When Movies Meet Music

I’m midway through a book (to be honest, I’ve been midway through it for a while) written by a respected fictional writer who steered away from his wartime patient tales to publish a series of conversations with Oscar award winning editor and sound mixer Walter Murch. Tapes transcribed for us all to hear.. err, read.

It’s amazing how simple the most complex ideas are when spoken instead of written. Things can get so convoluted when you have some smart-ass sitting on his couch in his underwear typing away on his mac for his own website testing himself to see if he can use contrived, pedantic and superfluous in a single sentence let alone to describe a solitary film term. Not that I know from experience.

In one part of the book, Murch speaks of adding a simple chime in a movie right before a change of scenes. Although visually it belonged after the scene change, letting it ring before allowed his viewer to mentally break from what they had seen and anticipate the coming change. It was simple, but brilliant. I almost immediately began experimenting with music. Not that I hadn’t used it before, but now I truly wanted to craft the mood using it.

I remember mixing a slow piano track to a smattering of hockey hits, chuckling to myself over the fact I had now created a tragedy.

I have always handled my own music sourcing and sound mixing. It’s not that I’m opposed to handing the responsibility off, just my outfits have been a little small and I’ve been required to wear many hats. Although Top-40 has always been out of my reach, I’ve been blessed to work under a license for the Killer Tracks library.

But as I venture further and further into the documentary world, I find myself inching ever closer to an inescapable eventuality. I will have to – at one point or another – licence music (cue the orchestra: dun-dun-dunnnn).

With this in mind I found the latest post by Chris Rucks on MusicThinkTank.com to be worth spreading around. He’s written a few recently on the licensing process and importance thereof,  but I’m always a sucker for those ‘five things only an idiot would do’ pieces. That’s why last week’s blog on Top Five Biggest Mistakes to Make When Clearing Music for Licensing struck a chord with me.

Now, I’m going to repost the full blog for all of you to read, but please.. do me a favour and at least hop over for a quick looksie on MusicThinkTank.com. I feel like a bit of a jerk for teefing their material.

There are various aspects to music licensing that can get pretty complex, pretty quickly. Among these is music clearance, essentially the process of locating the owners of a song and obtaining permission from them to license their music in your project. It’s wise to approach the clearance of a song with some important ideas in mind. So, we’ve compiled a list of a few of the most common pitfalls to avoid when clearing music for licensing.

#5 – Assuming you can’t be successful if you can’t license that particular song

Is there a better selection? Do you have to use the song your boss suggested because her 14 year old daughter thinks it’s “omg, like, so good.” You’re about to do a lot of work (and probably spend a good chunk of change if it’s Top 40 radio) for a song that may not be the best selection. 

What’s the motivation for using the song? Does it fit perfectly with the project like peanut butter and jelly? Is your song selection formulaic? Is there a better selection? A cheaper selection? A selection that will resonate with your intended audience to a greater degree? Omg, like, maybe!

#4 – Not giving yourself enough time

It’s wise to give yourself ample time for both the necessary research and the time that goes into contacting copyright holders.

It’s Monday and your boss is struck by a “eureka” moment. He comes barreling down the hallway into your office. He enthusiastically insists upon licensing an incredibly popular song by:

• a band with seven writers and seven publishers

• a band that has since fallen out and hates each other’s guts

• a band that hates the record label and compromising on the fee for both sides will be a nightmare

• a band with two writers in dire financial straits, drooling at the possibility of milking you for every red cent you’ve got

When you’re informed that you’ll need that by Friday, the hairs on the back of your neck will stand up straight as you contort your face into a counterfeit smile. Gather your things, head to the elevator, proceed to the bar downstairs, order whiskey and coke, two cubes. You got a lot of voicemails to leave and you’re about to have some fun. Make sure you’re giving yourself ample time when clearing a license. Some situations will be infinitely more simple than others, for example, a label who also owns the master and the publishing and is ready to license their artists with no problems. However, more complex situations, like the example above, require much more work.

The depth of your relationships with rights holders plays a crucial factor in the process. It’s easy to call a large publisher you’ve already dealt with and close a deal a little more quickly, as opposed to just beginning the relationship and having to get up to speed.

#3 – Leaving out a rights holder

“Oh you only need to get in contact with the majority of the publishing/writers of the song. Don’t worry, we’ve got most of them.” [Insert wrong answer buzzer sound] Wrong.

God only knows how many lawsuits have developed from this tiny misconception. My friend, you will need to get in touch with, and obtain permission from, each and every member who has ownership in that composition.

That goes for the big name writers and publishers, as well as the manager’s grandson who’s inherited two percent of the song. If you forget the grandson, guess what? Potential lawsuit city.

#2 – Not having realistic expectations

“Well I only have 5k, but I want this Beatles song in perpetuity for broadcast ads.” Wrong. If you want a popular/well-known song, you’re going to pay for it, there’s no way around it.

Set your limits, know what your budget is, and manage your expectations. This is someone’s work of art, and if it’s well-known, the copyright is a valuable entity. Be aware and be warned.

You wouldn’t go try and buy a house in a nice neighborhood for $1000, the real estate agent would laugh you out of the building. Same thing goes for a song clearance.

#1 – Getting insufficient rights

There’s nothing worse than doing all of the clearance work, getting your $300 an hour lawyer to draft/review licensing agreements, forking over your budget, syncing then releasing that project, only to be flattened by a thick wall of regret (another wall of financial repercussions lands on top of the first wall) because you’ve acquired the wrong rights.

Let’s say that you’re a filmmaker only securing the rights for the use of the song in the US while completely ignoring a clearance worldwide. You may not have a ton of cash at the time, your concern is getting the cheapest price you can, or you may not be aware at all. A year later, you want to release globally. You discover what your contract says and head back to the publisher to expand your music rights worldwide, and they want to hang you upside down and shake the money from your pockets.

It’s good to understand what the ramifications of obtaining certain rights are and, in this scenario, what potential options you have to get the rights that you need. (Maybe you ask the publisher of the song if a step-deal would be an option—you can get the rights you need by appealing to that individual’s hope of earning future cash. At the end of the day, these guys are in it to make money. And there are ways to finesse the situation so you can get the rights you need and avoid costly and/or prohibitive circumstances in the future.)

We’ve seen countless examples of studios and companies unknowingly restricting their music use only to pay dearly in the long run. Make sure you know what you need, cover your back for usage that you can’t anticipate in the future, and manage short term goals/budget with long term licensing expectations.

All in all, if you’ve got the basics down, you’re in a much better position to clear the music you need. But it’s the details and time investment that trips up quite a few professionals interested in music clearance. So, watch out for those nitty gritty details. It’s deep within the shadows of the details that lawsuits like to hide and wait, then spring out when you least suspect. You don’t want anything springing out of a contract, regardless of what line of business you’re in.

Before I go, I just want to gloat about one small fact; I was able to use contrived, pedantic and superfluous in a single sentence and loosely attached it to a single facet of filmmaking.

-C-

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