This week I’m going to put on my music supervision and clearance hat to rant about filmmakers who don’t budget enough to cover the licensing fees for the music they want to use in their film. The bottom line is, if your budget for catering is larger than your budget for music licensing, then don’t expect to use any songs or tracks that anyone has ever heard of in your movie.
To illustrate this point, I’ll give you a few examples of those who got it wrong, and those who got it right:
WRONG WAY #1
The producers of a sequel to a relatively successful indie cult film in the ‘90’s came to me to clear over thirty songs and masters for their film – yeah, that’s an assload of music; usually you need to clear between five and ten, max. Essentially, the movie’s writer/director wanted to score the entire film with licensed music – a truly forehead-slap-inducing strategy if ever there was one. On top of that, many of the songs they wanted were super-obscure, from underground ‘80’s punk bands to a Norwegian black metal band with no record label or publishing representation (nicest guys, though).
Now, under the best of circumstances, you could be looking at paying close to $40K just to clear short term film festival rights for that much music, and then several hundred thousand dollars more to clear all media theatrical rights, either through flat-fee buyouts or step deals. Unfortunately, this was not the best of circumstances, as this particular producer had decided to budget a total of $10,000 for thirty songs for an all media theatrical license. Yeah, that’s right: Ten. Thousand. Dollars. They seemed to [x_pullquote cite=”EC” type=”left”]”What also helped here is that the filmmaker was prepared to pay the licensing fees for these cues.”[/x_pullquote]believe that somehow major publishers/labels like Warner, BMG, Sony and Universal would be willing to give away all media theatrical rights for a few hundred dollars a piece, just because theis film was “so wonderful” and the producers and crew had been working so hard on it with no compensation for the last two years, blah, blah, blah. They even tried to use the old “nobody knows these bands anymore so they should be happy to give their songs to us for cheap/free” line. Ugh.
As you can imagine, they were slapped in the face by reality pretty quickly and pretty hard. Ultimately, they had to raise a bunch more money and drop several expensive songs that the director “absolutely, positively” had to have and replace them with score music (shudder!) and cheaper songs by “friend bands” and lesser-known bands that had appeared in the film. Oh, and one of those “cheaper” songs that they had picked wound up having a co-writer on it with a major publisher who quoted a ridiculously high fee for their share. LOL!
When all was said and done, they got a pretty decent soundtrack out of it, even if it wasn’t everything they wanted. Live and learn!
WRONG WAY #2
Another misguided pair of filmmakers wanted to use several famous songs/recordings in their indie “psychological horror” movie – again for (next to) nothing.
They had originally gone out on their own to get quotes for a couple of older and more obscure songs – and actually had gotten decent quotes from two indie rightsholders – and now they wanted to use several famous songs for the same low rates, despite our warnings to the contrary. Of course, the new songs they wanted were being handled by a couple of majors – and one very odd indie, who took four months just to come back with a denial without even quoting – so their chances of success were slim at best. Indeed, when we mentioned that one of the recordings was by Billie Holiday (and the writer was Irving Berlin) and therefore would not come cheap, one of the producers dismissed us by actually saying that since her teenage kids didn’t know who Ms. Holiday is, the recording/song should come cheap. Okayyy.
We did actually try – with our best straight faces – to get these songs cleared for the low fees the producers were requesting, but, as you can imagine, we went down in flames. So we then had to go out and try and find replacement music. Unfortunately, since we were trying to find music we could license for fees that fit the filmmakers’ non-existent budget, we had pitch music from ultra indie artsts (which the filmmakers didn’t like because they didn’t know who the artists were [sigh]) and library music (which the filmmakers felt was too “corporate” or “generic”[double sigh]). One thing I have learned that you face with “artistes” like this is something I call “I Don’t Know What I Want, But That’s Not It” Syndrome, which can really wear thin pretty quickly.
Ultimately, we had to part ways with this project. Still don’t know what they wound up using, but I bet it wasn’t cheap – or recognizable.
RIGHT WAY #1
This is another indie horror film that the filmmaker wanted to clear two songs for, one song over the opening and closing credits (!), and one in a scene in the film. He also had no budget, but at least understood that he’d likely have to scrape up something in order to get what he wanted.
The in-scene song was repped by one of those nasty majors again, and – lo and behold – we wound up getting a quote from them that was actually higher than the quote we got for the opening/closing credits song. But, this time, instead of the filmmaker whining about the cost and giving us a whole bunch of “why can’t they see how great this film is and give it to us for free?” noise, he just said “Fuck it, I’ll get my composer to score something.” See how easy it can be?
For the opening/closing credits song, we were able to get a pretty fair price for the for the song and master (which, thankfully, were both owned by the same party). The filmmaker still grumbled about the cost, but, to his credit, he did actually listen to us when we told him this was the best deal he was going to get. And, whaddya know, he went out and got the money and we closed the deal.
RIGHT WAY #2
This one was pretty easy because the filmmaker just wanted to score the his documentary with cue-style background tracks and actually had a decent budget to do it. So we just went with library music from a couple of great sources: Atomica Music (https://download.atomicamusiclibrary.com/#!home) and Manhattan Production Music (https://manhattan.sourceaudio.com/#!custom_page?pageId=772). Wham, bam, thank you ma’am, and he got the film scored on time and on budget. Hate to say it (no I don’t), but library music is sometimes the only way to go.
RIGHT WAY #3
This one was unique because it involved classical music, which is a whole other universe unto itself.
A producer friend of mine was working on a documentary and had asked me to do a spotting session on the film as part of a bid to get the clearance job. I did, and ID’d over forty sound cues and onscreen displays of published sheet music that might need to be cleared. Ultimately, the filmmaker went with an old pro clearance person with whom they’d worked before. No harm, no foul (although I’m betting they still used my spotting notes ;-b).
A couple of months later, my friend came back to me in a panic with two cues their clearance person just could not figure out. Essentially, they could not ID the rights holders for either cue, and one had a bit of a strange situation in which a film clip was owned by a major media entity, but the actual soundtrack to the clip was owned by another, unidentified rights holder.
So I put on my forensic music licensing cap and got to work. Fortunately, I was able to ID both rights holders fairly quickly and received positive responses from both on licensing the uses. Funny side story on each: on the film clip owned by the media company, the producers and their clearance person had searched high and low to find out who owned the rights they needed cleared, when the info was actually printed right on case for the DVD they got the film clip from; on the other cue, the publisher I had gone to originally sent me to a second publisher, who thought they had the rights, only to realize that they actually did not and the first publisher did – this after already starting to prep a license. Fortunately, the first (and correct) publisher agreed to honor the second pub’s quoted fee.
What also helped here is that the filmmaker was prepared to pay the licensing fees for these cues, and the publishers were happy to license a film use of a couple of old/obscure works and see them used (and themselves credited) in what wound up being a terrific documentary!
So the morals of these stories are, 1) don’t expect the moon and the stars for the change in your pocket, and 2) get your music supervisor or clearance person involved when you when are budgeting/fundraising for your film, because licensing fees can come back and seriously bite you in the ass if you aren’t ready for them.
Oh, yeah, and don’t ever have copyrighted music actually playing live when you are filming a scene (yeah, I had a filmmaker do that once, too) – DUH!