Business of Art | Music Licensing for Documentary Films

Business of Art | Music Licensing for Documentary Films

Create the perfect atmosphere with music.

Music can have an enormous influence on the mood and impact of your film, but you need to remember that virtually every piece of included music, no matter how long it is played, will need to be licensed and paid for.

During a workshop that took place at The New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA) in November 2018, Peter Miller, Emmy and Peabody Award-winning filmmaker and music supervisor, shared his experience and philosophy on how to tackle licensing music for documentary films. Among other helpful advice, we learned that music clearance should be considered at the beginning of creating your film, not just in post-production. We also learned that it can take the wits of a “music historian” to find the right license. Read on and learn more via this helpful step-by-step guide to getting music cleared for your films.

Step 1: Consider Your Budget (and Potential Alternatives)

Having a very particular song in your film can be rewarding, but considering your budget (and your time) is an important first step. Licensing a song, even if it only plays for five seconds in your film, can be quite expensive. Ask yourself if the specific piece of music you want is vital or if there might be an alternative, such as:

  • Hiring a musician or creating your own score. Creating your own score will add an element of uniqueness to your film by composing a song that follows the emotional structure of the film (rather than vice versa). It gives you the freedom to use the song in any way that you like, in any medium, for all eternity. It is also cost-effective.
  • Using library music. Library music, also known as production music or stock music, is recorded music that can be licensed to customers for use in a film or other media. Although library music can be seen as generic or less authentic, it’s decent quality and written and recorded by professional musicians. You might be surprised by how many T.V. shows use library music in their episodes. You can find information about and links to music libraries by doing a basic internet search.

Step 2: Know What Kind of Rights You Need

Music licensing requires acquiring two types of rights (typically from two or more different entities that will need to be cleared). There’s a ‘master license’ and a ‘synch license.’ A master license is a license that gives you rights to use the original recording of that song. This is typically derived from the music record label. A synch license is the actual written song (lyrics and notes) itself. The license will be issued by the entity that published the song. In most cases, you will need both licenses. If you use, for instance, Adele’s Rolling in the Deep, you will need to acquire both.

There are a few exceptions where you will only need one license over the other. An example of this is when you have filmed someone singing a song and used that recording in your film. In this circumstance, the recording is yours, but the actual lyrics and composition are not. You will only need a synch license.

In all cases, whenever there is music or singing, do your research and acquire the appropriate rights to have them in your film.

Step 3: Is the Song in the U.S. Public Domain? It’s Not Likely.

Don’t bet that a song is in the public domain. Music that was written and recorded before 1923 is considered to be in the public domain in the United States. All music created after 1923 is, in most cases, protected by copyright. If it’s a song deeply embedded in our culture, or even a protest song, don’t assume it’s in the public domain—always double-check!

Sometimes a published song is in the public domain, but the version that you will be using in your film is a brand new recording, sung by a different artist. You will need to acquire a license for the recording. (In this case, you would only need to acquire a master license, rather than the synch license).

Step 4: Do Your Music History Research!

Based on Peter Miller’s experience, it is a tricky endeavor to find the right entities that produced the original recording or published the actual song. Thankfully, Miller provided tips!

To find the right recording entity and publishers will require the skills of a music historian. Here are the best sources to find the respective music licenses you will need to ask for from the correct entity:

The Search for a Master License

The search can get convoluted. As copyright law is different in Europe and music rights are more freely available there, European countries are often the producers of various compilation albums like “Best Rock ‘N Roll Hits of the 70’s” or “Most Romantic Pop Songs.” If you look at the distribution details, a specific music distributor will be listed. But, that’s not the original recording or publishing source.

Believe it or not, when it comes to knowing who recorded an album for an artist at a given time, Wikipedia is often your best source. Do a search with the artist’s name and see which record labels they were affiliated with when they originally recorded the song. is another great resource to assist your music history search. The downside to this website is that it will list all of the European labels that produced a compilation album, in addition to the original label, which can get confusing to sift through.

