10 Things You Need to Know About Placing Music on TV and in Films

Posted in Songwriter 101 on April 25, 2014 by

You want every chance to generate income from your music, and while mechanical royalties (for sales of tangible product and digital downloads) have diminished, there are more opportunities than ever to have your music heard on television and in movies. In addition to the financial benefit, for songwriters who are also recording artists, prominent placements in TV shows and films can help expand your fan base, in addition to looking great on a resume.

But there are additional reasons to place songs on television and in movies. In many genres, such as rock, singer/songwriter, alternative rock, pop, R&B, hip-hop, instrumental, and Americana music, it’s very tough to place “outside songs” – songs not written or co-written by the artist or producer. It’s also tough to place songs that sound as if they belong in another era—for example, Patsy Cline, 1940s swing music, or psychedelic rock from 1968.

But movies and TV shows need songs in all of these genres—and more, as well as music that sounds as if it’s from various decades. It’s hard to think of any style that isn’t used in television shows and films—and if the music is right, it doesn’t matter how old you are, where you live, or what you look like.

Where Do the Songs Used in the Background Come From?

You might be surprised to learn that a tremendous amount of the background music on your favorite TV shows and movies is derived from songwriters’ demos and from artists’ independent releases. I’m not referring to the instrumental music composed specifically to underscore a scene—but to the vocal and instrumental pieces heard in the background on television shows and in movies.

If you write songs in the hopes that artists other than you will record them, then films and TV shows offer an outlet for your song demos. If you’re a recording artist, as well as a songwriter, we’re talking about placing recordings from your own albums—including albums you’ve produced independently. Composers of instrumental music can also find a market for their music on TV shows and in movies.

When used in TV shows and movies these pieces of music are referred to as cues—and are often used as what is known as source music.

What is Source Music?

Source music is any music in a TV show or film that seems to be emanating from a tangible, physical source within the scene. For instance, the song playing in a disco or honkytonk; music that seems to be coming from a jukebox; or the song heard when a character puts a CD in his or her stereo, switches on the car radio, or puts on the headphones from an iPod. Source music can also be an actual performance, such as a band playing on a stage.

Placing this kind of music is typically the easiest way to break in. It’s much easier to get 12 seconds of your song in the background of a TV show than to get Rihanna or Tim McGraw to record it.

Which Lyrics, Styles, and Tempos Work Best?

There’s a huge misconception about the kinds of lyrics and tempos that tend to be best suited for television and film placement. When I hear depressing, self-absorbed, non-commercial music and I ask, “What do you hope to do with this?” the answer is invariably, “I’ll place it in a TV show or a movie.”

Mournful, slow ballads are actually the hardest songs to place for TV/Film. (They’re the hardest to place with recording artists, too – but that’s another topic.)

I consistently hear music supervisors and those who work at music libraries state that they look for songs that are similar to current hits—or classic songs—but without the high price tags these songs typically command. It can be effective to evoke the mood and feeling of these songs—but without copying them—or being a sound-alike.

The lyric themes most in demand for television and films express universal concepts and emotions such as some aspect of love. Other popular lyric topics include “let’s get started,” “it’s a new beginning,” “I’m gonna make it,” “things are gonna be great,” “feels so good,” and “enjoying life.”

Mentioning proper names, places, and specific details incurs the risk of conflicting with something in the script. It’s best to address emotions that are frequently expressed—things millions of people relate to—while saying them in a way that does not exclude too many scenarios.

But … this is not a license to settle for overused clichés. As in all songwriting, to separate your song from the pack it’s important to include fresh, original images and approaches. Also, note that if your lyric includes language that might be offensive for some uses, have an alternate, clean version available.

How Good Does the Recording Have to Be?

In most instances, the actual recording you submit is what will be used in the film or TV show. It will not be re-recorded. The primary exceptions are songs that play over the credits at the beginning or the end of a big Hollywood movie; the opening or closing of a TV show; or a song included in a commercial.

In these instances, a new version of the song might be recorded. For example, Celine Dion might be hired to record the song to be used as the credits roll during the sequel to Titanic.

But typically, the music you submit will be used “as is.” That’s why the musicianship, the vocals, and the overall sonic quality has to sound almost indistinguishable from the songs you hear on the radio. This is sometimes referred to as broadcast quality.

Can you Produce Broadcast Quality Recordings at Home?

Many people can, and much of the music heard on TV shows and in movies is indeed produced in home studios. To generate recordings that sound good enough to be placed in television shows and films, you need the capability to record, engineer, and mix your own tracks to the professional standard—as well as create and execute the parts and performances that the best musicians and singers can perform.

Thanks to the Internet, top-notch musicians and vocalists are available to you regardless of where you live. By searching online you can find musicians and singers who will record in their own studios and send you the files.

