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How to License Your Music - Beginner’s Guide to Licensing Songs Online

music licensing Nov 12, 2019

Do you want to know how to license your music? Whether you dream of learning how to license your music for film and tv, or just need to earn a little income on the side, licensing your music can be incredibly rewarding.

Just a quick note about music licensing, though - it’s not a “get rich quick” scheme or a road to instant fame. but if you keep at it, you will find success.

This guide on how to license your music will cover the following topics:

  • An Overview of Music Licensing
  • What is Sync Licensing?
  • How to Write a Song that Can be Licensed
  • How to Record a Song for Licensing
  • Mix & Master your song for Licensing
  • Creating Alternate Mixes
  • Getting Your Songs Ready for Licensing
  • Where to License Your Music - Including the Best Sites to License Your Music
  • How to upload and tag the song with keywords
  • How to license your music for film and TV
  • Earn more money from licensing your music by registering with a Performing Rights Organization
  • Promote the song through social media and start selling songs!

That’s it! Interested in learning how start licensing your music this week so you can start earning money from your music? Click here to join a free five-day music licensing crash course.

Up until a few years ago, I didn’t have a clue where to start or what to do. I had some vague notion along the lines of:

  1. Record songs
  2. ?????
  3. Profit!

Through a lot of hard work, I figured out how to license my music! Since then, I've earned over $10,000, had placements on TV and Netflix, and just feel damn good about myself. That's why I think music licensing is one of the best side jobs for musicians.

So let’s break out the steps of the process and build you a quick road map to get you started with stock music licensing side hustle. 

How Does Music Licensing Work?

Here is a big picture overview of the way music licensing works. You upload a song that you've created (and own) to a music licensing website. You then describe your song and add additional keywords the potential clients can use to find the song.

Then clients from around the world, ranging from TV sound editors to YouTubers to pod casters to video game designers, search the website. They may be looking for something like "energetic EDM upbeat" or "nu-metal mariachi tango." Basically, sync licensing websites work a lot like eBay!

If the client decides to purchase your music, these websites provide them a sync license for your music. Basically, the website receives an upfront fee from the client for the right to use your music in their project. The website takes a commission of this fee, typically between 40-60%, and then you get the remainder.

If you're lucky and track you licensed gets placed on TV, you may also be entitled to backend performance royalties, which can total thousands of dollars!

What is Sync Licensing?

The technical term for what we're talking about here is creating sync licensing music. So what is sync licensing? Basically, as the owner of your music, you have the right to choose how it's used. Just like a celebrity has a right to be paid for using their image to endorse a product, music owners have a right to be paid for the use of their music when it is used for something like a YouTube video.

This payment is called a sync fee. And it's separate from other royalties. 

You may have heard of the term "royalties" when talking about music licensing. While this type of music is often called "royalty free," it's often anything but. As noted, the sync fee is already a royalty.

If you want to learn more about this, you dig more into the nuance of selling royalty free music.

How to Write Your Song for Music Licensing

When you're writing music for licensing, it's always important to be true to yourself. Don't try to overthink things in an attempt to license your music. Just add these simple rules to what you already do, and you'll be sure to be licensing your music in no time!

One principle underlies both of these rules. The most important thing is that you quickly capture, and then maintain, a potential client's attention. It's been said that these days you only have 7 seconds to get someone's attention. This means that any song you write for licensing needs to have a clear attention-grabbing intro that clearly foreshadows where the song is going.

Successful stock music for licensing tends to have two traits:

  1. Stock music that gets licensed maintains a consistent emotion and tone.
  2. Stock music that gets has a clear structure.

When it comes to maintaining a consistent tone, it's important not to get too clever. For example, "A Day in the Life" by the Beatles is one of the most brilliant songs ever recorded, but the massive changes in tone make it totally inappropriate for music licensing.

Why is having a major change in your song bad for music licensing?

Because you want a potential client to know exactly what type of music they're listening to from the moment they hit play! If it’s a dramatic classical piece, it should remain a dramatic classical piece.

If it’s energetic funky hip hop, then don’t mix it up with a weird interlude. This may be one of the hardest lessons to learn about how to license your music, but it will ensure that your songs are marketable to the widest amount of buyers.

