First Hand — How music ends up in film, TV, games and more: An introduction to music licensing

Posted 14 March 2019 Written by Rebecca Irvin

The world of music licensing is rarely talked about, or even thought about. Whether it’s hearing a favourite song on a TV show, game or film, or singing along to that catchy jingle in an advert, we are often blissfully oblivious to the complicated process between the music being created. Especially when hearing it through our tinny laptop speakers, TV screens or cinema surround sound. Rachel Wood, owner of Woodwork Music – who represent record labels and bands to place their music in visual media – sheds some light on the industry, takes us behind the screen and offers tips on how to get into music licensing.

Understanding music licensing

Music licensers are a vital part of the mechanism that authorises the use of music in TV, film, gaming and advertising. They essentially act as the means by which a client obtains the correct licenses and rights to use music in their creations.

As Rachel describes it, “It’s making sure that a third party have the full permissions they legally need to be able to use the music they choose on their production, be that a TV show like Better Call Saul, a game like Grand Theft Auto, or a film.”

This means dealing with the small print and all the prohibitions around copying, distributing and broadcasting that come along with that little copyright symbol.

A lot is at stake here. In Rachel’s words, “Finding and licensing both sides of the copyright in music for use in audio-visual media is a quite a complicated process, so it suits someone who loves their music but is also hugely organised and thorough, to make sure the business or brand doesn’t end up in legal trouble!”

“It suits someone who loves their music but is also hugely organised and thorough.”

Work by Woodwork Music for O2

What goes on behind the scenes

It’s easy to forget that the music setting the atmosphere in our favourite films, helping to engage us in an advertisement, or rolling with the credits at the end of an episode for whatever Netflix series we’re binging on, has gone through a lot of different channels to arrive on our screens.

“I don’t think people realise how hugely complicated this world is,” Rachel says. “When you hear an ad on the TV, that’s the finale. What’s gone before that is hours of sourcing, deliberating, legal conversations and many, many different choices! Finding who and where to get sign off from can be massively time-consuming and stressful when you’re up against tight deadlines. There are many stakeholders or ‘cooks’ stirring the broth, and decision making can be painful and frustrating!”

Roles within music licensing

So who are these ‘cooks’? Rachel helps us to outline some of the pivotal roles that have a stake in the music licensing industry:


Music supervisor
(Aka the people sourcing the music)
This role relies on understanding the creative vision of the producers and directors to find the right track. As Rachel tells us, “This could be finding an existing track – making sure they have the license to do so – or hiring an orchestra to create something special, through to working with a composer to create something completely bespoke. Music supervisors know their music. They may have a creative background, but they are total music buffs too.”


Music Rights Holders (Aka the music publishers and record labels; e.g. Sony, Warner Music)
Music rights holders register and collect income on behalf of those who have made the music or own the rights to it. They are responsible not just for protecting the legal rights of their clients, but also for marketing the music within the world of visual media. Rachel says,All the big players and the majority of the mid-size indies have an in-house sync team for TV and film and they’re in charge of getting TV and film makers to use the music.”

“The challenge in this role is knowing the catalogue and contacts. And then knowing the right supervisors and production companies to get a foot in the door to potential jobs.”


Third-party reps (Aka the external licensing agents)
Third-party representatives of labels, artists and composers are responsible for getting interest in the client’s music from TV, film and advertising companies, as well as negotiating costs and navigating the legal side of things.

This is where Woodwork Music comes in. This job, Rachel explains, “is a big thing in the US, but not so much in the UK, mainly because the ‘blanket licence’ allows UK terrestrial broadcasters a large amount of rights without having to clear them – the rights owners just earn their money through a performance royalty payment, paid via PRS [Performing Rights Society] and PPL [Phonographic Performance Limited].”


Music production companies (Aka the music makers)
These companies create the sounds and tracks that are then fed through into the visual marketing and distribution area of the music industry. Rachel tells us that “Most music production companies specialise in a specific industry, such as music for games, music for ads, music for trailers, music for film.”

Work by Woodwork Music for PlayStation

Advice on getting into the industry

Because there are so many diverse roles within music licensing, and so many specific responsibilities and required skills, people tend to come into the industry from a range of different professional backgrounds. Rachel shares with us the key attributes you’ll need if you’re looking to pursue a career in music licensing:

An enthusiasm for, and understanding of, music in visual contexts
“You’ll definitely need to have a keen interest in music, but more specifically music as used in TV, film, games, and so on. This is not a job for someone who is solely interested in the latest thing – this is music as a function, working alongside another art form.”

A willingness to get your hands dirty and gain industry experience
“The industry is becoming increasingly harder to get into, because so many more people are aware of its existence. This means that it’s not uncommon to have to start out doing work experience to get your foot in the door of a decent gig.”

“It’s not uncommon to have to start out doing work experience to get your foot in the door of a decent gig.”

Adaptability, versatility and creative insight
“What I look for when taking on graduates is their approach. Yes, I want to see how you demonstrate an attention to detail in legalities and understand how important that is, but I also want to see how aware you are of the creative differences in music for different backgrounds. TV and film are totally different to advertising, and so need to be approached differently.”

People skills
“Be nice and enthusiastic. Listen and ask. Most companies doing this are very small and want people who are going to fit in with their small team.”

Perceptiveness and attention to detail
“Watch the film to the end. Be a geek about music in context. Think about how music is being used in in TV, film, gaming, and why. Get work experience at labels and publishers, but remember, it’s not all fun, games and free drinks – you need to be meticulous.”

Posted 14 March 2019 Written by Rebecca Irvin
Collection: First Hand
Disciplines: Advertising, Film, Music
Mentions: Woodwork, Sony Music, Warner Music Group, O2

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