Indie guide to licensing

Licensing explained for Indie artists and labels

I spend most of my professional life helping artists, bands and other clients through the process of music production. Like most of the people I work with, my love of making music is why I do what I do but it’s foolish to forget that we have business to take care of as well, so here are some thoughts and tools for rounding out your plan for Indie (or even Label) domination.

7 Steps To A Glorious Future

Yes, there is more to making a record than just production. This is why, for decades, people gladly signed over most of their profits (and most of their rights) to Record Labels, because they handled all the dirty work (leaving rock stars free to be rock stars). Let’s look at a rough sketch of the steps involved in making a successful master recording.

1. Planning (budgeting, financing, mechanical licensing for cover songs)
2. Production (writing, arranging, rehearsing, recording, mixing)
3. Mastering (ISRC and UPC)
4. Manufacturing (cover art, credits, physical copies, notifying PRO’s)
5. Distribution (iTunes, CDBaby, show sales)
6. Promotion (touring, social media, sync licensing)
7. Reporting/Accounting (payments to partners, publishers, investors)

Today, let’s zoom in on an area that most musicians seem to know the least about, licensing.

Mechanical License

You need a license and have to pay money to record a cover song…. the good news is that others have to have your permission and pay you to cover your songs!

A mechanical license is an agreement with the publisher of a composition that allows artists to record and distribute a composition they don’t own. US Copyright Law requires artists (and labels) to obtain a mechanical license from the publisher of that work before distributing a recording containing any composition they didn’t write. The same law guarantees that you can secure a mechanical license of any song, as long as that song has been previously recorded and released by another artist. There are standard rates for mechanical licenses, generally calculated on a per unit sale/ per song basis.

For physical media and digital download sales
1. Recordings under 5 minutes in length: $0.091 per unit (9.1 cents).
2. Recordings 5 minutes in length or longer: $0.0175 per minute or fraction thereof per unit.
3. Ringtones $0.24 per ringtone (regardless of length)

There are exceptions, circumstances when you don’t need a mechanical license. These include Public Domain (PD) compositions and Fair Use.

Public domain (PD) works are compositions for which
1. copyright protection was never available;
2. copyright protection was never properly secured; or
3. copyright protection, though may have existed, has expired or otherwise has been lost.

Sometimes you can record a protected work without a mechanical license. Fair Uses include criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, parody, and research. There are four factors to be considered in determining whether or not a particular use is fair:

1. The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes
2. The nature of the copyrighted work
3. The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole
4. The effect of the use upon the potential market for, or value of, the copyrighted work

If you’re not sure whether your use is considered fair, ask an expert.

How do I get a Mechanical License?

You need to know who controls the copyrights to the song you want to record. This could be the songwriter (or their family), their publisher or even their record label. To find this, you can call or visit the Harry Fox Agency website (Harry Fox has been a publisher license agency since 1927 and has the largest catalog of songs in the world). You can arrange a license through them.

RightsFlow has a great new website called LimeLight, which makes licensing a song very easy with flat rates and a simple to use website. This is one of the best Indie tools around.

Synchronization (Sync) Licensing: Where the money is

Another important license to know about is the Sync license. If you want to use someone’s music (or if someone wants to use your music) with a visual, including Film, TV shows or commercials, YouTube, video games, slide shows, etc, special permission called a Sync license is needed. There are no set rates for Sync licenses, and generally the more popular a song or artist is, the more expensive the license. To secure a Sync license you generally need to contact the publisher directly. Again, Harry Fox can be helpful in finding the contact info for almost any song.

There’s Gold In Them There Hills!

So if people have to pay money to use a song with a visual, how do I get people to use my song and pay me? Sometimes a film or TV director is a music fan and will use music they love in their productions (like Quentin Tarantino, for instance). But there are people called Music Supervisors who make a living recommending music for use with visuals and these are good people to reach out to.

There are currently more than a dozen online services for making your music available for sync. While these sites claim to make things easy for you, using one may also limit amount of money you’ll receive for the use of your song, so read the fine print carefully and choose wisely. Here’s a list of a few sites

Runblefish Music Licensing Store
Matchless Music
Ricall Music Licensing
Pump Audio
Ricall Music Licensing

Things to keep in mind

If you have a publisher (that is not yourself) you must share all money received from licensing with them, usually 50/50%. And if you or your publisher uses a licensing service, like Harry Fox, they’ll take a percentage of all receipts off the top. The pie can get small pretty quick, so pay attention to licensing when signing any publishing deal.

Looking Back and Moving Forward

Understanding Mechanical Licenses can greatly help you with planning your project and avoid big surprise costs, while understanding Sync Licenses can help you maximize your marketing and promotion (and hopefully your income). Use these resources to discover more

US Copyright Office

Songwriter 101

2 Responses to “This Indie Life: Part 1 Understanding Rights And Licensing”

  1. Yo Lil Sis says:

    Excellent break down. Too true – licensing is usually the last thing that artists think about. Oh – one more thing. I believe it should read:
    “There’s gold in Them THAR Hills.”
    Just sayin’….
    xo – La

  2. […] – Understanding Rights and licensing – How To Sell your Music – The 5 Biggest Mistakes I’ve Made In A Recording Studio […]

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