15 Jan

Music Rights and Wrongs: How to Build a Sustainable Career as a Film Composer

When you’re first starting out in your career as a composer, especially if you’re working in the world of independent film, you’re faced with a variety of questions that you might not always know the answer to:

  • What kind of deal will you make regarding ownership and rights to your music?
  • Will this be a “work-for-hire,” where you don’t own the copyright and/or publishing?
  • Will it be a synchronization deal, where you own the copyright and provide a license to use your music within certain parameters

Many filmmakers aren’t familiar with the way copyright, publishing, and synchronization rights work in music, so it’s up to you to advocate for your rights. What’s important to remember: most independent filmmakers do not need to own or even control the rights to the music in the film in order to have what they need to distribute the film with your wonderful original score.

The concept of work for hire came into being during the heyday of the Hollywood studios because they actually had music departments with composers as salaried employees. These departments included support staff, engineers and musicians, and all expenses were paid by the studios to complete the score. Whatever was created in that context was a work-for-hire owned by the studio.

In today’s world of package deals, composers often function as independent contractors who agree to deliver a final product on a fixed budget. In this context, it’s fair to say composers own what they create and can negotiate those rights based on what they get in return. An ample budget that includes enough money to pay the composer and the production costs might make a work-for-hire deal attractive. And, if there’s likely to be significant royalties from broadcasts or theatrical distribution, composers should feel free to be open to negotiating and giving up some rights.

Remember, there is room for negotiation, especially in independent film where budgets are limited, but not necessarily a reason for a composer to give up their music rights by accepting a work-for-hire deal.

Filmmakers need to know that they do not pay music performance royalties. Broadcasters (including radio, and in some cases, internet providers), theater owners, and live venues do. Professional songwriters, composers and publishers affiliate with a Performing Rights Organization, granting permission to collect music performance royalties on their behalf.

Royalty income derives from fees paid by PROs then distribute the funds to music creators and royalties based on the number and types of performances and music cue sheets provide the information needed to collect these royalties. PROs require that the production company provide Cue Sheets, but Composers or music editors should prepare the information. If the production company wants to use their own staff, be sure and ask for a copy to review for accuracy. Your royalty income is based on the Cue Sheet Info, so it’s critical that these be accurate.

As music budgets have gone down in a tough economy, more and more music creators rely on the backend royalties to stay in business.

How much income depends on the success of a film and is paid out based on the way the writers’ and publishers’ shares are split.

For a filmmaker, this can work to their advantage and may help start conversations with composers that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford. There is room for negotiation & these are the questions that filmmakers should ask themselves:

  • Do you really need to own the music by using a Work-for-Hire Agreement?
  • Do you even have a functioning publishing company?
  • If you don’t, then a well negotiated Synchronization Rights Agreement and Master Use Agreement will get you what you need.
  • Synch Rights grant a publishing license to use the compositions in the score, and a Master Use Agreement grants the rights to use the recorded music.

There are negotiable aspects to these agreements as well:

  • Are the music rights exclusive to this film?
  • Is there a time limit on that exclusivity?
  • How many years before the composer can re-purpose that music, if ever?
  • How else is a filmmaker allowed to use the music—for ads, or different versions of the film? Or even for another project?

These should all be discussed and agreed upon prior to working together.

By negotiating these issues and creating a win/win, both the filmmaker and composer can help to invest in a film’s success – and therefore their own success.

As the adage goes, “knowledge is power”. Understanding the real-world value of music and the laws governing music rights is a fundamental part of building a sustainable career as a film composer.