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Behind Your Film's Soundtrack: The Important Role of the Music Supervisor

By Brooke Wentz

Music supervision is one of those coveted jobs by individuals who are passionate about music and who sense they can match songs with images. Driving in a car listening to the right soundtrack is sometimes no different from being in a movie theater. Unfortunately, only about a third of the job is creative; the other two thirds is administrative, made smoother by relationships built up over many years.

Most music supervisors service directors by helping them match a post-production budget with the appropriate music to parallel the directors' sensibility and the scene's required mood. Documentarians often get stuck with a scene where the music is built-in, and they then have to clear the particular song heard in the scene. Yet music is expensive, and because it is copyrighted, permissions must be granted, making the process long and arduous.

What is it that we really do? A good music supervisor will first want to understand what the director's goals are with the music in the film. Some documentarians may only want the music that is already in their scenes cleared quickly and efficiently, at the lowest cost possible. Others may want to use music creatively in a scene to enhance the mood or tone of the film, and need assistance with music selection that fits their budgets. Others may want to better understand what their choices are, in which case a supervisor may help with composer selection and various music cues.

You may want to secure music rights at the least amount with minimal terms (film festival, worldwide, one year), or you may want to secure the most rights at the least price (all media rights in perpetuity, step deal). In either case, the goal for the music supervisor is to secure the desired rights within the budget of the director.

The second goal would be to make sure that the director is going in the right creative direction and that his or her vision matches the proposed budget. No, you won't be able to get Beatles masters even though your film is set in the 1960s, or a Macklemore and Ryan Lewis song just because you have a club scene. A knowledgeable music supervisor will steer a director away from artists known to be problematic—Rolling Stones, Ben Harper, Arcade Fire, Cat Power, Chuck Berry and others—and will know which artists are more amenable to licensing than one would think—Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Pete Townsend and Goo Goo Dolls, among them.

Yes, those lovely songs you want to include in your film are copyrighted works of art and therefore require secured permission from the copyright holders. You will need permission granted from a) the composer or writer of the song, generally represented by the music publisher (one "side"), and b) the artist who recorded the song, which is held by the record label or owner of the master recording (another "side"). If you are using both the composition and the recording, you will need permission from both sides.

If you are creating your own recording (for instance, a friend records the song for you, or a character in the scene is performing the song), then only permission from the publisher is needed. Or maybe you are using a recording of a public domain song (always double-check) like a traditional, hymnal or folk song, in which case you only need permission from the recording entity, not the publisher.

The clearance process is an onerous one, and has become more difficult over the last five years, with prices for music licenses soaring, especially for new media and streaming rights. The cost of music does not lie in who the artist is; the cost lies in the media that you require. So an "all media rights in perpetuity now known here and devised" permission is going to be more costly than an "all media rights step deal." A step deal is when you pay a set fee now for all media rights, and then if your film makes more than, say, $1 million, the production company has to pay another designated amount. For example, a step deal may cost $2,500 per side per song, or $5,000 for all media rights, but when the film grosses over $1 million, you will have to pay another $2,500 per side to the copyright holders. A buy-out or initial "all media rights" deal might start at $5,000-$10,000 per side. Depending on your budget, a step deal works well for documentarians. Of all the documentaries I have worked on, only one filmmaker, Lee Hirsch, the director of Bully, paid the step. "It was a nice problem to have," he says.

Digital rights packages are keen with some filmmakers as they make more deals with strictly digital distributors: Film Buff, Cinetic, etc. These package deals generally include digital download, streaming, video-on-demand and video-to-own rights. For documentaries, worldwide rights can be secured at fees that average $2,500 for five years. This may seem expensive, but it is the streaming component of digital rights that drives the cost up. Rights holders, however, are beginning to ask specific questions about streaming rights such as, "Does the YouTube page suppress ads? Does the production have performance rights in place?" and "Will you be streaming the video in its entirety, or clips?"

To understand the labyrinth of music rights, it is important to have a great music supervisor or clearance person. Filmmakers can do this on their own, but most find that their time is better spent doing what they do best, not music clearance. Not even lawyers like doing music clearance. Good supervisors will know how to handle licensing personalities; relationships with managers, record labels and publishers are tremendously helpful. Money and time spent on hiring a music supervisor generally saves the filmmaker money as well; licensors will grant fees to directors at sometimes three times the fees they will grant to a supervisor, only because they know they can't pull the rug over our eyes!

The bottom line about music supervisors is that they should be creatively knowledgeable about music, they should have enough experience to understand rights pricing and the clearance process and, most importantly, they should respect your film's music budget and your deadline. 

If you want to find music on your own, there are many resources. Music production libraries can be found at post-production houses and online. Other discovery/licensing sites include www.musicforactionsports, and

Here are some important media terms:

Film Festival Exhibition: The right to exhibit the production to audiences at film festivals and non-marquee theaters.

