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How You Can Obtain Music Rights For Use In Your Student Short or Independent Film

Updated on September 30, 2012

Music Clearance FAQs

(a.k.a. Everything You Need to Know About Music Clearance for Film Festivals, Student Films, & Independent Films)

Do I really need to be worried about music clearance?

Absolutely. All film festivals require that music be cleared before exhibition. Not only should you be worried about it, but you should be worried about it as soon as possible, because the process can take as long as 3 months. Particular songs may be impossible to get and in that case you will need time to find a replacement.

What happens if you get caught using un-cleared music at a film festival?

Either you will be forced to pay whatever price (no matter how unreasonable) to procure the rights or you will be forced to remove the song from your film. You will have lost your ability to negotiate for a lower price and will be at the mercy of the publishing company/record label.

What if I plan on showing the film at school or want to use a piece of music for my demo reel?

Showing projects in an educational environment or using music for a demo reel really is perfectly acceptable, and you are not required to obtain music rights in these two situations.

What are the steps involved in music clearance?

1. Identify what rights you need

2. Locate the owner of the rights

3. Send out a request letter/Negotiate a deal

  1. Get it in writing

What are the different types of music rights/what rights do I need?

Synchronization Rights- Refers to the actual musical composition. Owned by the writer and licensed by the publishing company. (ALWAYS needed)

Master Rights- Refers to a particular recording of the song done by artist. Owned by and licensed by the record label. (Not needed if you choose to record your own version of a song)

What is public domain? Does that mean I can use a song for free?

This is a myth common among students ("hey, do a classical song-- it won't cost anything), and often gets students in trouble. IN the United States, public domain is determined by adding 75 years to the original publication date, and just because something sounds "classical" doesn't mean that it couldn't have been published recently or that it somehow automatically falls under public domain. Abroad public domain is much more difficult to determine because, as copyright varies country by country, where often the work is protected based upon the author's recorded date of death.

REMEMBER that even if a song falls under public domain you will still need to obtain the master rights to any given recording.

AVOID using a composition from any book published more recently, because this may infringe on the rights of the book publisher.

How do I located the owner of the rights?

Use the following links to search the music database at ASCAP, BMI, or SESAC...if the song is not found as ASCAP try BMI, or vica versa:

If none of these sites work you can call also try calling the organizations…

ASCAP 323.883.1000

BMI 310.659.9109

SESAC 310.393.9671.

Once you are able to find the song grab a piece of paper to take some notes, & and use it to record the…





Publishing Company Contacts

Record Label Contacts

(if info for record label is not on ASCAP, BMI, or SESAC you can look it up on

REMEMBER…. there are often several different versions of the same song recorded by the same artist (for example an acoustic or live version).

BE AWARE that there may be several different publishing companies or record labels that own different percentages of the same song. You need to contact everyone & this is when it is important to understand the Most Favored Nations Clause.

What do I say when I contact the publishing company/record label?

Your first step should be to call the publishing company/record label & ask for the person in charge of music clearance for film festivals. That person should give you either a fax number or email address where you can submit your licensing request.

KEEP IN MIND that the information on ASCAP or BMI is often outdated & that you can’t assume that all of their information is 100% correct. It may take some digging to uncover who currently owns the rights and what percentage of those rights they own. One time I wasted several weeks speaking with a company, only to later discover that they don’t even own the rights, so I suggest that you always verify this information before moving forward with your licensing request.

How do I write a letter requesting a quote?

Prepare a brief email or fax (1 to 1 ½ pages maximum) to the publisher - be sure to say Independent Film Request or Low Budget Film at the top of the letter. Reference the title of the song and songwriters, then the name of your production. Tell them briefly about the production & how the song fits in, as well as:

1. The timing or duration of the song;

2. The visuals accompanying the song;

3. Where your production will be seen and for how long (1-time, 1 year, etc)

4. The titles of other songs you plan to use, particularly if you have already gotten permission.

5. If you have no budget for clearance, say so in your letter. However, publishers will often give priority to requests that offer a token fee ($25.00 to $100.00 per song) because it shows respect for the value of the copyright.

