Musician’s guide to sync licensing
In this piece, Chris Robley pf CD Baby breaks down what artists need to know about sync licensing, explaining how it works, and what artists can do to get the greatest financial benefit out of it.
By Chris Robley from CD Baby’s DIY Musician Blog
What is sync licensing?
“Synchronization” is the use of music in visual media such as TV, film, advertisements, trailers, or video games. It literally describes the “synched” pairing of audio and visuals.
In a narrow sense, the sync license specifies the negotiated terms of that usage: placement, permissions, payments, etc. It’s an agreement between the owner of the visual media and the owner(s) of the music.
But sync licensing has taken on a broader and more active meaning in the 21st Century. It’s become shorthand for the whole process of finding sync opportunities, pitching specific songs, negotiating terms, and getting paid.
Speaking of getting paid, sync licensing is one of the best ways for independent musicians to earn money while reaching new listeners — and it’s growing every year. In 2020, CD Baby licensed a wide range of music, generating $700k in sync fees (up 30% over 2019).
In this article, I’ll tell you how to get your songs in TV, film, ads, games, and more. But first…
How do you make money with sync licensing?
Musicians can earn royalties from sync licensing in a few ways.
Earn upfront sync fees for both your master and composition rights
It’s important to know that TWO different music copyrights are at play in every sync placement. The producer, film studio, TV network, or other content creator has to pay to license BOTH the master recording rights and the composition rights before they can use the music.
- A Master Use License is negotiated for the usage of a particular sound recording (also known as a “master”). The related fee is often paid upfront to the artist or label who owns that studio track or live recording.
- A Sync License for the Composition is negotiated for the usage of the underlying song (melody and lyrics). The related fee is often paid upfront to the music publisher, publishing administrator, or songwriter.
If you own your masters and wrote the songs, you’re in a great spot. You can approve both usages at once AND collect both upfront sync fees. No need to communicate with labels and publishers for outside permissions. Also, unless the terms of your sync deal involve exclusivity or a buyout, you can license the same song for multiple uses!
Some sync placements also generate residual royalties
Songwriters, composers, and music producers who create original songs and lyrics can also earn publishing royalties “on the back end” for sync placements. This money comes in the form of performance royalties generated each time a TV show airs again (reruns!) or gets moved to a secondary market.
Register with CD Baby Pro Publishing to make sure you’re collecting all your composition royalties worldwide!
Sync placements drive awareness
A small percentage of viewers that hear your song in a film or TV show will pick up their phones to Shazam the track. But those who do have proven they already love your music and are likely to dig deeper, which is why a big sync placement can also help you achieve other objectives such as growing your YouTube subscribers, driving album sales, boosting Spotify follows, etc.
How much does a sync placement pay?
Sync licensing can be lucrative, but it’s difficult to estimate what any one placement is worth because there isn’t a “standard” sync fee. Instead, there are a number of factors that determine how much you earn from a particular placement. These include:
- The type of visual media, from a video on social to a blockbuster film
- The duration of the usage, from one-time use to “in perpetuity”
- The budget of the production, from zero to millions
- The region of use, from a local station to worldwide
- The demand for the song and popularity of the artist
- The length of the audio segment being used
- The nature of the usage, from quick background music to opening credits
Another thing to remember: When you control all the rights to your music, you make the rules. A placement on a big ad campaign should probably mean big bucks. But if you’re helping your friend make a no-budget short about subterranean vampires, you can set the terms — from free, to cheap, to backend payments based on the film’s future performance.
Can I get my cover song licensed for a sync placement?
If you’ve created a cover version of another artist’s song, you CAN license your master recording for sync, but ONLY if the composition rights are also granted by the publisher.
In many cases, cover songs are preferable for sync licensing because the original recording of a famous song commands too high a fee.
Because you don’t own the rights to the underlying song though, the music supervisor of the show or film will license the composition rights from the songwriters/publishers involved.
What is a music supervisor?
Music supervisors oversee the usage of music in visual media.
They have to be proficient on the legal side of things AND have an aficionado’s passion for music. Supervisors could be employed by a network, film studio, production company, or even do freelance work — but ultimately, their job is to:
- Find the right music for the production
- Secure the rights
- Gather required information for credits and royalty reporting
And they have to do all this quickly, within the given budget, and in service to the producer or director’s vision. Some supervisors are even composers themselves; if they can’t source existing recordings, they’ll go about creating their own.
It can be a fast-paced, high-pressure job, which is one reason why pre-cleared tracks by indie artists can be so attractive to music supervisors.
What is a pre-cleared track?
When you work with a sync licensing agency or add your music to a sync catalog, you are sometimes asked to “pre-clear” the permissions. This means you’re granting that agency the right to negotiate a sync deal on your behalf. All parties involved can streamline the negotiations because sound recording and composition rights are bundled AND granted in advance.
CD Baby’s sync licensing program works like that. What you as the artist trade in control you make up for in speed, and SPEED is the key to almost every sync placement these days. Productions move fast, and there’s an almost unlimited supply of music out there — so a track’s status as pre-cleared can mean the difference between getting placed and getting skipped over.
