Skip to content
25 September 2020

How Music Licensing Works

It’s a wild world out there and there’s so much music. As original composers and music producers, we need to find a way to emerge from the ocean of music released every day.

If you’re a composer focused on underscore music for, let’s say, TV dramas, you are committed to a subject and your music is part of a very big scenario. Writing Production Music aims to be used by advertising, promos, sports, wherein a sense, your music is even more upfront than it is in the dramatic underscore. It’s vital that we write original music for the film-scoring field, but it’s far the most important thing to do from a licensing perspective: we need our music to have hybrid usage in that regard.

Production Music vs Stock Music

Let’s start by saying that in both cases we’re talking about music that has been written specifically for use in audio and audiovisual projects. Today we’re seeing these two branches kind of blend together in some aspects. Anyway, there are some differences between them.

Production Music (which is the one I do) is composed for the primary purpose of building passive income royalties through TV/Film placement. This music is published and distributed by specific licensing companies and can be aired over and over again so that you can start getting recurring royalties. If there’s no company behind you, it would work just fine as well. As a freelance composer, I have to interface with directors, clients, and music supervisors every day.

Of course, there are multiple ways of getting synced/placed. Another sort of sub-industry within our business is Stock Music, probably better known as royalty-free libraries. These are libraries that don’t primarily pitch to clients that are going to be able to put your tracks in a media that will earn you recurring royalties. Rather, you put one track on a website and that track can be sold to multiple clients over and over again. In a way, it is a form of passive income, but you don’t have many options or opportunities.

Royalties are a key factor: with Production Music, not only do you get placed on a TV show and get multiple payments for that, but as soon as the show goes to different countries, you can build those revenues from multiple places for years and years into the future. “Royalty-free” means you get a tiny one-time payout and that’s it, no matter by whom, how much, and for how long your music is going to be used.

Still, Stock Music libraries make it really easy for your music to be distributed: just click a couple of buttons, upload your tracks, (in most cases) there’s no quality control. You put your metadata roughly, you pay a little fee for their website hosting, and…bam, you’re now in the “sync licensing” business! …although the truth is, you’re really not. You’re on a website, where you can possibly get discovered, but on these royalty-free sites, you are essentially unknown, with little to no information on you as a composer. You generally don’t have a phone or email correspondence with them, so nobody is really pitching you or your music.

There’s no relationship between you and the client there, which is a crucial factor for me. I like to work with people with whom I can build a long-term bond, who I can trust both professionally and personally, and who have my back. They fight for me, which makes me want to fight for them. In my opinion, these kinds of relationships are vital in this business for success.

There’s one more thing to keep in mind: this is a numbers game. The more music you produce and upload, the greater the chance of getting your music placed. The more you get placed, the more you’re going to get the “snowballing effect“, where you start to see more passive income building up. Let’s be honest, it takes a lot of work to get there.

To conclude this first part, I want to share a consideration I made. Another big difference between Production Music versus Stock Music is the demographic of clients: royalty-free sites tend to focus all their client base on the individual user (indie-filmmakers, student filmmakers, YouTube content creators)…in short, small budget productions. All of this is kind of a bargain bin and what sucks is that a lot of royalty-free sites promote themselves as music libraries so, unless you are “one of us”, a real player in this game, it’s hard to make a distinction. The direct consequence of this is that all of a sudden the perception to the entire world is everything that we do and all that they do is just Stock Music. So, in certain ways, their business model brings down the value of what we do, which I like to consider premium music. One possible scenario may be that the TV film market starts chasing these stock library sites to save lots of money.

How to get into music licensing?

Let’s face it: even if nowadays it seems everybody is capable of “doing music” without much effort, this is a job. And, as well as any role in the job market, it needs specific skills and qualifications to be covered. Let’s narrow down the main mandatory ones:

  • A love for music of all styles and time periods.
  • A love for media – TV, films, commercials, trailers, promos, sports, etc.
  • Basic knowledge of music licensing and publishing
  • Strong customer service skills
  • An ability to interpret creative briefs quickly: briefs can be really vague and you have to really know the questions to ask, being on point, and being receptive to everything. This needs to happen in a very short time because briefs happen really quickly. You should know what to pitch, but if you’re not sure, you have to ask questions.
  • Music education

Finally, in the Music Licensing business, the production quality is super important. It’s really hard to compete when you can’t deliver high-quality-sounding music. If you don’t know how to record yourself, you may want to pay an engineer to record and mix your tracks. Because in production music, having quality audio is number one. Your music simply won’t be used if it doesn’t sound good.

Is there a most popular music genre clients are looking for?

It’s hard to say. All is cyclical. 6 months from now it can all be different.

