The Sound of Sync – Securing Songs for Films!

The worlds of music and film have been intertwined… well, pretty much forever, actually. Ever since we first developed the idea of “moving pictures”, there’s been someone with the equal idea of giving that experience a soundtrack, even before the films themselves had the ability. Nowadays, that “idea” is a massive sub-industry in commercial media, and navigating it can prove very difficult for independent and starting-out filmmakers who want their films to sound as good as they look.

Well, here at The Filmmaker’s Podcast, we’re all about making difficult things easy to understand, so we’ve once again taken it upon ourselves to delve into this complicated topic. But lesson one of the film industry is simple – “don’t be afraid to ask for help”. This is a much bigger topic than explaining jargon or exploring the history of filmmaking, so we’ve reached out to some friends of ours who can help us explain. We’ve put this blog together with the help of Heartstopper Records; they’re a Music Publisher, and friends of The Filmmakers Podcast. This isn’t a sponsored deal, we’ve not been paid in any way to write this – they just got in touch asking if we’d be interested in discussing Sync and licensing, and we said “yes”! 

With that out the way, let’s get on with things, shall we?

What is Sync?

OK, we can’t get on with things quite yet, sorry. Before we dive into Sync for film, we have to clarify what that term actually means, and which particular aspects of it we’re going to be focusing on today. Sync is shorthand for “Synchronisation” – synchronising recorded music with visual media. Like most things in film, it’s got its roots in pre-digital necessities – making sure everything was on-beat was a lot more of a task when you were physically juggling film reels! Sync takes two major forms in the film industry, of which we’re only going to focus on one today; using existing, already-recorded music in your film. Hiring composers and songwriters to make soundtracks is still very much Sync, but it’s a very different process and isn’t usually a concern until a filmmaker is more established in their career – Giles didn’t get his first custom-written soundtrack until The Dare in 2019 after he’d got a whole host of different credits in Directing and Producing under his belt. So, we’re going to focus on discovering music rather than creating it.

Let’s say you’ve got a film, and you’ve just found the perfect song for your pivotal moment. Let’s use Living the Dream by Ruby Rogers, one of Heartstopper’s artists, as an example. How do you go about making sure that you’ve got all the permissions necessary to use Living the Dream to make your big moment shine? Well, there are a few steps to it, but the first is pretty simple – who’s able to give you those permissions? 

Sound Mixing for The Dare
Even in modern films, sound and visuals are recorded separately; the sync up is no easy task!

Step 1. Identify the Rightsholder 

If you want to license a song for commercial use, the key person you need to speak to is the copyright holder. Note the specific wording there, it’s important; “copyright holder” and “person who made the song” aren’t necessarily the same person.

The way Music Publishing works is that an artist signs with a publisher, whose job it is to find uses for songs that the artist writes. That can take a variety of forms – the most “visible” one is getting the artist signed with a record label, but it can be a wide-ranging remit including films, adverts, TV, video games, and even public usage in things like shopping centres ambient music. In order to do this, the artist grants the publisher temporary ownership of the copyright for their songs, and the ability to negotiate for them in deals regarding that copyright. That means that unless you’re looking to use songs from small, unestablished artists, you’re going to need to identify their publisher if you want to be granted the necessary permissions.

The majority of artists over a certain size are going to be represented by a publisher in some fashion; there are a few relatively well-known artists who might handle their own licensing rights, but generally, once you get into the “serious” stage of music as a career most bands and musicians will be looking for publishing representation ASAP, so you’ll have to find it too. Honestly, Google is your best friend here; most Music Publishers will have the various artists they represent listed on their website (here’s Heartstopper’s, for example), so a quick search for the artist’s name, perhaps with “publisher” appended as well, will often bring up what you need without too much hassle. If you’re still struggling, have a look at the artist’s websites or social media directly – if they don’t have a direct contact for them, they’ll often have a contact of some form listed who you can get in touch with to be pointed in the right direction!

Our sample band for this article is London-based Ruby Rogers, lovers of a moody band shot!

Step 2. How Do You Want to Use the Song? 

A common misconception about music licensing, especially among independent content creators, is that if you want to use a song, you have to use it “as-is” i.e. you have to take the recording of the song, tune, lyrics and all, and drop it into your film. That’s one way of doing licensing, certainly, and it’s common in advertising – sometimes organisations even specifically commission a cover of a song to fit the theme of their campaign – but it’s far from the only way to license out music.

You can license practically any element of a piece of music out for commercial use – just the vocals, just the melody, just the hook, just the bass (and have a listen to Living the Dream and tell us you don’t want to use that bassline somewhere); if it’s audible, it can be isolated, and you can ask for it. You can also strike a licensing deal that includes the “stems” to a song – the individual audio files that are mixed together to create the final product – allowing you to mix and match them as you see fit. Everything’s on the table to be discussed; you just have to be clear about what you’re asking for. 