5 ways to get a sync placement
There are a handful of ways you’re likely to get your music placed for sync:
- Your music is matched to a stated sync need
In this case, a music supervisor would submit a “creative brief” to CD Baby describing the kind of song they’re looking for. We search our catalog and send the supervisor a few good options for them to consider.
- A supervisor searches our sync catalog directly
Many supervisors access CD Baby’s sync catalog directly to locate the perfect song themselves.
- A supervisor already knows the music they want to sync
Supervisors sometimes stumble across the right song while listening on Spotify or YouTube. If that track is in CD Baby’s sync licensing program, they come to us to negotiate the terms of usage.
- You pitch your own music for sync
If you control your rights, there’s nothing stopping you from making your own sync connections and pitching music you think is a good fit. If you get interest in a potential sync placement, CD Baby may be able to negotiate a higher fee for the use.
- You compose custom music for sync
If you’re proficient as a composer, instrumentalist, and recording engineer, you might be able to bang out good music that’s made specifically with a sync placement in mind, finding opportunities on services like Taxi or ThatPitch.
What kind of music is good for sync licensing?
CD Baby’s VP of Business Development & Licensing Jon Bahr has a unique perspective on what tracks work best for sync.
He describes the CD Baby catalog — millions of tracks across 700+ genres nearly all languages — as “a huge collection of niches.”
That variety is the key to our sync licensing success. After placing songs on Netflix, HBO, Amazon, HULU, major film studios, all the big TV networks, and media companies around the world, one thing is clear:
There’s a place for EVERY kind of music in sync licensing. Is the song right for the scene, ad, or project? That’s all that matters.
Let’s dispel the biggest sync licensing myths
“Don’t music supervisors want to break new songs and artists?”
While many music supervisors pride themselves on having great taste and setting trends, ultimately their job is about choosing the RIGHT song, not the newest song.
That means your WHOLE catalog should be available for sync licensing.
Unlike other aspects of the music business, sync licensing success is not based on age or freshness. In fact, the age of your catalog might be the very thing that wins a placement. For instance, CD Baby was able to license a ton of music to CBS’ Aquarius because we had an artist’s period-appropriate music that was actually recorded in the 1960s.
“Wouldn’t I have more success with sync if I was famous?”
Not necessarily. The size of your audience has nothing to do with how “right” a song is for sync. It might mean you’re more likely to enter the ears of music supervisors, yes — but as we discussed above, your indie status also means you’re more likely to meet the budget and speed requirements for the placement. There’s your consolation for not being famous!
“There’s no place for [insert your genre] in sync licensing!”
What’s your genre? Jazz? Hip-Hop? Noise Rock? Avant Garde Spoken-Word with Field Recordings?
There’s a sync licensing need for your music. I promise. That last genre is actually something that got me my very first sync placement. I had an album of nine perfectly fine folk-pop songs, plus one throwaway track of weird sounds, strange mumblings, and lots of reverb.
When AMC came calling for something to use in a commercial for their upcoming horror movie Halloween week, I guess my nice folk songs weren’t cutting it. It was an odd sync success, but a great early lesson in music licensing.
Yes, it’s true that indie-folk, garage rock, and commercial pop dominated the sync industry in the earlier part of the 21st Century — helping artists like Ingrid Michaelson, Jet, and Gary Jules build impressive music careers.
But the explosion of streaming media across a global marketplace, along with the inclusion of a wider range of voices in storytelling, means there’s no longer one kind of music that “sounds syncable” just because of its mood or genre.
Even classical and early genres can find huge success. For instance, lute music might be great for a show set in Elizabethan England.
“Don’t music supervisors only want to hear my best songs?”
Best is subjective. But let’s dispel this myth in the extreme; we’ve even seen creative briefs that ASK for music that sounds like crap.
“One big sync placement can make my whole career!!!”
Well, mayyyyyyybe. But that’s less common these days, so don’t count on it.
If you’re lucky enough to get a high-profile and lucrative placement, think of it as any other kind of success in your music career: it’s a stepping stone. Capitalize on the brief attention and re-invest the money in your music if you can.
Retitling songs for sync licensing
If you’re using CD Baby for sync licensing, you don’t need to know all the nitty gritty details about how sync deals are structured.
But there is one common (and sometimes problematic) practice in sync licensing called “retitling” that you should know about.
Retitling is when the entity pitching your song registers your composition under a different name with a performing rights organization so they can collect performance royalties from TV plays in perpetuity. I’m not here to say that’s good or bad outright, but it can lead to confusion; it also means you’re not going to earn what you otherwise would if you retained full ownership of your publishing rights.
How to increase your chances of getting a sync placement
Here’s a few tips to boost your chances of getting your songs placed for sync.
Your metadata matters for sync licensing
A music supervisor or a member of CD Baby’s sync team will often search for music for sync by using terms related to genre, tempo, similar artists, instrumentation, theme, lyrics, and vibe.
