Your song into films: fee, copyright

You Oughta Be In Pictures

By Sandy Tanaka

Getting your songs into films is a hit-and-miss process. Having the right song for the right scene, and getting your song to the right person who can put your song into that right scene, is a rare occurrence, indeed. But song placement can be lucrative. Fees can range from no payment at all (this usually happens with unknown artists trying to get their foot in the door), to $100,000 for the more popular artists. Placing your song in a film can give you something to put on your resume, contacts to keep in touch with, and the feeling of satisfaction that your song has found a use other than sitting in your cassette rack.

How to get your song ready
First and foremost, you must make sure that when the opportunity arises, your song is ready to be used—no delays, no excuses—because in film, deadlines are crucial. There is rarely time to re-record your song. So, your song must be master quality, meaning quality production ( no cheesy Casio please), and as close to finished as possible. Don't bank on the director being able to share your vision of a 40-piece orchestral masterpiece from your acoustic guitar and vocal demo. You must be ready to deliver your song on DAT or CD at a moment's notice.

Will someone actually talk to me?
Your song needs to get to the music supervisor (he/she coordinates all music aspects of the film), or the director (he/she has a specific vision for each scene), or the producers (they often hold creative and monetary power), or the editor (they often use whatever music they have to cut the picture to), or anyone who can deliver your song to a decision-making hand. If you are professional and polite and generally knowledgeable, you can get these people on the phone and begin to establish relationships. And remember, assistants work very closely with the people in control described above, and in many instances, go on to become those very people.

Know your song.
So, you get someone on the phone and they start to ask you questions: Did you write the song? Is it copyrighted? Do you have co-writers, and if so, how is the song split percentage-wise? Do you have the right to quote a fee on behalf of them? Who owns the master? Are there any samples? How is your publishing company set up? And that's only the beginning!

There are two parts to licensing a song. Synchronization and Master Use. Sync means that you wrote the song and you have the right to license your song. Master Use refers to the actual physical recording—the owner is most likely the person who paid for the recording. If you own your own master, you can negotiate for that half also. If the master owner of your song is a studio owner that has since gone bankrupt and moved to Havana, forget it. No one has the time to hunt him down in order to give him money. And remember, when a film licenses your song, you are not giving them ownership, they are basically renting it from you for a fee.

How your song is chosen.
If your song is good and well-produced, it will have a better chance at prime placement, perhaps used at an opening or end title or a montage sequence. Or, it could be a great song and be put in a less desirable slot—a car door opens, you hear your song for five seconds, the car door slams.

Songs that are just okay also have a chance at being placed, because sometimes, the film just needs a song for mood that does not interfere with dialogue. Many songs get rejected because they interfere with the dialogue instead of supporting and/or adding to it.

You agree on a fee. Usually you do not get paid until the film is released, because, although you sign contracts, there is still a chance that your song may get replaced all the way up until the film release date. Ask for a copy of the music cue sheet. This document lists all the songs, timings, types of cues and writer/publisher information. The cue sheet is the document that is sent to the performance rights societies (ASCAP or BMI) who in turn pay you performance royalties. When that film is released in other countries, you will be due money.

This information just scratches the surface, but it does provide some useful, information regarding the placement of your songs in films. Every situation is different and the legalities can be confusing. It is not okay to be ignorant, so ask questions. Remember, getting songs into films is not your living, it is just one outlet for your songs. Songwriting is your living!

Sandy Tanaka has worked in music supervision for six years, coordinating music for films such as Married To The Mob, Colors, Swimming With Sharks and Ice Cube's new film, The Player's Club. She is also a member of the TAXI A&R staff.

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