Second, (most) stock music the sells well is tells a story with an intro, body, and conclusion. As we mentioned, in order to be successful with licensing your music, it's essential to grab your listener's attention with a catchy intro. Here are five tips for writing a great song intro.

But you also have to keep your listener's attention. So you want to make sure that your song is constantly evolving, and that you move from verse to chorus and back faster than you might normally.

How to Record Your Song For Music Licensing

The most important thing to keep in mind when trying to license your music is that you can only use "cleared" samples. What does that mean? Well, you have to have permission to use the underlying sounds. So you can't take a smooth Michael McDonald hit from the 80s, sample a few seconds of it, and then include it in a song for licensing. But if you download samples from reputable sample libraries, you're usually allowed to use the samples in your productions.

Obviously you're going to want your songs to sound as professional as possible. However, recording your music at a professional studio is unlikely to be cost effective. Most of the songs you release for licensing won't earn you very much money. You have no way to really guess which songs will be successful, so you need to keep your production costs down. That means learning to be a better producer and mixer.

If you're focused on selling your songs, then when you record, the main thing to focus on is avoiding “distracting” sounds and performances. You want to avoid harsh resonances and feedback (unless the song calls for it). In other words, you want a nice clean performance. 

Just put yourself in the shoes of a buyer – they’re probably buying production music to play in the background. You don’t need to worry that you can’t capture pristine sounds like Nigel Goodrich, you just need to be good enough to get a clear, clean recording. That way, viewers focus on the message without getting distracted by the song.

Mixing & Mastering Your Song for Music Licensing

Looking at the marketplace of people selling songs, you don’t need to have a very good mix or loud mastering to successfully sell lots of stock music. But it doesn’t hurt. If you want to license your own music, just follow these simple steps.

With mixing, focus on getting the levels right, and cleaning up mud and harshness. If you know what you’re doing and you’re good at it, then by all means do your thing. Focus on a clean sound - use these 6 mixing tips from a BBC trained engineer to make sure your music sounds professional.

If you don’t have a clue how to mix, there are a lot of great resources (some free) to teach you how. Check out Youtube or The Recording Revolution. But for now, just commit to getting a little better with each song.

And you’re probably better off using compression and reverb VERY sparingly until you’ve gotten the hang of them.

When it comes to mastering, there is no secret sauce. If you’ve been working with your own track the whole time, then it should basically sound the way you want it to, in which case you should only use mastering to crank up the volume before applying a limiter.

But please don’t ruin your mix by boosting the volume too much. It’s terrible for the song, and the people that buy your stock music really don’t seem to care that much about volume. If your song averages -14dBFs and peaks at -1dBFs, you're good to go!

Besides, buyers can always crank up the volume further if they want!

That said, if you want to get better at mastering at help ensure that your songs grab your clients' attention, check out this free mastering cheat sheet.

Earn More Money Licensing Your Music with Alternate Mixes

Alternate mixes are one of the easiest ways to increase your music licensing income. In addition to selling the full mix of your song, many clients are looking to license shorter or simpler versions of your music. 

Just put yourself in the shoes of someone looking to license music: either they're planning on adding a voice over, or they want to use it for just a short period of time. If you don't have a mix of your song available, they're unlikely to buy it!

Buyers of stock music are often working under tight deadlines and may not have time to perform much editing to your music. The easier you can make their jobs, the more likely you are to license your music.

If found that these alternate mixes are the ones most likely to be licensed:

  • No vocal mix
  • No lead instrument mix
  • No drums mix
  • Just drum and bass mix
  • 30 second mix
  • 60 second mix
  • Loop
  • Ending hit

So be sure to create each of these versions of your song - and master them!

Should You Register Your Copyright Your Music?

In the United States, you automatically own the copyright to your music the minute it's affixed to a medium, whether that's writing it out or recording it. But in order to really protect yourself, you need to register your copyright with U.S. Copyright Office. This will create an official government record of your ownership, which you'll need to prevail in court. It's pretty easy to register your copyright, and doesn't cost that much money. But if you're creating 50 songs a year, it can get up there. Of course, law suits also cost a lot of money.

While certain libraries and buyers will only purchase a license if it's copyrighted. And some libraries will want to be the ones that register the copyright after they buy the song from you.

