Turn the Ignition On, Baby

Music: it can add a whole new dimension to a soundtrack. It creates emotion, adds drama, and sometimes takes the place of dialog to tell the story. Without it, a soundtrack can be lifeless, dull, uninspiring, and flat. It’s also one of the most misunderstood legal (or illegal) aspects of production. To the uninitiated or less experienced, the quest to understand the rules can be one of the most frustrating, bewildering, and sometimes neglected processes.
Welcome to another look from the world of an audio engineer. Music: it can add a whole new dimension to a soundtrack. It creates emotion, adds drama, and sometimes takes the place of dialog to tell the story. Without it, a soundtrack can be lifeless, dull, uninspiring, and flat.

It’s also one of the most misunderstood legal (or illegal) aspects of production. To the uninitiated or less experienced, the quest to understand the rules can be one of the most frustrating, bewildering, and sometimes neglected processes. I’d like to clear up a few of the questions regarding music usage in production. Rest assured, this isn’t a lecture on morality, nor is it full of legal terms. It’s just a no nonsense look at how to avoid a hassle.

Sometimes when I’m putting together a soundtrack that will be distributed to the public, I’m asked to use a popular piece of music. This is the point where I stop editing, swing my chair around, and look my client straight in the eye and ask “What kind of copyright clearances do you have?” Sometimes I’m pleasantly surprised and get the answer I want to hear (like “We have all the clearances and I can have them faxed to you this afternoon"). But mostly, I’m faced with a blank stare or a surprised “Huh?”

“What kind of copyright clearances do you have?”


It’s completely understandable that some producers new to production have no idea that all copyrighted music must be cleared before using. After all, just turn on the television tonight and watch any network program. It may have one or more familiar songs in its soundtrack. It will also have several commercials that have familiar songs. So it’s easy to think that if a song works, just use it!

In reality, a lot of people were put to work and kept very busy for each one of those songs you will hear during your favorite program tonight. And, a lot of money changed hands because music licensing is very big business. Many musicians can claim skyrocketing sales after their music was featured on television programs and advertisements, like musician/remixer Moby (a.k.a. Richard Melville Hall, great-great-grandnephew of Moby Dick author Herman Melville). At first, Moby was criticized by hard-core fans of “selling out” by letting his work be commercialized, but this brought him a bigger audience base and more creative freedom.

Think you can use one of Moby’s cuts under your commercial? Think again. There’s a myriad of licensing: from the song writer, publisher, and record company, among others. If you do use it without permission, there’s always lawyers to help you with your court case. Yes, the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America), ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers), BMI (Broadcast Music Incorporated), and others are listening. The fines can be so steep, they’ll make buying a house seem trivial.

But what if a song is just absolutely right? Then weigh the cost versus potential return. First, you need to find out how much it will cost. If it’s for charity or a worthwhile cause the artist supports, you might get it for little or nothing - you just have to ask. Other times, they won’t release the rights to anybody. More often than not, there’s a hefty price tag attached. This is where you have to ask yourself “is it worth it?” If it is, then I recommend using a “clearinghouse,” or special agency to handle all the copyright issues. They charge a premium, but they have forged relationships with publishers and know how to negotiate the best terms quickly. If you decide to go it yourself, count on at least a few weeks to several months of research and negotiations.

“Is it worth it?”


If you can live with a sound-alike song, then a production music library or custom music house can provide you with options. A production music library is a collection of pre-licensed music that is specially designed to work under narrations and other productions. They often have music that sounds like popular songs, but miss the mark just enough to be legal. Pricing can be competitive between most libraries, but will often cost between $75 and $500 per cut of music used, depending on its usage. Custom music will be more, priced on its complexity and use.

So what is this “usage” you’re paying for? Well, most libraries base their fees on the number of people that will hear the music. If you place one television spot on your local TV station at 3 AM on Thursday morning, and another one right before kickoff on the national broadcast of the Super Bowl, which one do you think will be seen by more people? This is basically how music licensing works, for both popular music and music libraries. A decade ago, when Microsoft released Windows 95 (seems like eons ago, doesn’t it), they approached the Rolling Stones about using “Start Me Up” in their ads. The Stones playfully said, “Okay, a million dollars.” Microsoft quickly agreed. It makes you wonder how much they were really willing to pay. They weighed the cost versus return. BIG return.

“Okay, a million dollars.”


One last way to look at this is from the artist’s point of view. Most artists who write and record music do so in hopes of some kind of monetary return, because the music business is just that - a business. How would you feel if you had recorded a song and then heard it used in a commercial without your permission? Would it be fair if someone was using your work of art to make money and not compensating you?

The bottom line is, when you’re faced with picking music for your next project, should you use “Start Me Up” from the Rolling Stones, or “Turn the Ignition On, Baby” from Hot Production Cuts Volume 36? It may not be that hard of a choice after all.

Neil Kesterson is the owner of Dynamix Productions in Lexington, KY. He has been hoping to record The Rolling Stones in his studio for over twenty years.
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