THE BLOG

Making a Living Making Music Part III: Music Licensing & Music Supervisors

12/14/2010 12:07 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I had a song in an early Adrian Brody movie Restaurant. My friend Jennifer Chaiken was an intern and a producer on the film. I placed a song in the HBO documentary, Naked States, because I once did some jingle work for the brilliant composer Leigh Roberts. Director Michael Beltrami saw me perform in Switzerland, cast me in his film, named it after my song "Promised Land" and used several tracks. Documentarian Dawn Sinclair Shapiro commissioned several songs after meeting me at a benefit concert I did for Umoja in Chicago. Director Paul Kaufman found "You Called It Right" on MySpace and used it for My Name Is Sarah, starring Jennifer Beals (Lifetime). Classmate Valerie Weiss selected "This Can't Be My Life" (which I will be performing live on The Late, Late Show with Craig Ferguson this Thursday night on CBS -- tivo early Friday morning) for her hilarious and smart film Losing Control.

So far, all the licensing I have been fortunate to receive has come through friends or fortune. The residuals of these song placements can add up to a significant portion of making a living as a musician, but it's not the avenue where I've spent much of my time and energy. Many voice students ask me how they can get their songs into T.V. and film, so I reached out to some experts about how to go from "getting lucky" in licensing to earning a steady income. Their advice for independent artists is inspiring: Go after it. Develop a strategic campaign and see it through. There's a market for being "nobody," if your recordings are good.

Music supervisors not only need indi music to help them stay within budgets, they enjoy discovering lesser-known artists. Music supervisor Margaret Yen says one of the great perks of her job is licensing songs that might have otherwise gone unheard. (Yen recently placed a Paz Lechantin song in a new indi film starring Will Ferrell.) She recommends artists avoid going for "a sound" that is trendy and stick to writing "simple, unique, solid songs... that's usually what's needed for T.V. and film."

Ms. Yen explains that it is feasible for artists to pursue licensing independently, but recommends finding experienced representation to pitch songs.

Nancy Tarr runs Tarr Music, a new licensing company she considers to be more like a boutique label. Tarr agrees the best part of her job is making that phone call to an artist to tell them their song was selected. She advises independent artists, "in a friendly, not aggressive way" reach out to music supervisors by sending them a link to three songs. 

Tarr emphasizes, "Spend the money in the studio... Don't send demos." Learn about the music supervisor's show, and describe BRIEFLY how the song would serve a character or scene. "Music supervisors have very little time to go through a massive amount of material to find what fits." Don't send music supervisors to your website, give them a specific link or URL pointing directly to your songs. She also advises, "When you're in the studio, make sure to take instrumental passes of your songs. They're useful for T.V. and film." 

Composer Leigh Roberts of JECO Music adds, "Besides the instrumental passes, you may want to take a vocal "way-down" mix. This is sometimes needed for tracks that are in scenes with dialogue." He mentions, "You are developing relationships with music supervisors, composers, directors and producers. If you have anticipated what someone needs, you'll be remembered."

In a recent BMI newsletter, Gabe Hilfer (The Wrestler, Entourage) says that "finding a track from a lesser known artist that works for a scene can be a very rewarding experience." He recommends putting a CD in the mail and prefers to listen to music that way. Ms.Yen says if she sees great artwork that catches her eye, it can make a difference and a tip from Nancy Tarr: put your contact info on the CD itself.

How do you find the people and contacts you want to send your music to? I recommend  starting with Google searches for "contact, music supervisor, name of show/movie." Choose shows/movies you are familiar with. It takes tenacity, but you'll find people. You can also buy a music supervisor directory. Compose a list and hit it once a month with a CD in the mail or email with links to songs. If you can't find a music supervisor for something you feel strongly about, look for a director or producer. Cross-reference the names with your Facebook and LinkedIn -- you might find an introduction. If you have outstanding press, include a quote in your mailing.

You can be a squeaky wheel without being annoying. Be polite, stick to the point and don't send too much material at once. If you get a response and begin to develop a rapport with someone, remember everyone appreciates being appreciated, express your gratitude and be patient.

Prepare to be ignored -- it is not personal. Keep your campaign going, unless someone says, "no-thanks," and if you get a "no-thanks," promptly remove the person from your list, and replace him with three new people. 

When it comes to licensing, it's possible the harder you work, the luckier you will get.