Post Production

Music for Film and Television – Source Music and Song Licensing


Songs have been a big part of the movie-making process ever since the beginning of “talkies,” with Al Jolson singing “My Mammy” in The Jazz Singer (1927)—a prime example of an on-camera featured song in a movie. Songs have always been an important part of entertainment, and their attraction, interest, and “pull” for an audience mean a unique connection has been forged between songs and movies. The emotional connection between the film’s visual storytelling power and the magic of music and lyrics is cherished as an art form and valued as a powerful moneymaker. The music supervisor, music editor, film editor, and director are all intrinsically involved in nurturing this emotional and financial connection between song and film. The music supervisor deals with the creative aspects of song selection as well as the financial and legal matter of licensing. The music editor is concerned with the inner workings of the relationship between the songs and the film, often from very early on in the temp editing process, and must use their creative skills to marry the two. As a team, the music supervisor and music editor have the responsibility of choosing and using songs so as to build a wonderful, effective, and emotionally resonant soundtrack of songs.


Songs can be selected from many different sources. Our lives are inundated with music—on the radio and Internet, in stores, offices, and elevators. The question of how to find suitable songs for a film or television show might therefore seem like a simple one with obvious answers, but in practice the process is not quite so straightforward. The right material has to be found, and then legally acquired.

On large-budget projects, the music supervisor has room to reach out to artists for material that will make the director and studio happy. And individual artists, record labels, and music libraries are constantly trying to get their songs heard by music supervisors, due to the potential for lucrative music licensing deals; music editors can also be targeted in this way, as they often have a key role in placing songs in a movie. At the other extreme, on a low-budget film produced, written, directed, and edited by one person, that one person must search out music that is both creatively right for the film and affordable, and wade through the legal detail. That said, the sources they use are often the same as those for big-budget films.

music editing


Music libraries represent a good, inexpensive source of song material, and even the biggest movies utilize their services. They include companies like 5 Alarm, MasterSource, FirstCom, BMG, APM, Beyond, Killer Tracks, and Omni Music, among many others. They collect and record music, and contract with composers and songwriters to license their music to television and film productions. Most of the music they provide is song-form, with some dramatic underscore also available.

While songs provided by music libraries will not be from the Billboard top ten, it is possible to license “soundalike” songs, and at a much lower cost. These often achieve writing and production values, and sound quality that match those of the hits, old and new, and they are often used by films and TV shows to provide background diegetic music and to create ambience, for example in a bar or restaurant scene. As a rough guide, a license to use one instance of such a song in a film might cost between $1,700 and $2,500 (for exact rates, contact the music libraries—most can be found online). In addition to soundalike music, some libraries acquire the songs of better known artists in order to make additional revenue through royalties.

Music libraries often have recordings of songs both with and without lyrics. This is a great advantage for the music editor because he or she can cut between lyrics and instrumental sections, and combine and edit as needed. (This requires good editorial technique, of course)


The low-budget filmmaker wearing many hats needs to be careful when venturing into the world of song licensing. Studios and music supervisors have the knowledge base and resources to handle the many potential pitfalls and legal traps. Questions to ask include:

● Who owns the song? There are two parts to this: the licensing of the recording to be used, and the licensing of the song itself from the owner of the intellectual property rights. This latter is usually—but not always—a publisher and/or the creator of the song.

● How long will the license last? “In perpetuity,” or does it run out after a certain length of time?

● Are there limits on how the song can be used? For example, a license might only allow for festival play, or it might apply only to a specific geographical area. If you want your film to be available in theaters worldwide, or for types of public performance other than those specified, you may need to pay more. The license needs to state the terms of usage clearly.

● How much of the song are you intending to use in your movie? Generally the initial contract with the publisher will state a certain length of time, say 38 seconds, for which the song will play in the film. The contract and the amount paid therefore only cover the use of 38 seconds or less, even if it’s a 3-minute song. If the film is recut and the length of time the song plays increases as a result, a renegotiation will likely be needed.

● How many times will the song be used? Each separate time the audience hears the song, this is considered one usage—so a character switching off a radio on which a song is playing then switching it back on again (with the same song still playing) represents two uses of that song. Cutting between locations might have the same result. This is traditionally called a “needle drop,” a term from the days of phonographs: each time you put the needle down was counted as one use of the song.

● Can you edit the song in the way you want to? The contract should contain some statement to the effect that the film production has the right to edit the song as they deem necessary. While this seems obviously part of the deal, it is a good idea to have it in writing; some artists are very protective of their material.

● Is there any performing rights organization attached to the composers or publishers of the song? While this is not necessarily a factor in the contract, it is something the music editor will need to know for the finished preliminary music cue sheet, which is part of the delivery requirements.


There are two basic types of music usage in a project: underscore (or score) and source music. Underscore is the non-diegetic music which only the audience hears, and is usually specially composed. Source music is diegetic music that the characters also hear, for example on a radio or iPod, or as background music in a scene set in a restaurant or club. Most often these source pieces are previously recorded songs which were not written or performed with the movie in mind. Occasionally a song may be recorded specifically for the project, however, and some songs can take the form of an on-camera performance by one of the actors or by a “live” artist appearing in the movie. An artist might also be contracted to write a song for a film’s opening or end credit sequence, or for a montage or particular collection of scenes.

Songs can also be used as score, and be mixed in to support the action, emotion, or storyline; this is a “song-score.” Similarly, “scource” music is usually a song which the audience understands as coming from a source such as a radio, but which nevertheless develops and is mixed so as to underscore the scene.

Excerpt from Music Editing for Film and Television: The Art and the Process by Steven Saltzman © 2014 Taylor and Francis Group. All Rights Reserved.

Image via Flickr – Lucky Star Photo / Soundville Studios

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