Top tips on music licensing in film and TV

Top tips on music licensing in film and TV

How do you go about using music in your film or TV programme? What are the considerations for using pre-existing tracks versus specially commissioned scores? These and more issues will be addressed in an upcoming workshop at the London Film School.

How do you find the right track and the right composer? How much does it all cost and what steps are necessary to ensure it’s all done legally? Leading UK music supervisor and record company executive Ian Neil explores the complexities of using music in a film or TV show.

Here are some of Neil’s top tips:

  • Finding the right film composer, someone who is on your wavelength. Carter Burwell’s (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths) first job as a film-score composer was for Blood Simple (1984) and he has provided the music for all of the Cohen Brothers’ features since.

    Ennio Morricone’s collaboration with Sergio Leone since they worked on A Fistful of Dollars (1964) is also legendary. Morricone composed the film score from Leone’s script, and the action of the famous set-piece sequences was choreographed to it. Astonishingly, both had been in the same tiny class together in their remote village primary school but neither remembered each other. However, when they met during the production, each knew he had found his perfect collaborator.

  • Pre-existing tracks can make a film but should not be about the director’s personal record collection. When combined with powerful visuals, over-explicit lyrics and relentlessly pounding rhythms often do not mix. You need a music advisor with encyclopaedic knowledge and catholic taste; and your editor should be your final arbiter.
  • Get the right piece of music for the right price. Once you’ve found the right song for a scene, be persistent: Stealers Wheel’s label initially refused permission for Stuck in the Middle to be used in the infamous Reservoir Dogs (1992) scene, because they deemed it too violent. But with some persistence and different direct approaches from the filmmakers, the band’s manager was shown how the scene and song would work together and was convinced.
  • Ensure you have budgeted enough for the music – both composition and rights. Music is not free and often not cheap. However, it can massively increase the perceived production values of your project. Don’t leave it to the last minute to find out that you have no money for the music you need.
  • Look into rights ownership early. Some music will never be clearable at your budget. With a commissioned original score, which might include new original songs, you can potentially own your own music rights.

To find out more about using music in your produciton, Ian Neil’s next LFS workshop, Music Licensing in Film and TV runs on 11 November and is open to all filmmakers, with particular relevance to producers, directors and post-production, as well as media lawyers and music composers. For more details and how to book visit the London Film School website.

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