6. Provide the publisher with an address, phone fax or e-mail so they can reply quickly.

7. Fax or email your request to the publisher. Wait at least 10 days before following up.

Sample licensing request (synchronization rights, Film Festivals, U.S. Only)

October 3, 2005

Attn: Matt Kapuchinski

RE: Low Budget Film Request

Per my conversation with Samuel Arlen at SA Music, I am contacting you regarding the synchronization rights to THIS TIME THE DREAMS ON ME by John H Mercer & Arlen Harold. SA Music informed me that you own 50% of the U.S. rights and requested that I speak with you in order to purchase the rights for your share of $200 dollars according to the most favored nations clause.

We wish to use 30 seconds of the song in 20 min short film for Chapman University entitled LUCKY, to shown at film festivals for a period of approximately one year. The story is about a rock-n-roll singer who can’t write a love song because he has never been in love, and the song would be performed by the female lead at a karaoke bar.

I understand that this is probably significantly less than you would usually consider licensing the song for. However, I hope you will still consider it, due to the fact that we are students who are only asking for festival rights to a short portion of the song and because there is no possible way for our production to make any money from the screening of LUCKY.

We look forward to hearing back from you and thank you for the time it will take you to process this request, which I understand is low-priority due to our inability to offer a more significant licensing fee.

Thank you for your consideration,

Joe Schmoe

After I negotiate a price then what?

The publishing company will give you a quote & once you pay your fee they will finally issue you a license, which will only be effective for the period of time specified and in the territory specified (either North America or World).

What should I expect to pay?

It really just depends on the song. Evan Greenspan (a music clearance company) suggests that students offer a $50-$100 token fee, but so far I have found that you can expect to pay between $200-$300 per song. (For those on a budget read Where Can I go to Find Cheap/Free Music?)

What is the Most Favored Nations Clause & why do I need to know what this means?

A publishing company/recording label may include a Most Favored Nations (or MFN) Clause in your licensing agreement.

The Most Favored Nations (or MFN) Clause- security for the licensor, and says that if you later negotiate a more favorable rate another party it will ensure that they receive the same rate. For example, you can’t promise a publisher their share of $200, and then later promise a second publisher $300.

What share of the licensing fee a publisher or label is entitled to is determined by what percentage of the rights they own (If they own 50% of the rights then they are entitled to 50% of the licensing fee). Depending on the terms of the agreement MFN clause it can apply between co-publishers of a certain song only, or between all other master recordings included in the project.

I can’t afford to pay the amount that the publishing company/record label is requesting…what are my other options?

Buy only the synchronization rights and find someone to do a new recording (saving the money you would have spent on master rights). Or you find a replacement song that is similar but less expensive. (read Where Can I Go to Find Cheap/Free Music?)

An unsigned band has given me permission to use their music in my film. Do I still need to obtain formal clearance?

Even if a band or artist is completely independent you will still need to get them to sign a master synchronization license.

Where can I go to find cheap/free music? has lots of extremely cheap production music, as well as sound effects. Another good option is music. It takes a lot of searching, but there are many amazingly talented unsigned bands out there who are more than willing to let you use their music for free. I suggest you search by sounds like (entering the name of bands who perform the type of music you are looking for) and sort by the number of plays (since the better bands usually get more plays).


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    • GetitScene profile image

      Dale Anderson 

      20 months ago from The High Seas

      This was interesting, bravo! I will share this with my buddies who are indy movie makers to get their take on the information you have volunteered here.

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 

      6 years ago from England

      Great start jackie, and welcome to hubpages!

    • iluvdj0612` profile image


      6 years ago from Province of Rizal, Philippines

      well done!! good article! very useful!

    • glassvisage profile image


      6 years ago from Northern California

      This is a great Hub with really helpful information for anyone making a film of their own. Good resource and easy to read.


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