Music Licensing Deal

5 things you should do before you seek a music licensing deal

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These five steps might not be fun or glamorous, but they’re necessary if you’re serious about seeking a music licensing deal.

Getting your music licensed is a big undertaking. But the absolute LAST thing you want is to go through all the work of songwriting, researching, emailing, pitching, and following up, only to have the license fall through in the end because you didn’t have your copyrights and permissions set up.

These small steps aren’t as fun or as glamorous as seeking out licenses or writing music for licensing, and as a result they’re not talked about as much in the music industry. But, as you’ll see, they are absolutely essential and can make or break a music licensing deal.

Music supervisors and music publishers need to legally protect themselves and the companies and productions they’re working with. And that means any music they use needs to be properly cleared and registered. The fast-paced nature of the publishing and licensing industries also means that deals sometimes need to come together very quickly. And if your song is still waiting in the copyright office, they’ll just find someone else.

The steps listed here are probably things you should do with every song you write and record, whether you plan to pursue a music licensing deal or not, but they become particularly relevant when dealing with licenses and other deals.

1. Register your song for copyright

Technically, in the US, you get copyright protection automatically when you put something into tangible form. But that’s not going to fly in the licensing and publishing industries: they want something concrete and official that will hold up in real legal situations. And a registration with the US Copyright Office is the absolute best proof of ownership.

Before you even think about submitting a song for licensing opportunities, make sure it is formally registered with the copyright office. You can see the online filing options at the website www.copyright.gov. (You can file multiple songs under the same application to cut down on costs.)

2. Register with a PRO and Sound Exchange

Registering your song with a PRO (Performing Rights Organization) is a completely separate process from registering it for copyright protection. PROs do not protect your song, they collect performance royalties and pay them to you. Most supervisors and publishers will want to see you affiliated with a PRO before they license your music.

In the US, the PROs to look into are ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC, but most countries have their own form of the PRO that you’ll be able to find with a quick online search. Choose one, register with them as a songwriter, and register your songs.

If you release your own music as well, make sure you’re also registering your sound recordings with SoundExchange. Just like PROs, SoundExchange will collect performance royalties for the sound recording and pay them out to you.

In addition to making the licensing process smoother, registering with a PRO is also in your best interest. If your song is licensed in a movie, ad, or TV show, any plays on live TV or radio count as a public performance, and that means you’ll keep receiving performance royalties as long as it’s being played. (This is money on top of whatever licensing agreement you made.)

3. Clear any samples

This is huge. It’s probably safer to just avoid samples entirely in songs you plan on licensing, but if you absolutely must, here’s how it works. If your song is a cover or it includes a sample (even if it’s a very short sample), you need to have clearance notices down on paper giving you permission before you can license the song.

You will need to get permission from both the publisher (who owns the composition copyright) and the record label (who owns the sound recording copyright), and pay whatever fee they require.

If a supervisor sees that you’re using a sample, he’s probably not going to wait around for you to clear it and he certainly doesn’t want to have to pay a big unexpected fee to the sampled artist down the road.

4. Have all song splits and ownerships down on paper

If you’re doing any kind of co-writing, creating a split sheet is extremely important. A split sheet is a document that details how much of the song each writer owns and some basic information like your contact info, PRO, publisher, and label affiliation.

Don’t get intimidated, this is totally something you can create on your own (in fact, I have a free split sheet template you can download).

As you can probably guess, this song split information is really important when it comes to getting permission for licenses and determining payouts.

5. Metadata

Metadata is the descriptive information that you attach to your tracks: things like artist name, album name, song name, genre, contact info, publisher affiliation, website, etc. Basically, you want to make it as easy as possible for someone to find you if they’re listening to your song.

Having the metadata set on your tracks won’t make or break a license opportunity like the other points we’ve talked about, but it can certainly help supervisors and publishers find you and get in touch if they want to license your song. There will be instances when a publisher or supervisor comes back to a track she received months prior and needs to contact the artist for a new license opportunity.

Once you have all of this squared away, you can start submitting your music for licensing opportunities and to music libraries and rest assured knowing you will be ready when a music licensing deal comes your way.

Again, these are probably steps you should be taking regardless of whether you want to license your music or not, so make a checklist for yourself and come back to it every time you create a new song.


Dave Kusek is the founder of New Artist Model and Berklee Online. Over the years he’s worked with tens of thousands of musicians around the world across every genre imaginable and in many different markets. New Artist Model is an online music business school designed especially for indie musicians. Learn how to turn your music into a career, understand the business, and start thinking like a musical entrepreneur.

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About Dave Kusek

8 thoughts on “5 things you should do before you seek a music licensing deal

  1. What a wonderful in depth experience reading this article, it was very helpful and educational realy I enjoyed every bit piece of it.
    Thank you, for taking times out of your busy schedule drafting out this helpful informative section about music licensing: it’s a every indie musicians must read article, this is a good look.
    Great work I have learned a lot from it , I love it.
    Again thanks

  2. I get it, copyright the songs to make the rest of the process legal-hassle free for use in movies etc…but $55 a song? Ouch. And where is that bundle them together to get a better price thing?

    1. I recommend bundling up to 10 songs together to register them as a Group of Works. Does not mean the songs must be released or published together. Does mean you save money. Also, you have the option of registering a master recording (you should own the master recording with this option) with the song composition at the same time which is an additional savings.

  3. PS Also your artist/songwriters probably know this but offering a music user both the performer and the song rights is something they like. We started doing it many years ago, contacted original artists to rerecord. What a grand time it was. Creativity and particularly music is so grand.

    1. Can you share their link ? For the US copyright library of congress , where to register. Regards.

  4. Your article was one of the most concise and on target ones I have seen in a while. Licensing can be a very complicated process at times especially when one promotes, and then the licensing challenge and securing appropriate payment begins. I was blessed to be involved in promoting and licensing with a wonderful team for years, working with songwriters and songs. Because we promoted to every possible area including advertising, tv, films, tv promos, industrial promos, evolving technologies, etc. we tried to clear rights in advance. I spent time on the phone explaining to contemporary songwriters (I worked for a US global publisher) that sometimes having a song “out there” in a good way is important because it keeps a song alive, it allows for a new audience to the music/artist (even sometimes when the original artist is not involved) and because one use of a song can lead to others. And if in movie or tv show, performances can still be paid in a time when most licenses require all rights now known or hereafter known. But here too performances are included in many licenses.

    One also knows the value of promotion via exposure but it is a tricky exchange. In our digital world I want to see music have value. It is a hard road in these times. Thank you for your article.

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