Lost Creek - A Film by Colin Adams-Toomey

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How To Buy A Song

Welcome back to the Creek!  As we are hard at work finishing up the film, we’ve been going through a process we thought might be interesting to talk about here.  Especially if there are any new filmmakers out there who want to do this and could use some advice…

One of the things we are attempting to do for the film is purchase the rights to use a published song!  This would be a copyrighted song recorded by an artist, signed to a label.  The song we’re acquiring the rights to is “Lost River” by the band Murder by Death.  They’re a fantastic band, we’ve been longtime fans, and the song is PERFECT for the film.  In fact, it actually inspired some of the film!  You can check out more about the band on our website!

But getting the rights to such a song is a weird process, and maybe a little confusing.  Here’s what we learned, if it helps.

So, you’d like to buy a song to use in your film!  Cool!  The first piece of advice we could give is: explore your options.  This might seem a little daunting to a newcomer, something only “big” films would do.  You might assume that it would be far too costly or complicated for a small-time film.

Not necessarily!  It depends on a number of factors.  This is what you should take into consideration:

How big is the song, and how big is the artist and label?  That CAN make a difference.  For example, there are stories out there of how notoriously difficult it was to get the rights for Johnny B. Goode from Chuck Barry for Back to the Future.  He basically demanded an enormous price for the song, and stuck to it.  That can happen.  But if you’re looking at a smaller indie band, you may definitely be in luck.  And who knows?  It’s worth investigating even big songs.  One thing that IS true is that music labels and publishers have come to recognize that there’s a whole spectrum of filmmakers out there, from Spielberg to people like us here at Lost Creek.  They tend to judge price on a sliding scale.  Makes sense: small films can’t afford big prices, but for the label, why would they price small films out of the market?  SOME money is better than NO money at all.

So you’ve found this one song by a band you love, and it would be perfect for your film.  This is what you need to do:

Start by identifying the band’s label.  That can generally be found in the liner notes of the album, or if the band has a website, they’ll generally list those kinds of things.  That’s what we did.  Murder By Death listed a link to their label, Bloodshot Records, on their website.

Basically, you want to get in touch with the person at the label who handles licensing.  Once you’ve found that person, you’re going to need to give them some basic information to get going:

Obviously, identify the band and song you’d like to use.  What you’re looking for from the label are 2 things: the approval of the band to use their music in your film, and what’s called the Master Use rights.  This gives you the right from the label (representing the band) to use that particular master recording.  In order to get that, they will want to know:

Some basics of who you are.  Don’t write a novel about the film to them, but briefly and passionately describe the film, where you’d like to use the song, why that song is perfect for the film.  If you have a website for your film (which you should), provide the link so they can check out more on their own.

They’ll want to know HOW you’re using the song.  Do you intend to distribute the film, are you only showing the film at festivals?  Generally, festival Master Use is cheaper and easier to organize, and we’d recommend that for first-timers.  Distribution means you’re intending to sell the film, which means the label will want to negotiate some sort of royalties off of the film for the band.  Our feeling is, you may not know at this point if the film will sell or not.  If it DOES, you will end up reorganizing with the label or changing your option anyway.  But all you KNOW is that you want to show the film at festivals.  You can organize with them early on what will happen if you sell the film, and this is often called a Step Deal.  Up to you if you want to plunge into that right away, but we recommend one step at a time.

They’ll want to know WHERE you intend to show the film: US, Canada, the world, the universe?  Yes, the universe IS an option.  If your film sells and ends up selected on the trip to Mars, you have to license for outer space!  But to start, decide what festivals you intend to submit to.  If there are any outside of the US, either go for World, or specify the exact countries in which your film will screen.

They’ll want to know HOW LONG you want the rights for.  A month?  A year?  The end of time?  I’d say a year is a good place to start.  That gives you lots of time to show the film, and by the end of the year you’ll know whether you need to renegotiate because your film got sold, or not.

They’ll want to know duration.  How much of the song do you want to use?  Only a piece or Up To Full Use?

That’s the basics.  It helps the label take you seriously if you go into your initial request already able to give them the basic information they need.  They may ask for other things too, so be prepared to tell them.  Once you get approval from the band, the label will start to negotiate for Master Use.  A lot of labels have a basic price for Festival Master Use, and it’s generally not horribly expensive.  Especially if they know you’re low-budget.

So you got the approval of the band, and Master Use rights for the song!  But you’re not done yet.

You need 2 different licenses to use the song legally in your film.  One is Master Use.  The other is a Synchronization License.  This gives you the right to sync the song into your soundtrack, and show the film publicly with the song synced in.  You get a Sync License from the Publisher(s) who control the song.

There are a couple of different ways to find out who the publisher is, and we’d recommend trying more than one.  We found it very difficult to get in touch with publishers, maybe on purpose.  So that they only get serious requests.  One way is to go to ASCAP.

ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers) is a Professional Rights Organization (or PRO, more on that later) that protects members’ musical copyrights.  They have a searchable database online that will tell you basic info on the song you’re looking for, including who the publisher is.  There are at least 3 PROs operating in America, including ASCAP.  If you can’t find your song on ASCAP, check the other two.  They are BMI (Broadcast Music, Incorporated) and SESAC (used to stand for Society of European Stage Authors and Composers, but they don’t use that anymore.  Now SESAC stands for nothing, that’s the full name). 

