Music Licensing for Film Festivals: A Beginner's Guide

April 25, 2016

With Tribeca just behind us and Cannes just on the horizon, film festival season is in full swing. Every year, independent filmmakers around the world stake their hopes and careers on just a few screenings of their film, often looking to gain support from studios large and small.
Needless to say, if you’re an indie filmmaker looking to break into the festival circuit, you need all the help you can get. While the process of making a movie is incredibly complex and stressful, we’re here to help you get a handle on an oft-overlooked element – music licensing. Thankfully, it’s simpler than you might think! Here’s your guide to licensing music for film festival use.
What Is Music  Licensing?
Music licensing is the process of securing the rights to use music in your film. In almost all cases, this is done for a fee – and that’s what we need to negotiate. Let’s start from the beginning.
Finding the Perfect Piece
It’s never too early in the filmmaking process to start thinking about music. Music costs time and money, resources that indie filmmakers must be keenly aware of from day one. Even if you have a composer creating a custom score for your film, you may find a need for what’s known as “source music,” for example a rock song that a main character hears on the radio. While this can absolutely be created by the composer, it can also take up a great deal of his or her time that could be better spent working on the score. Your composer also may not have the instruments or facilities to make a great rock track in a few days as required. This is where licensing comes in.
If you already have a piece of music you’d like to use, and the artist isn’t terribly well-known, it can never hurt to reach out directly. They may be excited to be a part of a movie and appreciate the exposure –a great starting position for a fee negotiation. However, when working with artists, especially friends or family, make sure to get everything in writing and lock down your terms in clear language (more on that later). If and when the film picks up steam and heads for larger distribution, the price will likely need to be re-negotiated. If the deal becomes unfair in the transition from backyard project to indie darling, you risk losing the support and permission of that artist.
If you haven’t quite found that perfect piece yet (or you have, and it was too expensive!) you will likely find yourself in the often intimidating world of music libraries. You’re looking for a one-stop catalog that is reputable, is within your budget, and most importantly, has a wide variety of great music. Crucial Music is one such catalog (a shameless plug, but we promise this guide applies to other reputable libraries as well). Music libraries almost always feature a search function where you can look for tracks based on genre, mood, tempo, etc. What you may not know is that many of these libraries provide personalized service. Since they want you to choose one of their tracks, you should consider contacting them directly. Many of them offer pitching services where you can describe your music needs and receive a curated playlist of songs that may work for your project. There is typically no fee associated with this service – great for directors who are doing the music supervision themselves.
Negotiating the Terms
Even better, you may not know that most of these libraries will offer discounted rates for your film. Independent films are generally negotiated at a lower price, and film festival rates are special rates under that umbrella.
Film festival rates usually come with a licensing term, which can be any amount of time from a few months up to a year. This means you pay to use the song for any festivals you make it into within that time. If you license for a year, and that year expires, you must renew the license (usually the same fee as the first year).
Often times (but not necessarily), there may be a clause in the license that dictates a higher fee in case the film is picked up for distribution. For example, a film festival license may be $250, but in the extended terms of that deal, a price of $1000 is set for a full license (known as All Media) in case of distribution. You may decide to only go with a film festival license and then negotiate the All Media license later (if you get distribution), however if you go this route and get picked up by a major studio the rate may skyrocket. Negotiating the Film Festival + All Media license together can be a bargain in the long run.
But what does it cost, really?
The cost of licensing, of course, depends on what library or source you use. In general, you will find that you get what you pay for. You will almost certainly run into countless royalty free music sites offering tracks for a few dollars, but the vast majority of this material is unsuitable for serious film use. Look for libraries with legitimate licensing credits on network TV and theatrical film releases – work with them directly and you’ll likely be able to find top quality tracks for a few hundred dollars. If you do want to use a well-known piece of music, you will still find discounted festival rates, but it will likely put you into the thousands for festival use and much higher for an All Media license.
General Tips
Music is one of the most powerful elements of your film. Don’t settle for less than perfection – there is a lot of great music out there. If you have the resources, hire a music supervisor for your project – someone who can take the burden off your shoulders and focus on finding music that works for your film and your budget. Perhaps most importantly, don’t be afraid to contact music sources directly – they will be eager to hear from you and help you with anything you might need.
Good luck with your film – we can’t wait to see it!

If you're looking for custom music for your next film project, be sure to check out CrucialCustom.

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