The different types of music licences you need to know about

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Using a published song in your latest project? You’ll need to know your way around the different types of music licences that are out there.

Each type covers a specific purpose. Distinguishing between them isn’t always easy, particularly because it involves copyright law. But getting familiar with all the different types will save you many headaches down the line.

Sync licences

North Note is in the business of sync (or synchronisation) licensing. So you’ve come to the right place.

A sync licence allows you to use a published song in your video content. Whether you’re working on an indie film, big-budget commercial, or TV show somewhere in between, you’ll need a sync licence for the song you want to use.

In recent years, more and more sync licensing companies have started to spring up. As video streaming services have gone from strength to strength, demand has increased. It will no doubt continue to increase as media platforms get better at catering to every subsection of the consumer population.

The advent of sync licensing companies

More and more content is being published to wider audiences. Creators and music supes need curated, relevant choices in music, more than ever before.

This is why we’re focused on curation. Every day, we’re cultivating a database of high-quality music from up-and-coming bands across the world.

Often, music supes look for sounds that people haven’t heard yet. Using songs by young, unknown bands delivers the one-two punch of being both more cost-effective and helping to break a new band.

That’s where we’ve identified our niche. We’re reaching out to artists we believe in, who mightn’t have seen the exposure they deserve yet.

Mechanical licences

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As a filmmaker, you won’t have to go near a mechanical licence often. A mechanical licence forms an agreement between a song’s copyright owners and a record label, for example. This licence allows the mechanical rights-holder to release and distribute audio copies of the work.

This process usually has nothing to do with the filmmaking side of things. But it becomes crucial if you’re releasing a soundtrack. You’ll need to secure mechanical rights if you're distributing audio versions of songs as part of a soundtrack compilation.

The easiest way to think about the difference between sync and mechanical licences is that sync = video, and mechanical = audio.

We'll talk about another important instance where you’ll need a mechanical licence later on.

Master licences

The master licence, or master rights, means owning the copyright of a recording. The person who created the recording usually has master rights. The only time this isn’t the case is when the master licence is sold. Like when Michael Jackson bought The Beatles’ catalogue.

This also usually applies to studio recordings funded by a third party. Indie bands, who typically oversee the writing and recording process themselves, are unlikely to be sharing master rights with anyone else.

Master licences are most often sold along with a sync licence. When you’re negotiating use of a song in your project, you’ll need to draft up two separate agreements - one for a sync licence, and one for a master licence.

Negotiating licences for songs you can't afford

Ever seen an advert or a film that has a cover of a well-known song in it? It’s a common practice. And not because anyone really wants to hear Smash Mouth cover The Beatles (or a live-action adaptation of ‘The Cat in the Hat’, for that matter).

The reason cover versions get synced so often is because they're basically "half-price". Well, not really - but it's common practice to pay an equal fee for both the master licence and the publishing fees (sync licence).

So let's say you license an original Beatles track (which is a pretty big deal, so congrats). You'll need to pay a licensing fee for the publishing and for the master licence (the recording). For argument's sake, say these licences are $250k each. That makes it $500k all-in. Sounds expensive, but entirely plausible.

Now let's say you really love that Beatles song because of the lyrics, but you don't have $500k to rip from the budget. What you can do is license the publishing rights for $250k, but instead of paying another $250k for the master rights, you record a cover. This means the master licence is no longer required. So you might pay another band $5k to cover it, and then bang - you've saved $245k for a holiday.

Other different types of music licences you may come across

There are a few other different types of music licences, but they’re not commonly encountered by people in the film industry. But it’s still handy to know their definitions and uses, as it makes you more unstoppable.

The good news is that these three are the most self-explanatory of them all.

Performance licences

Also known as public performance licences, these allow for the public broadcast of an artist’s work. Businesses that play music in the background for their customers are required to get a public performance licence for every song they spin. They do this through royalty collectors and performing rights organisations like PRS, ASCAP and BMI.

Admittedly, this doesn’t stop people from skirting around performance licensing, as they can cite “fair use”. Fair enough too, as this is a giant grey area.

Theatrical licences

Thespians take note. If you’re looking to use or perform a song in a play or any kind of stage performance, you’ll need to get yourself a theatrical licence, as well as a master licence. Again, you need a master licence if you're going to reproduce a song in any format.

Print licences

Print licences protect artists’ sheet music from being unlawfully copied and re-distributed. You can’t scan or copy sheet music without a print licence.

This ensures that composers get paid for their work, and that the originality of their music remains intact.

Different types of music licences cover different needs

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Hopefully all this gave you a clearer idea of the different types of music licences out there and what they all cover. It's true, this stuff can get complicated pretty quickly.

If you're still not sure about the nitty-gritty, we can help. If you've got a specific question related to your project, don’t hesitate to get in contact.