The Ins and Outs of Music Licensing for Your Film

Do you want to add the perfect soundtrack to your film, but don't know where to begin? Knowing how to license music for film can be a daunting task. From understanding sync vs. master agreements to navigating music licensing organizations, there are many details that go into making sure you’re playing by the rules and not risking hefty fines or potential lawsuits. This is why large film studios have music supervisors whose only tasks is to search for music and make sure the legal aspect is taken care of. 

Whether you're an aspiring filmmaker or a seasoned pro, our short guide will show you how to find and secure the perfect music for your next projects. We have both expensive and budget ways to get good sound for your film.

What is a license?

We mentioned "licensing". But what's a license exactly?

A license is the permission to use something you own, such as a song. It’s an agreement between two parties in which the rights holder (composer, for example) grants limited access and usage rights for a particular project or release. Generally, licenses are “non-exclusive” so many placements can be given to different parties - often at the same time.

When artists and musicians license their music, they usually consider what media outlets will be using the track. The distribution of the final project - TV shows, films, advertisements or digital streaming services - may have an impact on the licensing fee. We will dive into the details a little later in our story.

Screening your film without proper music rights

We've been involved in several film projects over the years. We know all too well how serious the consequences can be for screening a film without securing music rights. Not only are you at risk of huge fines, but also potential lawsuits from copyright holders and music publishers whose work you've used without permission.

In other words, it's not worth the risk to ignore the music licensing step in your filmmaking process. Researching and securing any and all necessary licenses before you show your film to a public audience should be embedded into your production workflow.

When you license music for film, it's important to understand what kind of license you need for each piece of music that appears in your film project. There are different types of licenses that you will need to get. Working with a qualified music supervisor or licensing company can often ease this process and will ensure that all necessary rights have been acquired. This is all to protect yourself from any potential legal issues down the road.

How do you license music for your film?

There are several ways to get music for your project. You can work directly with an artist, license existing music from the rights owner, or try online music libraries.

How much does custom music cost?

If you want to work with a composer and get that unique track for your film, you need to secure a budget for that. The composer's rate will vary depending on several factors such as experience level, type of composition needed and usage rights. Generally speaking, most composers will charge an upfront fee plus a royalty rate — usually somewhere between 5-15%.

This means that each time your film is aired publicly or commercially, you'll need to pay the composer more royalties based on their contracted rate.

It's important to note that this is standard practice in the music industry and not just for film composers; any artist whose work is being used should receive some form of compensation for their efforts.

Hiring a film composer is no small task and requires both research and preparation if you want to ensure success with your project. So take your time researching potential composers who fit your needs and budget so everyone involved can reap the rewards.

Hiring a film composer is a crucial step in bringing your project to life, and with the right research and preparation you can make sure that everyone involved is rewarded for their hard work. But what may surprise you is who actually owns the rights to the film score. Let's talk about that below.

Who owns the film score

Figuring out who owns the rights to a film score is another thing to consider. The thing is, when it comes to copyright and ownership of sound recordings, there may be several parties involved: the record label, the music supervisor, the composer or songwriter, and the copyright holders (such as publishers or performance rights organizations).

The composer or songwriter owns their composition and any arrangement of that composition. They are also responsible for registering copyrights with U.S. Copyright Office or similar organization in their country.

The record label owns master recordings, while publishers own rights to songs.

Music supervisors may also have some limited rights depending on their contract with your production company.

There are also performance rights organizations (PRO) such as ASCAP and BMI which collect royalties from public performances of copyrighted works.

This all sounds confusing, but don't fret. It's all to say that all these different parties need to be taken into account when licensing music for films. This means working with a music licensing company to make sure all parties involved receive proper compensation for their work and that your project is cleared for use under copyright laws.

They gave you a scenario with several licensing factors involved. The scenario with so many parties included in the music licensing process happen when you want to license a popular song for your film. In the majority of cases, when you work with a composer or buy a music license online, things may be less complicated.

But whenever you get a music track for your film, make sure you get both sync and master agreements. See below what they are.

Sync vs. master agreements

To use any piece of pre-existing music in your film, you need to get both a sync license and a master recording agreement.

A sync license grants the right to synchronize the song with your film, while a master recording agreement gives you permission to use the specific recording of a piece of music.

This would mean that if you want to use a song from the Beatles in your movie, you will need to get two agreements: one from the copyright holder and one from the record label. It's essential that filmmakers understand the difference between these two types of licenses, as failing to get either one could cost them dearly.

Classical music is not free

It can be tempting to assume that music from centuries ago is out there free for grabs. Unfortunately, classical music is not free.

The rights owners for the classical track will usually be the record label who released the recording or the publishing company who holds the copyright of the composition itself.

While it might seem like obtaining permission for classical music should be easier than for contemporary songs since no artist royalties are due, it can still take time and effort to locate the correct parties and get all necessary legal clearances.

Music licensing organizations

There are many music licensing organizations out there that can help filmmakers find the right piece of music for their film. These organizations have relationships with record labels, copyright holders, and music publishers that make it easier to license popular songs or even create your own original music.

Licensing companies also understand the different types of licenses available such as synchronization (sync) licenses, mechanical licenses, performance royalties, and more.

Royalty Free Music

You're probably thinking that it is too much information. Fortunately, there are some cheaper and less effort intensive alternatives to license music for your film.

Royalty-free music is a great option, for example. While royalty-free is not free, you don't need to pay royalties to the composer as the music library or music site take care of that. You pay the fee to the website based on your distribution.

Royalty-free music sites offer a wide variety of tracks, from instrumental pieces to full songs with vocals, and often have searchable databases so you can find the right piece for your film.

Choosing a royalty free music provider can be intimidating, considering all the options available. Before committing to one service, there are some key factors you must consider to make the right decision.

First and foremost, searchability is an important factor. Many sites claim to have many music songs but without adequate search functionalities it can take hours to search for the song you’re looking for. 

Consider websites that allow easy searching or filtering so you can find what your looking for quickly and effectively. 

Look up customer reviews or testimonials and see what others are saying about the platform’s effectiveness when actually using it in real-life scenarios.

Focus on types of content variety the royalty-free music site has. Different sites offer different types of royalty free music such as pop, hip-hop, rock, jazz, and each genre may also contain more specific sub-genres such as lo-fi hip hop. Pay attention to these details so you get a better understanding of whether a platform fits you needs specifically. 

Also make sure that the library is regularly updated with fresh new music so your project stays up to date with modern trends in sound design and composition.

Here are the top 9 royalty-free music sites to consider for your film. They offer a good level of searchability and quality/freshness of their tracks.

Public Domain Music

Another way to add music to your movie without breaking the bank is through public domain music. Public domain music is any song or composition that has been released into the public domain.

It means that it no longer has any exclusive copyright restrictions. This type of music can be freely used without paying any licensing fees and can be found in many sources, from libraries like Free Music Archive to websites like

Public domain music is a great resource if you’re looking for classical pieces or want to use traditional folk songs in your project. The caveat is that some public domain recordings may still have rights attached to them, so it’s important to do some due diligence before using them.

How about Free music? Not a good idea. Don't believe us. Well, see the essential differences between royalty-free and free music in this detailed article.


Licensing music for film can be a daunting task, but with the right resources it doesn’t have to be. By exploring options like royalty-free and public domain music, you can easily find the perfect song or composition for your film without breaking the bank. Just remember to do your research and make sure all necessary licenses are in place before moving forward.