern day platforms of YouTube, licensing has stood the test of time. As the music industry tries to stay afloat, licensing could hold the key. But with the big music publishers looking to monopolise the competition, for independent artists not on their roster, dreams of a blockbuster placement might be a pipe dream.
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