When you stop and listen, music is everywhere. Watch a movie. Stream a Netflix show. Play a match on FIFA. Pay attention during an ad break. The appetite for music across the modern media landscape is insatiable, and every last note is making money for musicians. At a time when reading your latest streaming royalty statement can be a deflating experience, sync licensing – otherwise known as licensing your music to feature on film, TV, videogames and adverts – is an income stream you can’t afford to miss.
You’ve probably heard the stories of famous sync paydays – like the $3 million Microsoft handed to The Rolling Stones to use “Start Me Up” in its Windows 95 ad campaign, or the double-dollars that “Don’t Stop Believin’” earned Journey for appearing in both Glee and The Sopranos – and assumed that only veteran superstars need apply. The truth is, with every type of music in demand across the creative industries, and directors more focused on a track’s suitability than the artist’s profile, musicians at every level can gain from sync licensing. In fact, if you’re not (yet) a household name, that might actively work in your favor, as you’re more likely to fit with a commissioner’s budget.
Between one-off fees and ongoing royalties, sync licensing can be a lifeline for musicians whose live income has fallen away during the pandemic. But the benefits of sync licensing go deeper than immediate financial gain. Sync a song to an achingly cool TV show, or a breakout video game and you can set a budding career in motion, funnelling fans who’d never otherwise have heard you to your socials, merch store and live shows.
As the world’s favorite social music platform, BandLab is all about empowering musicians and sharing creative knowledge. Here’s our guide to making sync licensing work for you.
How does sync licensing work?
Let’s take the example of a TV show. The director needs a song to accompany a big shootout scene, and tasks their music supervisor with scouting and licensing it. With their ear to the ground, the music supervisor might already have a song in mind, in which case they’ll approach the publisher who represents the artist and the record label they’re signed to.
The appetite for music across the modern media landscape is insatiable, and every last note is making money for musicians.
Alternatively, if the supervisor is open to suggestions, the publisher might pitch suitable songs from the artists on their roster. From there, negotiations begin, with the various parties agreeing the terms of the sync licence and the size of the upfront payment to the musician, known as the sync fee.
Unlike streaming, sync licensing works out well for both the songwriter and the recording artists, because the sync fee is split equally between the holders of the publishing rights and the master rights. Better still, if you both wrote and recorded the song, you’ll get both halves of the sync fee – after the publisher and label take their cut, of course. In the fantasy scenario, the TV show will turn out to be a smash-hit that gets repeated for the next half-century and rolled out onto a DVD boxset and CD soundtrack, meaning that you’ll also be in line for ongoing royalties from here to eternity.
What is a sync license?
The sync license itself is the contract that grants permission to the media channel to use your music. Typically, a sync licence will set out how and where your song can be used on the channel in question, along with the terms, conditions and duration of the agreement, and the all-important payment details. Every publisher, record label and music supervisor will have its own standard sync licence, but if you find yourself having to negotiate a sync licensing deal without representation, help is out there – for example, in the UK the Musicians’ Union provides a series of free-to-use sync licence templates for film, TV and advertising here.
Sync agents: why you should have one
It’s rare for music supervisors to approach musicians direct to license their music for sync – so where does that leave upcoming artists who aren’t signed to a record label or represented by a publisher? Fortunately, in the digital age, it’s still possible for independent musicians to break into sync licensing via the growing number of sync agents offering their services – with sites like MelodySync specialising in representing the catalogues of indie labels and artists.
A good sync agent will have the ear of the film, TV, game and ad industries, and relationships with all the right music supervisors. If they hear commercial potential in your music, they’ll actively pitch it, for a typical commission of 20–25%. Just be aware that every sync agency’s creative licensing team will be swamped with unsolicited material, so make sure your music is the best it can be before you submit – you probably won’t get a second chance.
There might be more hoops to jump through as a smaller artist but success stories do happen. While the soundtrack of 2020’s must-watch TV drama I May Destroy You prominently featured Daft Punk, it also included a track from rising hip-hop songwriter Greentea Peng. And take heart from hotly-tipped garage-soul/blues duo Henry’s Funeral Shoe, whose tunes have soundtracked a Fiat ad campaign, plus major TV shows including Love Island and I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here!
