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  • Writer's pictureLindsay Spiller

A Guide to Music Licensing for Independent Filmmakers

Updated: Dec 31

A photo of a legal file named "music licensing"


For independent filmmakers, music is a crucial element that can elevate the emotion and impact of a film. However, using music in your film requires navigating the complex world of music licensing. In this blog post, we will discuss the process involved in licensing synch rights and master use rights, how to find the rights owners, what to expect regarding cost, the typical time frame for obtaining a license, and how long the license lasts.

Understanding Music Licensing Terms

Before diving into the process, it's essential to familiarize yourself with some key terms:

  1. Music Licensing: The process of obtaining permission from rights holders to use copyrighted music in a film, commercial, or other media production.

  2. Music Lawyer: An attorney specializing in the music industry's legal aspects, including contract negotiation and copyright law.

  3. Synchronization License (Synch License): A license that grants permission to use a specific song or musical composition in synchronization with visual media, such as a film, TV show, or commercial.

  4. Master Use License: A license that grants permission to use a specific song recording in visual media. This license is separate from the synch license and must be obtained from the owner of the recording, which is usually a record label or the artist.

  5. Rights Owners: The parties who own the copyright to a song or recording, such as the songwriter, music publisher, and record label.

The Licensing Process: Synch Rights and Master Use Rights

When licensing music for your independent film, you must obtain two separate licenses: a synchronization (synch) license and a master use license.

  1. Synchronization License: The synch license grants permission to use a specific song or musical composition in your film. To obtain a synch license, you need to contact the music publisher, which represents the songwriter(s) and owns the copyright to the musical composition. The music publisher may be a large company like Warner/Chappell or Sony/ATV, or it could be the songwriter themselves if they have retained the rights.

  2. Master Use License: The master use license grants permission to use a specific song recording in your film. This license is separate from the synch license and must be obtained from the owner of the recording. This is usually the record label, but it could also be the artist themselves if they are independent or have retained the rights to their recordings.

Steps to Obtain Music Licensing

  1. Identify the music you want to use: Choose the songs or compositions you want to include in your film, ensuring they align with your film's tone, theme, and budget.

  2. Research the rights owners: Find out who owns the rights to the music you want to use. This information can usually be found through online databases, such as ASCAP, BMI, or SESAC, or by reaching out to the artist or their management.

  3. Contact the rights owners: Reach out to the music publisher (for the synch license) and the record label or artist (for the master use license) to request permission to use the music in your film.

  4. Negotiate the terms: Discuss the license terms, including the scope of usage (e.g., territory, media, duration) and the fees involved. It's a good idea to consult a music lawyer to ensure you get a fair deal and help with contract negotiations.

  5. Finalize the agreement: Once both parties have agreed on the terms, sign the contract and make the necessary payments to secure the licenses.

Cost of Music Licensing

The cost of licensing music for your independent film can vary greatly, depending on factors such as the song or artist's popularity, the music's intended use, and the license's scope. For synch, license fees can range from a few hundred dollars for lesser-known songs or compositions to tens of thousands of dollars for popular, well-established tracks. Similarly, master use license fees can vary widely, depending on the notoriety of the recording and the artist.

For independent filmmakers working with a limited budget, you must be realistic about the music you can afford to license. Consider using lesser-known artists or tracks, which can be more affordable and help bring unique, undiscovered talent to your film.

Time Frame for Obtaining a License

The time it takes to obtain a music license can vary depending on the rights owners' responsiveness and the negotiation process's complexity. Generally, allowing at least a few weeks to obtain the necessary licenses is a good idea. However, the process can take several months, especially if you're dealing with high-profile artists, publishers, or record labels.

To expedite the process, provide all the necessary information when contacting the rights owners, such as a brief description of your film, how the music will be used, and your proposed terms for the license. Working with a music lawyer can also help streamline the process and ensure your requests are handled professionally and efficiently.

Duration of the License

The duration of a music license is typically determined through negotiation between the filmmaker and the rights owners. Some licenses may be granted for a specific period, such as one year, while others may cover the entire life of the film. It's essential to clarify the license duration during the negotiation process and ensure that it aligns with your intended use of the music.

In some cases, rights owners may also impose restrictions on the license, such as limiting the territory where the film can be shown or the media in which the music can be used. Discuss these terms during the negotiation and adjust your expectations and plans accordingly.


Licensing music for your independent film is a critical process that requires careful planning, research, and negotiation. By understanding the different types of licenses involved, identifying the rights owners, and working with a music lawyer, you can successfully secure the music that best fits your film's vision and budget. Keep in mind the time frame for obtaining a license and the duration of the license, and always be prepared to adjust your plans if necessary. By following these steps, you can ensure a smooth and successful music licensing process for your independent film project.

Spiller Law is an advisor to startup businesses, entertainment and media companies, and artists. Feel free to schedule a free consultation.


Spiller Law is a San Francisco business and entertainment law firm. We serve clients in the San Francisco Bay Area, Silicon Valley, Los Angeles, and California. Feel free to arrange a free consultation using the Schedule Appointment link on our website. For other questions, feel free to call our offices at 415-991-7298.


The information provided in this article is for general informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice or opinion. Readers are advised to consult with their legal counsel for specific advice.


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