Step 3. Find Your Contact 

Now, this is where things can start getting tricky in the Sync and licensing process – finding a contact can be “easier said, than done”, for a number of reasons. Firstly, it can be difficult to figure out just who you need to approach, even if you’ve identified the publisher. For an independent publisher like Heartstopper, you’ll get straight to the top just by using their online contact form, but for bigger players who control the rights for established artists, you have a maze of bureaucracy to contend with. Larger publishers will start to have split things into separate departments and areas; they’ll Account Managers and other representatives for the various artists under their purview, each with their own little portfolio. The closer you can get to the correct contact first-off, the better the chance you have of securing their attention, and with it rights you’re looking for.

There’s no easy way to find these people, unfortunately – sometimes a publisher might have their specific reps for each act listed on their website, sometimes you just have to know people who know people who know people, and so on. This is one of those situations where even in low-budget indie films, it can pay to invest in a role that’s called a Music Supervisor. These are people whose literal job is to find the right music for a piece of media, and source the rights for it; for example, the absurdly good soundtrack for The Umbrella Academy? Put together by Jenna Malone. She’s just one better-known example of a thriving professional industry all about finding the right music for your work. That extra little black book of contacts that a Music Supervisor brings to the table can make all the difference in your musical pursuits for your film, and we’ve yet to meet a filmmaker who says they weren’t worth the investment!

As long as the Film world exists, so will the world of Sync – they’re a natural partnership that go hand-in-hand!

Step 4. Make the Approach 

So, now you’ve got all that information to hand, it’s time to make use of it! Even with all the right information to hand, going to the right person, how you go about your initial approach makes all the difference in the world. If you’ve got a Music Supervisor, this is where they shine; you just need to get out of the way and let them do their job. If your budget can’t stretch for one, or you’re looking to do things yourself, though, there are a few things you need to make sure you’re doing to maximise your chances of getting attention:

Ask Up-Front – Publishers deal with a lot of requests regarding the music they manage, each of them different; they don’t want to dig through half a page of text to figure out what exactly you’re trying to talk to them about. The song you want the rights for, and what you want to use that song in, should be one of the first things said after “Hello” in any initial message, and should probably be in the title of any first email.

Be Clear About What You’re Asking For – Are you just looking to use the song as a whole? Do you want the stems as well? Do you want to remix the song? The different elements of usage mean a very different process on the publisher’s part depending on what you’re asking for; don’t let that piece of information sit at the wayside.

Make an Offer, Not a Request – Publishing is a business, and publishers are out to get the best deal possible for the acts they represent. That means you have to have something to bring to the table beyond “we think this is a great song and we’d love to use it” if you want to maximise your chances of securing the rights. Note that we emphatically don’t mean “Be prepared to pay lots and lots of money”; whilst usually you’ll have to pay something, just because giving rights away for free makes things complicated legally, there’s been plenty of high-profile music that’s been licensed out for as little as $1, purely because the artist and publisher thought that the filmmaker was creating something worth supporting. Sell yourself a little, don’t just say “can we use this?”.

If you can ensure you’re covering those three areas and presenting yourself well, you’ve got a much better chance of getting a publisher’s attention rather than falling into the piles of emails they might receive daily. But, you’re not quite done yet…

Step 5. Negotiate

Like we said, publishing is a business, and businesses negotiate contracts. This is by the far the hardest step of the process, but frustratingly it’s the one we can give the least advice about. Know what you’re after, and know what you’re willing to give for it, but be prepared for the back-and-forth, and be prepared to be flexible where you need to be. Once all that’s done, and the ink’s on the paper, congratulations, you’ve secured the rights to the song! There’s still one last thing you need to do, though, and it’s one that often gets ignored when it really shouldn’t.

Ruby Rogers’ Debut EP is available on all streaming platforms – have a listen!

Step 6. Promote It!

One thing both musicians, publishers and filmmakers alike forget is that music licensing isn’t just a transaction – it’s a promotional opportunity.

Whether you’re working with an established filmmaker as a small musical act, a big-name performer as a small-scale filmmaker, or any combination in-between, securing a license to use an act’s music is an opportunity for you both to capitalise on each other’s audiences. It doesn’t have to be much – a few well-placed tweets, an Instagram photo here and there – but it can count for a lot; you never know which’ll be the post that goes viral, and the more people you can reach, the better your chances. No matter how you go about it, though, you want to be doing it – cross-promotion between you and the artist you’re working with is only going to expose you both to new audiences and potential viewers.

So, there you have it – a quick guide to finding, securing, and making the most of the rights for the music that’ll make your work shine! A big thanks to the guys from Heartstopper and Ruby Rogers for helping us wade our way through the world of Sync – check them both out!

As with everything in film, the actual process is often a lot more complicated than just these simple steps – but as long as you know what to expect of the process going in, you’re arming yourself with knowledge that gives you the best chance of making the best film you can.

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