Or take the uplifting case of Sussex-based jive and swing band The Jive Aces. “We had a song placement in the second series of Sex Education this year,” says Alex Douglas, the band’s trombone player and promotions manager. “It came about as the dancers in the scene were friends and they mentioned the production company were having trouble sourcing music at a reasonable price. I asked them to pitch some of our original songs and they liked “Simple Things.” A nice side benefit was that our Shazams and streams skyrocketed, with thousands of people discovering our music. It’s helped with our live stream, JiveStream, which we do every night on our Facebook, YouTube and Twitch channels.”
What are my synchronization rights?
If you’re a signed artist, with a record label and publisher, you should already be familiar with your sync rights, as set out in your contract. For independent artists, it’s wise to do some research before you approach a sync agent. The small print can vary wildly from contract to contract, with some agents charging a one-off commission on the initial sync fee, then letting you keep your master rights, publishing rights and royalties – while others take a slice of all future earnings.
As always, nothing beats word-of-mouth, so ask fellow musicians you meet on BandLab for recommendations, keep an ear to the ground on industry web forums – and don’t sign away your world-beating hit too cheaply.
Sync deals: how much can I earn?
As a working musician, you’ll want to know black-and-white figures, but the sync fee is the most slippery element of sync licensing. Endless factors influence the financial remuneration – from the artist’s profile and the song’s popularity, to the show’s ratings and the specifics of the scene your music will accompany. As such, sync deals tend to be negotiated on a case-by-case basis, rather than a flat ‘$x per song’.
Of course, you’d expect there to be more cash on the table for the sync of The Civil Wars’ “Poison And Wine” soundtracking the most poignant moment of Grey’s Anatomy, or P!nk’s “Get The Party” Started on HBO’s all-conquering Succession. But even for less established bands and songs, there’s good money to be made. One independent musician whose original song appeared on a Netflix show this year told BandLab he’d received $1,272 for the publishing (of which his publisher took 25%), plus a further $1,272 for mechanical royalties. Ask around on BandLab and you’ll soon start to build up a picture of what you might expect.
Sync deals: what to look out for
If you find yourself on the frontline of a sync licensing deal, don’t just check the fee and sign. There are certain key clauses that can dictate whether the sync deal is good or not-so-much, and you’ll need to strip away the legalese to get a straight answer. The question of territory is one of the most pressing: if the movie or TV episode will be shown around the world, not just in one territory, it should garner a higher sync fee.
The term of the licence is also critical: movies will probably expect a lifetime’s use, whereas adverts have a shelf-life, and the sync fee should reflect that.
Find out which media platforms the footage and music will appear on: if it ultimately migrates from TV to online, you need to know. And perhaps most important of all, be clear on exclusivity: it’s no good being paid a generous sync fee if that means you have to turn down Apple’s next ad campaign.
How do I get sync royalties?
It feels great to have the sync fee in your wallet – but if the show, movie, game or advert has legs, ongoing sync royalties could be an even bigger earner in the long run. As a musician, with songs to write and gigs to play, you don’t have time to monitor the royalties you’re due, and that’s why it’s so important to become a member of your national collection societies, who’ll chase up the royalties you’re owed and pay them to you at regular intervals.
In the UK, for example, PRS collects and pays royalties when its members’ work is broadcast on TV or radio, performed or played in public, streamed or downloaded. MCPS deals with music that is copied as physical products (eg. CDs and DVDs), streamed or downloaded, or used in TV, film and radio. Then there’s PPL, which licenses the use of recorded music played in public, or on TV, radio and the Internet.
In the States, the key performing rights organizations you need to know about are ASCAP, BMI and SESAC. As an upcoming artist, you’ll most likely join the non-profit ASCAP and BMI in the first instance (SESAC is by invitation-only). But whatever you do, don’t neglect this painless piece of administration or you’ll miss out on the royalties that could keep your finances in the black.
Granted, there’s often a small, one-off fee for joining a royalties society. But, then again, if you’ve got the anthem of a generation in your back pocket, that’s a drop in the ocean of what you could earn from sync licensing.
Read more: 3 ways to increase your singing longevity