Skip to main content

Production Music Libraries Today: The How-to Guide

By Lonnie Sill

In today's fast-paced and budget-conscious entertainment industry, increased programming and production opportunities in film, television, radio and other media have given rise to a fertile environment for production music libraries. Music is a critical component of storytelling. The fact remains that while the appetite for music among filmmakers and producers has increased, budgets remain static. As a result, music libraries are becoming an increasingly integral resource for storytellers and content creators.

In the digital age, where the landscape is fast becoming saturated with content, finding the right music library can be complicated. There are a few points of focus that can help filmmakers and producers find the library that will meet their needs both creatively and economically.

Looking for Quality Music and Service

When looking for a library, don't settle for low-quality content, based on the preconceived notion that library music is all the same. The quality of content produced by music libraries has greatly increased in the past few years, offering excellent alternatives to costly popular music. Leaders in the music library world are now striving to break down the boundaries between library and commercial music. My company, FirstCom Music, for example, works with seasoned songwriters and Grammy Award-winning composers who are producing high-quality complete film scores along with tie-in, transitional cues that allow for flexibility in the filmmaking and editing processes. Libraries are also focusing on expanding the breadth of their catalogues. Under one roof, top libraries consist of music genres spanning millennia, ranging from authentic archival music of the 1920s to underscore, songs, trailer and promo music, including mixed stems. Gone are the days where all library content could be pigeonholed as "canned" or "stock" music. The best libraries also focus on customer service, and assist users in navigating the catalogue. Great libraries offer in-house music supervision and immediate music searches and can make music immediately available for auditioning or temping as needed.

Outlining the Best Media Rights Package

Filmmakers and content producers should keep in mind the media rights needed for a specific production, and find a music library that can provide licensing options that fall in line with today's broadcasting and distributor delivery requirements. Requirements obviously differ from project to project. Does a project call for Internet rights only, with an option to extend rights to include film festivals at a later date? Is a distributor requiring a filmmaker to have licensed rights covering all media, including full theatrical rights, before it picks up a project? Libraries can offer tiered or "step deals" that will suit a content creator's needs and mitigate licensing costs. The right library will work with producers and filmmakers to structure a media rights package that is tailored for each unique production.

My work with FirstCom Music on the documentary TWA Flight 800 provides a good example of the complexities of the licensing process and media rights packaging. In this case, the film editor was familiar with the FirstCom catalogue and had existing permission to access music from the library website. He temp-scored the entire film with FirstCom Music tracks and was able to screen it on short notice of finalizing a deal with distributors. The filmmaker had labored over the project for close to 15 years with no prior experience of working with a composer, and had limited resources to finish the film. Here, a "blanket license" was provided based on a tailored, all-media worldwide rights package that was in line with the budget and delivery requirements. By working with the filmmaker and designing a limited theatrical exploitation package, that license alleviated costs and streamlined the entire music process. The filmmaker was thrilled with the end result, and she delivered the film on time.  

Understanding the Different Types of Licenses

There are many ways to license music from libraries and several ways in which packages are structured. It is important to know which type of license works best for a production or series of productions.

          Blanket Licenses for film, programs, segments or promos offer several options and are designed to include unlimited music usage covering a variety of financial situations. Blanket licenses offer short-term benefits, or long-term incentives, depending on what best suits the filmmaker, production entity or network. The higher volume of production covered can mean better discounted blanket licensing rates. 

           A True Blanket is inherent with long-term annual deals (one to five years) for entities such as networks and production companies ,and will cover all films, programs, segments or promos.

           A Production Blanket is designed for a single production, or a "program" with multiple episode/segments, and may allow for use of unlimited music at a discounted rate. Fee reductions are based on the production length and number of episodic/program commitments (six episodes, 12 episodes, 22 episodes, multiple segments/promos, etc.).

           A Track Fee License, also known as needle-drop, pay per-use, or "all in" license, is paid as a single license for each time a cue is used or synchronized.

Protecting the Filmmaker, Producers and Partners

 With so many options for selecting and licensing music today, it is important to keep in mind there are certain risks involved with some vendors promoting "free music" or music-licensing "aggregators" that might not control exclusive or long-term music rights. This could open the door to possible future copyright issues and hinder one's right to use the music. Liability is exactly what filmmakers and producers must avoid when so much is at stake. Tapping into reliable libraries and music publishers is a great way for content producers to find music and protect themselves, the artists that create the music, and their film producers and partners.

Look for libraries with wholly owned and controlled content (composition and master rights combined). This is an attractive and defining quality of a good production music library. Some music catalogues that might own or control partial music rights to compositions or recordings can pose additional risks, unless one is prepared to pay higher rates and have a grasp of licensing terms.

Using Available Resources to Find Advocates

There are numerous organizations committed to keeping producers and filmmakers informed of their options and rights as it relates to music and the development of digital media. The Production Music Association (PMA) is the leading advocate and voice of the production music community. They are a nonprofit organization with over 550 music publisher members, ranging from major labels to independent boutiques. Their mission is to elevate the unique value of production music and to ensure the viability of the production music industry.

 The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and other groups are backing a push for an anti-piracy curriculum in schools. They are working on educational series to teach the value of copyrights and the impacts of using intellectual properties (film, music, books, photographs, etc.) with or without licensing rights. Using organizations like these as resources, not only for obtaining knowledge about production music, but for networking and fostering long-lasting relationships in the entertainment community, is invaluable. Tomorrow's creators need to secure their future rights too, especially in the digital frontier.

Lonnie Sill is the director of the Film/TV division of FirstCom Music, a Universal Production Music catalogue that contains 180,000 tracks, with over 7,000 new tracks released annually. In various capacities he has produced music for popular films, TV shows and soundtracks for key industry leaders, including Paramount Pictures, 20th Century Fox, Columbia Pictures, Cherry Lane Music Publishing and Windswept Pacific.