The key is to be sure that when it’s finished—regardless of where it was recorded—the vocals sound as good as the artists on the radio, and the musicians’ performances—and the parts they play—sound as good as those heard on current hits.

What is the Role of a Music Supervisor?

The music supervisor meets with the director to identify where songs might augment and underscore the emotion of the scenes, as well as to identify the source music that is needed, such as songs coming from a car radio or a jukebox. Then his or her job is to find songs that express the director’s vision—while being certain those songs can be licensed—and are within the production’s music budget.

Most music supervisors compile enormous amounts of music from artists, writers, and music publishers. They review the songs in their catalog that they believe might work for the current project, and they put the word out to music publishers, writers and artists with whom they have established relationships.

After narrowing down the options, they present the director with multiple choices for each place that music is needed. So … the music supervisor is essentially the gatekeeper who you’ll have to get past in order for the director to consider your work.

What’s a Music Library?

Music libraries (sometimes referred to as production music libraries) are essentially music publishers, but instead of pitching songs to recording artists, they pitch and license songs and instrumental pieces for television shows, movies, commercials, and video games. The top music libraries have catalogs comprised of tens of thousands of songs and instrumental cues.

Some of the larger music libraries contract composers to provide large quantities of material; other companies acquire music one composition at a time. Composers who earn their living from writing instrumental cues often say that it’s “a numbers game,” and many of them have 1,000 or more different pieces placed with libraries.

When choosing a company to work with, one consideration is the length of time your song will be tied up. When you place a song with a music library, the contract will usually have a time limit—for example, two, three, or five years.

Another important consideration is whether the agreement is exclusive or nonexclusive. When you sign an exclusive agreement, you’re giving up the right to have any other company represent your song during the term of the contract.

For nonexclusive deals, the music library typically re-titles your song and registers the new title with your performing rights organization. This allows the PRO to identify the placements that the library secured—and pay them only for those.

The music library will typically keep 50% of any sync and master use licensing fees it secures, as well as the publisher’s share—50%–of any performance royalties generated as a result of their placing the song in a TV show, film, or other media.

What Rights and Payments Are Required for Film/TV Placements?

Two different rights must be granted for a song to be included in a television show or movie:

• A synchronization license (typically called a sync license) is issued to grant permission to use the underlying song. This license is issued by the song’s publisher.
• A master use license is issued by the owner of the recording, granting the right to use the specific recording of the song.
• For example, when songs I co-wrote for Britney Spears were included in television shows, permission to include the songs was granted by my publisher, Zomba Music—but permission to use Britney’s recordings was issued by the owner of the recordings—Jive Records.

The sync license and master use license are often each referred to as a side. In many instances, the sync and the master use licenses are combined into an all-in license. This simplifies the licensing process, and one payment is typically made for both the sync fee and the master use fee. In most instances, the fees for both sides are equal.

The licensing fee is determined by factors including the production’s budget; how the song will be used; how much of the song will be played; and how important the song is to the project.

In addition to money earned from sync and master use licensing, after television shows air, the performing rights organizations pay a performance royalty to the publishers and songwriters. The amount of performance royalties earned when a song airs on TV is determined by factors including: the licensing fees paid by the station (with major networks paying the highest fees); the length of the music cue; how the song is used; whether it is vocal or instrumental; and the time of day that it airs.

Note that when songs included in movies play in theaters, performance royalties are paid only for screenings outside the U.S. However, if the movie subsequently airs on television, the songs and instrumental cues in its soundtrack do earn performance royalties.

Songs and instrumental pieces represented by music supervisors, and those included in music libraries, typically must be pre-cleared—meaning that all copyright owners agree to—and have the right to—issue synchronization and master use licenses.

If, for example, there are multiple publishers, and one of the publishers says “no,” the remaining publishers will not be able to issue the sync license. If you—or any of your song’s co-writers—are signed to a publishing agreement, you will not be able to pre-clear your published songs or place them with a music library.

Also note that if your recording includes samples from other artists’ recordings it will not be possible to pre-clear them for use in television and films. However, it is not a problem to include pre-recorded loops that come with programs such as Garageband.

Do You Really Own All Rights to Your Recording?

You paid for the studio, the engineer, the musicians, and the vocalists—so now you own the finished recording, and have the right to license it for inclusion in TV and films—right? Not necessarily.

If you recorded the song in your home studio, played or programmed all the instruments, and sang the vocals, you clearly have the right to license your recording. But … if you hire a singer and/or musicians, you can only use their recorded performances in TV shows or films if they have granted you permission to do so. If you hire someone to produce your recording—or use a demo service to fulfill that function—you’ll need their permission as well.

The solution is to have all musicians, vocalists, and producers sign a work for hire agreement—a document that you and the performers sign, stating that in exchange for payment, you own all rights to the performance—including the right to license the recording for television and film, and that the performer is not entitled to any additional compensation. This agreement is sometimes called a musicians’ or vocalists’ waiver.