Educational Exhibition: The right to exhibit the production to audiences (whether or not admission is charged) in educational facilities (high schools, universities, libraries, museums, etc.).

Art-House Theatrical Exhibition or Limited Theatrical Exhibition: The right to exhibit the production (whether or not admission is charged) in theaters aimed at small, niche market audiences. These are small-capacity theaters. Independent filmmakers will secure, if at all, art-house theatrical rights.

Motion Picture Theatrical Exhibition: The right to exhibit the production to audiences in theaters, film festivals and other places of public entertainment where motion pictures are customarily exhibited and admission is charged (think mainstream blockbuster movies). These are big-budget films with nationwide ad campaigns. Most independent filmmakers will not need to secure motion picture theatrical rights.

Non-Theatrical Exhibition or Corporate Use: The right to exhibit the production to audiences on common carriers such as airlines, trains, ships and buses as well as diplomatic installations, military establishments, clubs, bars, restaurants and similar "non-theatrical" venues where there is typically no direct charge for viewing imposed. This method of exhibition is sometimes also referred to as "corporate use."

All Television Media: The right to exhibit the production by all forms of television broadcast and or transmission now known and hereinafter devised whether such programming is transmitted via wires, wireless, cables, satellite or any other communication channels, including free TV, basic cable TV, pay TV, subscription TV, pay-per-view, video-on-demand. This right specifically excludes transmission of the production, which enables the end user to purchase a permanent download or copy of the production, "videograms" or "podcasting."

Free TV: The right to exhibit the production over the facilities of television broadcast networks and local television broadcast stations (not cable transmission or "CATV" transmissions) that furnish such broadcast without charge to the viewer and which are received by and exhibited on a television broadcast receiver or other similar viewing device (local channels, ABC, CBS, NBC).

Basic Cable TV: The right to exhibit the production by means of cable TV systems, whether such programming is transmitted via wire, wireless, cables, satellite or any other communication channels, for which members of the public may pay for the transmission service provided by such cable system (TNT, ESPN, National Geographic, Sundance Channel). There are many tiers of basic cable. If you know which specific network for which your production will be exhibited, please advise so appropriate television rights are secured. 

Pay/Pay-Per-View/Video-On-Demand/Subscription TV: The right to exhibit the production to a television set or other viewing device for which the ultimate viewer receives upon the one-time or periodic payment of a subscription fee or premium (HBO, STARZ, IFC). This right specifically excludes transmission of the production, which enables the end user to purchase a permanent download or copy of the production, videograms or podcasts.

Home Video/DVD: The right to exhibit the production by means of audiovisual devices that are intended primarily for personal home use (such as videocassettes and DVDs). This right is limited to the traditional videocassette and DVD. It does not include digital downloading, video-on-demand, Netflix distribution or other audiovisual devices.

Videogram(s): Videogram(s) shall mean and include all audio-visual devices intended for personal, non-commercial exhibition of the production by means of any viewing device, whether capable of being viewed or otherwise exhibited by means of any so-called interactive ndevices or cable systems, including but not limited to CD-I, CD-ROM or any other future storage and or retrieval devices or systems. Videogram(s) include tangible devices such as videocassettes and DVDs; and digital distribution (whether wired or wireless) of downloadable video files (available through a music service for reproduction on a portable viewing device), podcasting or any other similar technologies or means of distributing a non-ephemeral or permanent download or copy of the production to consumers.

Internet Streaming: The right to exhibit the production on your company, official film or agency website only. This right is limited to streaming (non-downloadable) use, and specifically excludes the right of an end user to download the production (compare with digital download rights, below). If you intend to post your production onto a third-party website (YouTube), please so indicate your intent so that appropriate permission is secured.

Digital Download: The right to exhibit the production in a digital format that allows end users to download the production at cost or otherwise. This right is usually bundled with Internet rights, home video/DVD rights or TV rights.

All Digital Media: The right to exhibit the production via electronic and digital devices for individual viewing (such as Internet streaming, digital download, video-on-demand, disc-on-demand) for both digital and physical delivery of the production, whether for exhibition on television, computer, hand-held devices or otherwise. Digital media excludes theatrical exhibition of any kind, television transmission and traditional home video/DVD devices.

All New Media: The right to exhibit the production in any and all new medias, whether now known or hereinafter devised. As you can imagine, all new media encompasses a whole lot! If your distributor requires that you secure new media rights, please advise so that your music supervisor can determine the true breadth of the rights you need.

Brooke Wentz is an award-winning music supervisor and seasoned intellectual property rights executive with more than 20 years experience working in the television, cable, film and recording industries. She is founder of The Rights Workshop.