BUT, sometimes this information is weird or conflicting.  We found this to be the case.  So we’d also recommend going BACK to the band’s website.  They will often list the most up-to-date info on their publisher, and you may get a more direct contact that way.  That’s what we did.  We tried the publisher contact info ASCAP provided, but when we got no response, we found that Murder By Death had a link to a different contact website for their publisher, which turned out to be the best one.

When working with publishers, it will depend on who they are in terms of how easy it is to contact them.  Some have direct phone numbers and emails.  Not all of them do.  The one we worked with, Songs Music Publishing, LLC, did not.  They had an online service where you request a quote and info for your song.  Work however they want you to.

Publishers will want the same basic info labels do, plus a bit more.  They are more concerned with how the song fits into your film, and what they want to know is more specific.  They’ll want to know how long you want to use it, how you want to use it (festival, distribution, etc.) and so forth but they’ll also want to know:

How MUCH of the song you want to use.  All of it?  Some of it?  This can affect price.

Exactly WHERE in the movie the song will be used.  Is it featured?  In the background?  Over beginning or end credits?  Do you use it more than once?  All of these things can affect price.

For both publishers and labels, be as open as you can be, and offer as much information as you can.  Anything from your film’s budget, the screenplay or specific scene over which the song plays, to links to your website, etc.  All of this may make them more willing to work with you, and might reduce the price they ask.

Although our experience was that both labels and publishers are pretty reasonable when it comes to negotiating a price.  The publisher we worked with simply matched the price of the Sync License to the price asked by the label for the Master Use license.  That happened to be their basic policy.

Our other advice is: be persistent.  They may not get back to you at first.  Email them and call them, multiple times.  Keep at it.  Don’t feel bad: you’re trying to do it the right way.  They’re all about protecting their artists and making sure the music doesn’t get pirated.  You’re offering to play ball their way, pay them for the right to use the song!  This is how it went with us.  We had a really hard time getting in contact with the publisher initially, when we tried to fill out their online questionnaire.  We had avoided calling them for a while, as we worried they wouldn’t enjoy an unsolicited call.  But when we DID eventually call them, they were super-nice and got the process started that same day for us.  Note: it definitely helped that we had already contacted the label, got the band’s approval, and set a price for the Master Use license.  That sped the process along considerably with the publisher.

Also, we’d recommend staying away from negotiating the rights for Soundtrack release, at least for your first film.  This would be if you’re planning on releasing the film’s soundtrack to sell, and you’d like to include the song you’re getting the rights to on the soundtrack album.  That involves a lot of royalty negotiations, for which you’d probably want a lawyer.  Up to you if you really want to do it, but for small-time films this may be too much the first time around.

Once you have the rights you need, there may be other requests: offering links online for fans to buy the music from the label, promoting the band through your sources, etc.  I’d say yes to that stuff, why not?  You might get some cool cross-promotion from the band if you link up with them on social media!


There’s a couple of things you’re going to need to take care of.  These will often be specified in your Sync License once you get it.  The first of these is a music cue sheet.

Basically, music cue sheets are for music rights organizations (often called Performing Rights Organizations or PROs).  These are organizations like BMI, or ASCAP.  The music cue sheet details specific information on what music is used in what project, how, and who controls what of the songs.  It’s so that PROs can make sure that compensation is distributed fairly to artists.

This will be more important if your film gets sold.  Once the film starts to make money, some of that money is going to have to go back to music artists as royalties.  Cue sheets help the PROs figure out how much money goes to whom.

A quick search online will get you good templates for a music cue sheet.  Basically the info they will all include is:

The name of the project

What it is (movie, tv show, etc.)

The music cues in order (each song that plays in the movie)

The duration of each music cue

The composer(s), their affiliation (do they belong to a PRO like BMI or ASCAP?), and their percent control over the song

The publisher(s), their affiliation (same thing) and their percent control over the song.

How the music is used

For this last one, music cue sheets generally use a standard code: BV is Background Vocal, BI is Background Instrumental, MT is Main Title, ET is End Title, etc.  Again, this code can be found online.

Most publishers will insist that you make a cue sheet and return it with the signed Sync License, failing to provide a cue sheet can result in the license being voided.  So make sure you do it! 

But the nice thing is that they will also GIVE you all the pertinent info.  They’ll specify artist(s)’ affiliations to PROS, what percentage of the song they own, and they’ll also specify that for the publisher(s).  So all you have to do is take the info they give you and plug it into the cue sheet.

Finally, you need to credit the song properly.  Below is the basic format for a song credit in film:

“Song Title” (in quotations)

Written by: band members.  You can find this info through a PRO like ASCAP, or through the publisher.

Performed by: band name

Courtesy of: label name

By arrangement with: publisher’s name.

Again, the publisher will often spell out the exact details of how the song credit should read.  They’ll often spell that out in the terms of the sync license.  This can be as detailed as exactly how the publisher should be credited, and the order the artists should be credited if there is more than one songwriter.  Make sure you do it exactly how they want, as it is a legal condition for getting the Sync license.

Finally, we’d like to shout out to those who helped us get the rights to “Lost River:” Bloodshot Records, Songs Music Publishing, LLC, and of course the awesome band themselves, Murder By Death!  You can check out more about them at our website, or follow the links to THEIR website as well as platforms where you can buy their awesome music!  You won’t regret it.

Cool guys!  That’s it for now, more soon!

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