That’s why it’s crucial during the submission process to complete all the information about your release, including:
- Sounds-like artists
- and more
We also employ a sonic analysis tool to generate additional metadata for each song in our catalog, including BMPs, key and mode, mood, and more.
When it comes to words, our partners at Musixmatch allow you to enter your lyrics into their system so they’re available on numerous platforms, including Spotify, Instagram, and Amazon Music.
This kind of information helps us locate the right music for the right project — so take your time and be accurate. Don’t associate your music with a sounds-like artist just because you think they’re trendy; choose artists you ACTUALLY sound like.
Production quality is key to sync placements
Barring the exceptionally rare example I provided above where a supervisor actually wanted music that sounded like crap, you’re going to find way more sync licensing success if your songs are quality productions. Good engineering, good mixing, good performances. Oh, and good writing, of course!
Your music should be unique, not “syncable”
Brett Byrd of CD Baby’s Sync Licensing Team shared some advice that might sound contrary to a lot of conventional sync wisdom: “Be yourself.”
He’s noticing that as the usage of independent music increases, and as modern film and TV viewers get exposed to a more diverse range of genres, songs no longer need to be “universal” or “vague” in order to get placed.
Granted, you can still get a lot of mileage out of a great song with a universal theme and lyrics that are both evocative and non-specific. Everyone can relate to heartbreak, winning, worry, and fun.
But quirky songs, story songs, location songs… they’re all in play these days. As Brett says, “Don’t change your music to be more syncable; the strange element you remove from the music in order to play it safe could’ve been the very thing that a supervisor loved you for.”
Be deliberate with explicit lyrics
Similar to what Brett said above, even offensive subject matter and swear words don’t necessarily disqualify your songs from sync placements these days, particularly on shows or films aimed at adult audiences.
But profanity IS a thing that will limit the range of possible placements. I don’t see Disney or PBS calling any time soon. So if sync is on your mind, make sure the cusses are really serving a purpose. You can always create a “clean” version of the song while you’re still mixing, just in case.
Make a song that stands on its own as an instrumental
Your music might be otherwise perfect for a scene, but the lyrics conflict with the dialog or action. As our friend, and sync licensing expert Cathy Heller says, “the editor might want to drop out the vocals in that section of the song. The instrumental that is left still needs to offer dynamics and help move the scene or the commercial along.”
Mute the vocals, play the track, and watch a show or commercial in the background with the sound off. That’s how you’ll know if it stands on its own without singing.
Get instrumental mixes and stems for sync purposes
You now know it’s important to have an instrumental mix, so make sure it’s printed at the same time you finish your regular mix. TV productions won’t halt everything while you get back in touch with your engineer, wait two weeks for them to find time in their schedule, open the session back up, and burn a version with muted vocals.
Have these instrumentals ready in the case that we email you for them.We see artists lose sync opportunities all the time because they didn’t have an instrumental version or stems ready to go. In Advertising, for example, instrumentals are nearly always required.
Do some sync licensing research
Whether you’re finding sync opportunities on your own, or just want to follow what kind of music is getting used in different visual media, it helps to stay on top of sync trends.
As Cathy Heller says, “Successful people don’t look for opportunities, but rather they look for problems to solve.” She has some great advice on identifying sync licensing problem spots and tracking sync usages across the industry.
Sign your whole catalog up for sync licensing
Since age, freshness, release dates, engagement metrics, and sales don’t matter at ALL for sync, this is really one realm of the music business where you can put your whole body of work… to work!
Submit all your songs for sync licensing. If you have success, it might even reinvigorate your back catalog in other ways.
Submit your music for sync licensing with CD Baby
Sync licensing is included with all CD Baby distribution, so there’s no extra cost to put your song in the running for placement.
Why do music supervisors prefer CD Baby for sync?
Since opting into sync licensing with CD Baby means the artist owns their copyright, music supervisors have learned that licensing through us is quick and easy because they can clear all the rights in one place.
Also as our VP of Business Development & Licensing Jon Bahr says, “Our catalog is so broad and massive that we can get very specific. We have a version of most things people are looking for.”
How much does CD Baby keep from its sync placements?
We take a 40% cut of revenue generated through our sync licensing program program, which is less than what traditional placement companies take, even more so since many also require a claim to your publishing. If you get a sync on your own, CD Baby takes nothing since we are your non-exclusive sync partner.
What kinds of sync placements has CD Baby secured?
We’ve gotten music onto shows on Netflix, Hulu, HBO, all the big TV networks, studio films, ad campaigns for major brands such as Amazon, and much more. It’s a really long list, but here are some of the recent sync licensing placements we’ve secured for independent artists like you.
Want us to place your music in TV, film, ads, and more?
Chris Robley is the Editor of CD Baby’s DIY Musician Blog. I write Beatlesque indie-pop songs that’ve been praised by No Depression, KCRW, The LA Times, & others. My poems have appeared in Poetry Magazine, Prairie Schooner, The Poetry Review, & more. I live in Maine and like peanut butter chocolate chip cookies, a little too much.