One thing I learned about music requests is there’s no limit to what you could be asked for. Some of the requests can be pretty bizarre, but the new stuff is really on-demand. Then there is some evergreen. For example the classical music, cocktail jazz is still asked for a lot, there’s always something that is needed. Talking about an evergreen, recording acoustic instruments really does extend the shelf life of your music. That’s because samples go out of style, so it’s always nice for a music library to kind of boost your music with some evergreen and have a lot of new stuff that maybe has a shelf-life of four to five years.

During that window of time, you may get a lot of usages…and maybe after 10-15 years, it becomes “vintage”! If you commit to a style, in the first 2 years you’re potentially going to have a lot of placements. But after a while, it’s going to peter out.

I want to make a very clear point here: differentiate and have a broad range of genres of music in your library. Doing so will satisfy the tastes of a wide audience: some will like “fine cuisine”, others would prefer “pizza”. This is a key factor because you can’t really say that one person’s taste is better than another. Some will resonate better with ours but you can be fairly shocked You’ll be surprised that some of your music that you initially thought was kind of an add-on, resonates with others and is actually what they are looking for.

The music which won’t work is mainly music that is not produced well. This can apply also to music that is not written specifically for licensing. That’s because it can be structurally wrong (eg. prog rock) or too introspective and more focused on the lyrics rather than the mood. It’s not a never, but super-introspective music doesn’t have as much use in TV or film. Let’s say there’s a market but it’s a lot more narrowed.

Anyway, looking at Billboard it’s always a shorthand to what is getting asked for because requests tend to follow that (especially in TV and film for the US market).

What are clients looking for?

Some of the most common things that are getting asked for are “uniqueness” or “unexpected“. That can be very ambiguous, so let me try to cut it down.

In our business, music is always fuelling or supporting media production. Everyone wants their material to stand out. For example, a combination of styles can really help your music to do this. People are always looking for the latest and greatest things.

Another important point is to have music with a 3-part structure. This is especially true for trailers, where it really does tell you a story, an evolution. Moreover, in a single piece, you’ll have 3 different atmospheres. This will drastically increase the chances to be placed because some productions are going to use just the end, others would choose the intro…and so on. Speaking of which: avoid having too long intros. Develop them so that they are great hooks that take you somewhere in a reasonable amount of time.

Let’s move to the main moods. Everybody wants to be Happy, even more during these days. It’s not surprising the most common searched keywords are “happy” and “upbeat” or “uplifting”, together with “inspirational”. Don’t get me wrong: “dark”, “driving” are good competitors and can represent music that’s part of a soundtrack that can be outside the box.

Music versions to deliver

You’ll have a full track, but you are largely encouraged to have an underscore and an alternate version. Maybe in those, you remove melody, solos, piano, and other distracting elements. To give you a concrete example, many editors, especially the ones who work with reality television, ask for tracks with just drums and bass because they can use them under a dialogue, a voiceover. On top of that, you should make STEMS available. This will allow the editor to have the flexibility to choose between instruments and allow him/her to build their own arrangement according to the needs of the scene. Maybe it starts with a dialogue, then with a few melodic instruments playing, evolves into an action scene with the whole rhythmic session pumping in the speakers.

If you are in the position of reaching out to a client to pitch your music, the first thing to field is: does your track need to drive the editor or has to be more in a supporting role? For example, if there’s a lot of voiceovers you want to pitch those underscores versus something that’s really busy. Some tracks really need to drive the edit and that’s the case for trailer music.


This is going to be tough for somebody to digest, but the main topics requested are “togetherness”, “family”, “friendship” and “getting through it together”. Now, let me add, a lot of songs are about love, right? It’s nice to have songs about “friendship” and being buddies because it’s a hard thing to find. So, when you write lyrics, it’s important to think full-scale and not write about the obvious stuff.

It’s possible that the editor or the director seeks songs with specific lyrics to help tell the story.

Tools and Trades

I know, all of this can be confusing and difficult to achieve. But to win your battle you must know the rules of the game well. That means if you want your music to be found, you have to know what tools are being used by music directors and music supervisors on a day-to-day basis.

  • Search engines: you better have a website with a strong SEO that helps you to be among the first results when someone is looking for things related to the services you offer.
  • Strong metadata: music metadata is the information included in audio files used to identify, label, and present audio content. The more detailed your metadata is, the easier it is to deliver your music to the right listeners. Metadata is a big thing. It’s one thing to write for a production music library, but if nobody can find it, it’s not going to get used.
  • it’s useful to check what the show is about and to see which people have worked there (maybe to reach them out!)
  • is awesome because you can hear what’s been licensed in specific shows, which gives you a good idea of the tone. If you’re not familiar with a show, going to will help you figure out what music has been hitting for that show.

Featured image by Tshirt Superstar – Music