As an incentive, you might consider offering to pay your vocalist a percentage of any income you earn from master use licensing. Note that if you record demos in Nashville with musicians and/or vocalists who are members of their respective unions—they are not permitted to sign a waiver or a work for hire agreement. Your option is to upgrade their payment according to the rules prescribed by their union.

A work for hire agreement is included in my instructional audio CD Placing Music in TV & Films and in my book This Business Of Songwriting, Revised 2nd Edition.

How Do You Secure Film and TV Placements?

Presuming you can pre-clear your songs and recordings, you will want to get them to music supervisors and music libraries. Music libraries acquire a tremendous amount of their material from independent songwriters and composers (meaning writers who are not signed to publishing deals) and from artists who produce their own independently released CDs. Therefore, many of them are open to receiving unsolicited material. It is typically tougher to find an open door with a music supervisor—unless you have established credits.

An online search will yield listings of music libraries. In most instances, their submission policies are listed on their website. In some cases, you’ll be able to instantly begin the process of submitting your material. Other times, you’ll need to request permission to have your music considered for representation.

The Film & Television Music Guide ( provides an extensive listing of music libraries and music supervisors, including their contact information.

Music Library Report ( offers a listing of hundreds of music libraries, along with contact information, submission policies, and more.

Another option is to use tip sheets and pitch services. A tip sheet is a document that lists companies seeking music; the kinds of music they’re looking for; and information about how to contact them and submit your work.

Cue Sheet ( is a tip sheet that focuses exclusively on TV and film music.

Taxi ( and Broadjam ( are companies that, among other services, provide listings of television and film music pitching opportunities to their members.

Taxi members have the option to upgrade to a service called Taxi Dispatch for an additional fee. This provides additional listings of film & TV projects seeking music—typically projects that require music on very tight deadlines.

Additionally, by reading trade publications such as Variety and The Hollywood Reporter you can learn about upcoming television and film productions. This information can also be gleaned at the website IMDb (

It’s always best to ask how the recipient would like to receive your music. Many music supervisors prefer links rather than CDs or MP3s; or they might want you to submit your music through websites such as yousendit or dropbox that zip large amounts of data.

When sending your song digitally—whether it’s for TV, film, or any other purpose—it’s important to embed your contact information into your song files. Metadata refers to information embedded into a digital file. Music supervisors and other industry pros always want this so they can instantly identify where a song came from and how to contact the sender. Free (or inexpensive) programs are available that enable you to embed metadata.

Submitting your work to a music library can be a time-consuming process. You might be asked to describe:

• The tempo
• The type of vocal (male, female, solo, choir, etc…)
• The style
• Mood
• Instrumentation
• Artists the song sounds like
• Lyric themes

The reason they require so much information is that most music libraries have databases that are capable of sorting the songs in their catalogs according to key words. In many instances, music supervisors can access the libraries’ catalogs online to review songs.

Those songwriters and instrumental composers who have the most success tend to have many songs placed with various libraries and/or music supervisors. Placing your songs in TV shows and films requires hard work, but it can be a great way to earn credibility, new fans—and income.

Good luck!

Jason Blume is the author of 6 Steps to Songwriting Success, This Business of Songwriting, and Inside Songwriting (all published by Billboard Books), and he has produced a series of instructional songwriting audio CDs available at his website. His songs are on albums that have sold more than 50 million copies, and he is among the few writers to ever have his songs on Billboard’s pop, R&B, and country charts all at the same time. Jason’s songs have been recorded by diverse artists including Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys, Jesse McCartney, the Nashville Chamber Orchestra, and country music stars including the Oak Ridge Boys, John Berry (earning a BMI Million-Air Award for exceeding one million airplays), and Collin Raye (6 cuts). In the past year he has had three top 10 singles and a “Gold” record in Europe with Dutch star, BYentl.

His songs have been included in television shows including “Scrubs,” “Friday Night Lights,” “The Guiding Light,” Disney’s “Kim Possible,” and “the Miss America Pageant,” and movies including “Assassination Games,” “First Kid,” “Swimming with the Fishes,” “The Monkey King,” “Dangerous Minds,” and many more. He studied television and film composing at U.C.L.A., and received an area Emmy Award for contributing songs and background score to PBS Frontline’s “Whatever Happened to Childhood.”

In addition to developing and teaching the BMI Nashville Songwriters Workshop, Blume has presented master classes at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts (founded by Sir Paul McCartney), and in Ireland, New Zealand, Scandinavia, Australia, Canada, Bermuda, Jamaica, and throughout the U.S., in addition to co-leading the Nashville Songwriters Association’s annual song camps. His latest book, This Business of Songwriting, Revised 2nd Edition has just been released and is available at, with e-books available at


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