A step by step guide to licensing music for film and branded content


Note: The information provided on this website does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal advice; instead, all information, content, and materials available on this site are for general informational purposes only. However, Kurator has a in-house legal council who can provide legal guidance and services tailored to your project. Contact our legal team here. 


The most impactful films or ad campaigns rely on great music to establish a mood, add meaning, grab attention, or create a lasting impression. Done right, a great song will integrate seamlessly into your production and capitalize on the song to make the spot or scene more memorable (e.g., the beloved Budweiser Clydesdale commercials or Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence” in the film The Graduate.)


It’s possible to find great and easily licensable songs on stock music sites. But, if you’ve got enough budget, you’re more likely turning to well-known musicians and emerging artists with songs that perfectly complement your vision. This article will focus on the latter — how to license music that’s not on a stock site.


There are a few different types of licenses that apply to music and recording. These include sync licenses, master licenses, mechanical licenses, public performance licenses, print rights licenses, and theatrical licenses. But because we’re focused on licensing music for film and branded content, generally, we’ll focus on sync and master licensing for the remainder of this article.


Sync licenses apply to music paired with some form of visual media (think — as soon as you place a track into your adobe premiere timeline), including commercials, films, streaming content, and more. Master licenses are a bit more complex. They are similar to sync licenses but apply specifically to the person or entity that owns the recording of a song. Generally, a master license is issued in conjunction with a sync license.


Obtaining sync and master licenses for music used in film, advertising, or other media content sounds like it should be easy. You might be thinking, “Don’t you just reach out to the artist or record label, pay them, and sign a contract?” Well, it’s not quite that simple. Especially when a song becomes a hit, simply figuring how many entities own the rights to a song can be a nightmare, never mind wrapping your head around whether or not you can afford it.


Before we explain how to license a song, it’s important to understand the breakdown of most of the entities that will come into play. This list of players is not exhaustive and in rare cases even more parties may be involved. But for 99% of cases, you’ll only deal with the label, the publisher, unions, and estates.


  • Label: A record label or record company is a brand or trademark associated with the marketing of music recording or music videos. Within the mainstream music industry, artists usually rely upon record labels to market their albums and promote their music streaming services, radio, and/or television. Master licenses are obtained from the label.

  • Publisher: A publisher is more directly related to the rights to any given song itself and specifically tied to licensing. A publisher helps to sell songs to film, TV, and commercial—literally any way a song can render income outside of direct sales to consumers. Sync licenses are obtained from the publisher.

  • Union: Various unions work to ensure that musicians and performers are compensated fairly. Any given song has two types of artists—featured and nonfeatured. Featured artists are typically exclusively tied to the record label and are given royalties by the record label when licensing occurs. Nonfeatured artists are musicians and backup singers who aren’t tied to the label and are represented by unions. Common unions are AFM (American Federation of Musicians) and SAG/AFTRA.

  • Estate: An estate is a collection of personal property owned by someone at death. Royalties are considered intangible personal property and are transferred to the estate owner, often a family member or organization/foundation.

So, now that we’ve defined who you’re likely to need to contact, here are some basic steps to approach the licensing request process.


1. Determine exactly which song, including the artist and version, you want to license.

This sounds simple on paper, but like other aspects of licensing music, it can quickly grow complex. There might be multiple versions of a song — think live recordings, remastered releases, radio edits, remixes, etc. And depending on the version, different players might be involved. So start here first to make sure that the rest of the process is correct from the start.

2. DETERMINE representation — WHo owns what

  • Determine the label. Back in the days of CDs, the label was printed on the back of the case. In the digital age, you have a few options. Though there is no centralized database, the label can often pop up in a quick Google or Wikipedia search. Or, you can usually find the label Itunes, Spotify, or Youtube. (See screenshots below for more on where exactly to look.)









  • Determine the publisher. This is a simpler step thanks to a fairly limited number of performing rights organizations which house searchable databases of music. These organizations include ASCAP, BMI, SESAC, Sound Exchange (for digital public performances), and HARRY FOX. To use, start with a database and search for the artist and song title. Each site operates a bit differently, but a screenshot  below from an ASCAP search demonstrates where you’ll find the publisher’s information.


    While these sites are great resources, there is a small chance that their information may be outdated. When we reach out to the first publisher listed, we also generally ask if they are the only publisher who owns rights.

  • Define any unions. This step is challenging because record labels often don’t have information on nonfeatured artists. But it is the responsibility of the brand or agency doing the licensing to ensure that their rights are cleared. There can be different unions for backup singers and musicians or other parties, and unfortunately, there is no centralized searchable database. Call or reach out to AFM and SAG/AFTRA to learn more.

  • Is an estate involved? If you know that the artist, the songwriter, or a band member has passed away, you may be able to run a simple search for their estate online. Well-known artist estates often have websites with contact information. For lesser-known artists, this can be trickier, but estate designation is part of a state’s public record, so if you know the state they resided in at their death (or sometimes just where they died), you should be able to track down the estate.

3. Negotiate terms of license and payment

Now you are actually ready to begin working out the details of the license. Again, this is not as easy as it sounds. Below are just a few pieces of advice to keep in mind before you make contact:


  • Have a rough cut of the project to share or a really concrete idea of how the music will be used and in what context. The publisher/label will consider the usage based on the content of the project and how the song fits in. Some actually require a rough cut before they’ll even consider licensing.

  • Be prepared with an idea of what a song is worth. Publishers and labels do not like to name their own prices. They want to know your budget. The more well-known the song, the more it will cost. It takes a little while to get a sense of cost, but as an example, a VERY general rule of thumb is four figures for a museum exhibit/internal corporate usage, five figures for web/streaming usage, and six figures for broadcast usage.

  • You may come across the term MFN, which means “most favored nation.” This simply means that whatever amount you agree to pay the publisher, you also agree to pay the label and vice versa. If the publisher ends up charging more than the label, you must increase the fee for the label so the amounts are the same on both sides.

  • Approach unions with a clear summary of the required usage. They will usually have a fixed rate per nonfeatured artist.

Example: Jimi Hendrix “The Star-Spangled Banner

To help illustrate how complex this can get, here is an example: Jimi Hendrix playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Woodstock. In this scenario, the client wanted to use both the footage and audio of this famous moment captured 30 years ago in their project. The Kurator team followed steps 1-3 above, and after doing so, they came to the following conclusions:


Who owns what?

  • Warner Brothers Archive owns a percentage of footage rights
  • Hendrix Estate owns a percentage of footage rights
  • Universal Music Publishing owns a percentage of publishing rights
  • Hendrix Estate owns a percentage of publishing rights
  • Warner Brothers Music is the label for the audio
  • Unions are involved for all (5) of the band members

So not only did Kurator have to reach out to roughly 10 different entities, they also faced some other challenges. For example, The Warner Brothers Archive wouldn’t say yes until the Hendrix Estate said yes and vice versa — just one illustration of the dynamic relationships you might encounter when licensing music.


The bottom line: You can do it. But do IS IT WORTH THE RISK?

Licensing music is not always easy. The biggest pain points come from the time it takes to determine who to contact. And, once you’ve made contact, more pain points can arise in the back and forth as you explain your project, negotiate payment, etc. But, if you have the time, resources, and a bit of perseverance, it is certainly do-able.


But for those with a limited team, lots of production left to attend to, turning to a third party rights clearance and music supervision agency, like Kurator, can help. This process can be done by anyone, but if you want assurance that it is done quickly, correctly, and for your project to be indemnified, contact us, and we would love to help. Learn more about all of Kurator's services or contact us about your project for immediate assistance.