The Search for a Synch License

Performing rights societies ensure that songwriters are compensated for their music and provide the public with easy-to-search databases to find what entities own the publishing rights.

The difficult part about acquiring a synch license is that there can be multiple publishers that own various percentages of shares for the song. When this is the case, you will need to request the license from each publisher.

The two most popular societies are:

Roughly half of all songs are controlled by ASCAP and the other half are controlled by BMI. If a song is not found in their databases, check the Society of European Stage Authors and Composers (SESAC).

Step 5: It’s Time to Request the License!

Once you’ve found the right entities to request licensing, remember to keep your request simple, as companies are sifting through multiple requests at a given time.

Get straight to the point and be logical about your request based on the life of your film. In your request, include the following information:

  • Synopsis: what is your film is about? (1 sentence!)
  • Term: For how long you will need the license?
  • Territory: U.S. or worldwide?
  • Rights: Will you need rights for film festivals, TV, video, streaming or theatrical, wide-release, etc.? Do you need rights for your trailer?
  • Timing: how much of the song will you be using and where in the film? End credits or title?
  • Proposed fee: there are no set fees in music; always specify a number to give and offer what is credible.
  • Options: If you are not sure you will participate in film festivals yet but would like to, it is best to build this option into your contract to ensure you understand the costs of using the song upfront.

Step 6: Ways to Negotiate and Determining the Right Fee

Fees in the music industry are negotiable. To request a good rate, you will need to do some research to ensure that what you are asking for is not too high or too low. While a feature film could easily cost $25,000 each for a master license and a synch license, a documentary film license could potentially go for less.

When proposing a fee, you can also utilize what is called the “Most Favored Nations (MFN)” clause. Using MFN, you are proposing a price for a piece of music and guaranteeing every distributor and publisher that you will pay the same price for every piece of music in the film. If they accept MFN, you are bound to the promise: if one distributor happens to license their music for more, you will either need to go back and pay all of the distributors the same price or reject the offer and seek an alternative.

If you received a “no,” you can navigate the negotiation on these points:

  • Shorter term, or ask for an option to renew
  • Fewer rights for distribution options
  • Less territory coverage
  • Build in options
  • Do you have access to the artist and songwriter, and have received their approval? Tell the distributor!

Additional Helpful Articles:

About Peter Miller

Peter Miller is an Emmy and Peabody Award-winning filmmaker whose documentaries have screened in cinemas and on television throughout the world. His films include A.K.A. Doc Pomus (about the legendary songwriter); Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story; Sacco and Vanzetti; the musical short The Internationale (Oscar short-list); and Robert Shaw: Man of Many Voices, about the celebrated conductor, for which he won two Emmys. With Carlos Sandoval, he made A Class Apart for PBS’s “American Experience” series, which is being adapted as a feature film executive produced by Eva Longoria. With Ken Rosenberg, he is currently producing Bedlam, a documentary feature about the crisis in care for the severely mentally ill, which will air on PBS in 2019. He has been a producer on numerous documentaries by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, including the PBS series The War, Jazz, and Frank Lloyd Wright. In addition to his work as a producer and director, Miller has supervised music clearances for Ken Burns’ Baseball and his upcoming Country Music series for PBS; Stanley Nelson’s The Black Panther Party; as well as other landmark documentaries. Learn more about Miller’s work at

Are you an artist or new organization, and interested in increasing your fundraising opportunities through NYFA Fiscal Sponsorship? No-fee applications are accepted on a quarterly basis and the next deadline to apply is December 31. Click here to learn more about the program and to apply.

Are you a filmmaker interested in finding, growing, and engaging with your audience? Click here for insights from three early-career filmmakers on audience-building. Sign up for our free bi-weekly newsletter, NYFA News, for the latest updates and news about Sponsored Projects and Emerging Organizations.

– Priscilla Son, Program Associate, Fiscal Sponsorship & Finance

Image Credit: Jadina Lilien, Sounds of Peace, 2017 (Sponsored Project)

Amy Aronoff
Posted on:
Post author