I’ve spent a lot of time in the last couple of weeks learning about music licensing for a friend I’m helping on a project. For the uninitiated, music licensing is the process of getting the rights, campaign, and tools together in order to get placements for your songs in commercials, TV shows, movies and other forms of art with an aural component. It’s been a pretty interesting experience for a variety of reasons – but mostly because before the beginning of the month I didn’t really know what music licensing was. Since then I have learned quite a bit, spent countless hours pouring over articles and have gotten to explore what it means to engage in this potentially highly lucrative segment of the music industry.

The first step to getting your music licensed is to register with ASCAP or SESAC, though from what I understand ASCAP is generally preferred. Now this is a pretty easy process that takes almost no time and sixty bucks or so to set up. That being said – it does take time for ASCAP to get everything together on their end – so don’t go expecting money right away. You can’t really circumvent ASCAP either, for legal reasons I don’t really want to go into right now (Partially because I’m not sure I fully understand them) Long story short, if your music isn’t registered with ASCAP then you simply aren’t going to be able to get set up with anyone for music licensing and expect to be paid for it. This is of course problematic.

So how do you get your music out there to be licensed? Well that’s something ASCAP doesn’t do for you. Instead you need to go out and pound the pavement as it were. I found in my own research that there is no real tried and true method so I took on what I like to think of as a hybrid approach. There are two real ways that music licensing gets done. You can either work with an agent or you can work with a a database. Both can be successful and have their own unique sets of advantages and disadvantages ideally you should be reaching out to both in order to maximize the potential revenue streams from music licensing.

The reasons you would want to reach out to both should be obvious. While getting in with a music licensing specialist can be difficult, they probably have much better relationships with a music supervisor than someone running a database. That being said – the databases are useful, especially because with sites like Audiosparx independent programs reach out to them because they don’t want to be bothered with dealing with a licensing agent. Databases are highly searchable too, meaning its important that you take the time to insert your tags properly, and the can help provide surprise chunks of income every now and then. Many of these sites are good for getting your music in commercials in foreign countries. A friend of mine used this technique to make a few hundred bucks getting a placement in a car commercial in India!

One thing that I can’t emphasize enough is the importance of having non exclusive licensing contracts with all of these people. A non exclusive contract means that you get to maintain all the rights to your music and license a single song in multiple places While an exclusive license can turn into more money unless you get the attention of a major licensor then that’s simply not going to be worth it in the long run. Beyond the general paranoia that I have about giving away rights to music I work with I think that non exclusive licenses have become the industry standard for a reason. They allow all sides of a licensing deal the maximum amount of freedom. If someone is really insisting on an exclusive license then make sure that the payday is worth it.

Now, you might be wondering – how do these music licensing people make their money? This is actually one of the simplest parts of the equation. Once you end up with a licensing deal the people who licensed the music for you usually end up taking a cut, leaving you with anything from 35 to 75% depending on who you licensed the song through. So yes – much like with anything else in this industry you get gouged, but a single theme song placement, or scoring a jingle for a commercial can translate into regular revenue for months, or even years at a time. If that’s not helpful for your music career then I don’t know what is. You need to be aware though that sites that say they will give you the whole payment in exchange for an upfront payment are almost all scams. I feel like this should be obvious by know, but I still bump into people who have lost lots of money in recent months due to this.

This doesn’t mean that the world of licensing is guaranteed money. The amount of bands who can generate real income off of it is very small, as with any other source of income in music. That being said – it’s certainly something you shouldn’t ignore. Even if it only translates into a single $1500 check every couple of years, that’s still a pretty big deal – that money can be used to fund a tour, a new run of shirts or even just pay your rent for a month or two. Don’t think that you’re too extreme or weird for licensing either, even Goatwhore managed to get a fairly major placement in the TV show Elementary. You need to make sure that someone in your band or at your label has taken care of this, it’s not a fun process, and with some of the more involved databases it can actually be a bit of a nightmare, but in the end, it might actually have some of the best return on time investment since once everything is registered you can just sit around and hope the money trickles in.

We talk a lot on this blog about how you have to diversify your sources of income if you want to really get anywhere in this industry and I feel like there is no better way to do that then to dig in with stuff like this. Music licensing is key for the independent musician because it’s one of the few places where there is a dedicated infrastructure that will guarantee them at least some sort of payment. Sure most of it will only be like 50 dollar payouts for a Youtube channel in Uzbekistan, but even that is better than nothing. Get on it, and ride the bull – it might just be worth it.