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Licensing And Libraries: Tips For Making Money Off Your Music

by Ryan Roberts
music & audio

music library how to license your music

For many bands and songwriters looking to actually make a living from their music, getting placed in film, TV, and other media is an important goal — but navigating that process can be extremely daunting. What decision makers should you talk to? How do you get them to notice you? What type of material are they looking for? Then comes the whole process of how you get paid for the use of your tracks. Or rather, ensuring you do get paid.

Production music libraries are an often overlooked route for those just getting started in trying to get their music placed. This is, in part, because of a long-standing stigma. The term “music library” conjures up thoughts of stale Muzak with MIDI instrumentation used as aural torture in the depths of customer service call center limbo.

Today, however, that is far from the truth. I’ve seen libraries book full orchestras in Prague for scoring, crank out authentic 60’s era soul from a legendary studio, create custom scores for clients and house a stable of composers dedicated to writing great, relevant, and yes, real music.

To get a little insight into working with a music library from an artist’s perspective, I caught up with Michael Berlin of Seattle-based Big Idea Music. A veteran of the licensing world, he was around for the birth of one of the biggest libraries out there, Killer Tracks, started a custom imaging company called IQ Beats and is now the Co-Owner and Sales Director at Big Idea Music.

What advantage does working with an established library have versus going out and trying to get your tracks in front of music supervisors on your own?

When you’re composing and producing your own music the most valuable commodity you have is time. The more of it you spend trying to establish relationships, make contacts, market, license, deliver, bill and chase publishing income, the less of it you have to create music. Most established libraries have an extensive list of clients across all media and territories and the technology that instantly delivers searchable music to their desktops. As a one person shop it’s going to be very tough to compete unless you dislike sleeping.

It’s important to remember that whenever it comes to monetizing music the key word has always been distribution. If you can, focus on what you do best and let others do the heavy lifting. Look at established libraries as distributors, and partner with the one(s) you feel will best serve your music.

What do you usually look for from artists and composers in regards to material?

We’re looking for a number of elements unique to the style or genre of their tracks. This includes how the music develops, the quality of the sounds used, for example if there are strings do they sound real or fake? We look at it’s originality and for a very high level of production. It’s also nice to hear that little extra ear candy that brings the track to life. We love to hear a lot of live instrumentation when the track calls for it. In most cases you know right away if the music has the qualities you’re looking for. You can instantly hear it in a commercial, movie trailer or documentary and you know it’ll compete with anything else available in the market place. It’s easy to help a great composer navigate through the process of deliverables/mixes, it’s far more difficult to explain proper composition or correct sounds if they’re not hearing it, or don’t have the right tools to create it.

What advice do you have for reaching out to a music director at a library and getting your foot in the door?

Look on your prospects website and see if there’s any indication of if or how’d they’d like to receive solicitations for new music. Show them out of the gate you’re able to understand basic instructions; that goes a long way! If there aren’t instructions, I would say email is the best place to start. You might need to call and find out who the contact person is, but don’t call to try and talk to them. It’s meaningless to have a conversation until they’ve heard something they like. Make your email quick, to the point and have a link to a Soundcloud page or something similar so they can instantly listen to the tracks you want them to hear. Don’t blow up their inbox with a bunch of MP’3s. Make it professional, personal somewhat short and to the point and have a little fun with it too if you want. At the end of the day it’s going to be about the music, if it’s right and they’re looking hopefully you’ll hear back.

Describe the typical relationship between a composer, the library, usage and ownership of the songs.

I would say the most common relationship between a library and a composer is the arrangement where a composer creates content for the library for a share of the sync fees and publishing income. Typically the writer keeps a 100% of their writer’s share and the Library retains 100% of the publishing share. Sync fees and other licensing income are normally split 50/50 with the composer, however this detail can change based on whether the composer receives compensation, writer fee, or an advance upfront to produce the work. When commissioning a composer to create tracks a library will usually own the publishing and synch rights in perpetuity. There are many variations on these agreements and it’s smart for composers to have a good understanding of how this works before they sign on the dotted line.

When writing tracks with the goal of trying to get placed in a library, what are some of the things a songwriter should keep in mind?

When you’re writing production music, make sure you have a detailed brief of what the company is expecting you to deliver. It’s also helpful to have an understanding of the possible end users or where your music might be placed. If the brief requires :30 and :60 mixes don’t allow your tracks to go over those timings. It’s better to let the trail fall over the last second or two so that the editor has a little room to play with to make it fit. Make subtle changes after the first few bars, and continue changing things as the track develops. Make it interesting to listen to, not a repetitive loop. Use cool instrumentation and great sounds, have interesting melody lines that can also be dropped out at certain points or entirely for underscores and alternate mix versions if need be. All of these things will increase the possibility for placements.
Invest in your rig and your plugins, it’s expensive but there are some amazing sound libraries out there, strings that are almost impossible to tell from the real thing. Same with drums, if you can’t record them live get the best sounds you can and make them amazing. Garage Band is a good starting point but it’s not going to cut it anymore in what has become a very competitive industry.

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Ryan Roberts

Ryan Roberts is a Content Producer at CreativeLive, is perpetually in awe at the democratization effects of education and would have gone into the sciences but the “can’t do math” thing got in the way. His dogs have nicer clothes than he does.