And then, many music licensing libraries and buyers do not care. Given the expense in time and money, and the low likelihood that some one will steal your copyright (and the high cost of you suing them if they do), you may not see any benefit to registering the copyright all of your tracks.

Getting Your Songs Ready for Music Licensing

Before you go ahead and upload your songs, you want to do a little quality control! Each library may have requirements about the final format of your files (.Wav vs .Mp3; 48khz vs 44khz, etc). You'll save yourself a ton of time if you make sure that your songs comply with whatever formatting requirements each stock music library requires.

You'll also want to take this opportunity to make sure that your file names are correct. Make sure the name of each song represents which alternate mix it is, too. This will make it much easier to keep track of things.

Most importantly, before you upload your songs to a music licensing website, be sure to trim any dead space at the beginning or end of the song that may have cropped up! Most music libraries will reject songs with too much dead space, so a little work now can save you a big headache later!

Where to License Your Music - Including the Best Sites to License Your Music

After years of experience, here is my list of the three best sites to license your music for beginners. Now, you could try to upload to every site out there, but in my experience, most sites never result in any sales, so you are just wasting your time using the "pray and spray" technique.

So stop wasting your time researching where to license your music, and start spending that extra time on effort on making more music and licensing it!

In my experience, the three best sites to license your music are:

  1. Pond 5
  2. AudioJungle
  3. AudioSparx

(Note that this is a referral link, meaning I get a commission if you purchase anything from the Pond 5 - but I don’t not get a referral for recommending that you sign up as an artist. It's just my honest belief it's the best site for folks new to licensing)

If you want to see the differences between Pond 5 vs. AudioJungle, check out this roundup post. For most folks wondering where to license their music, I think it's best just to start with Pond 5 for 6 months and then grow from there.

Upload the Song and Tag it with Keywords (Metadata) That Sell

I recommend signing up for an account with Pond 5 for the reasons described in this post. You can’t go wrong with them, and you can always join other sites later.

This free mini course will turbo charge turbo charge your music licensing success!

From there, you’ll want to upload your first song(s) and give it a nice descriptive title. Many music licensing sites will place a high emphasis on the song title for ranking search results. So to have better success licensing your music, be sure to include a keyword or two in your title. 

I've had a lot of success with a format like this: "Grim Reaper (Energetic Death Metal)."  

Be sure to write a strong description & use 50 evocative keywords. These keywords are called metadata, and it's really important to get it right. This step is honestly just as important as creating licensable music, because no one will find your song without a good description, title, and keywords.

For the description of the song, you want to craft a short narrative to let the reader know about the emotion of the song, what it sounds like, how long it lasts, and how it might be used.

For the keyword metadata, you’ll want to use a solid mix of terms that describe the tone of the song, who it sounds like, what its technical details are, any unusual instruments used, and how it might be used, but not in a narrative way.

Can You Use Social Media Promotion to License More Songs

I don’t have evidence that using social media directly boosts sales, but in my own experience I have seen a strong correlation between when I started adding social media to my toolset and when my sales reached a new peak.

And a lot of stock music musicians more successful than me use it, so it must be helpful (if nothing else, it boosts the odds that your song will rank in external search engines).

I would recommend using three platforms to start.

Twitter, Soundcloud, and on your own webpage (not technically social media, I know).

With Twitter and Soundcloud, you need to focus on building a following just as much as you need to focus on promoting your song. By building a following, you increase the odds someone will click on one of your links or share it. I plan on talking more about social media strategies for stock music musicians in an upcoming post.

By tracking how many clicks my links receive, I know that this website drives a fair number of visitors to my stock music on Pond 5 (though I can’t track whether they buy my music online). However, a website is still give you a static base of operations from which to promote and highlight your songs, and is something that people are more likely to encounter through a Google search.

How to license your music for film and TV

While the majority of buyers on stock music sites don't represent film or tv companies, I have still gotten a couple of placements a year. My music has been included in an award-wining indie horror short, TV shows, and a Netflix documentary. Getting these songs licensed for film and TV took no additional work on my part. Clients simple purchased my music through Pond 5, and then used them in their productions.

However, as you become a more experienced producer, you'll gain additional opportunities for licensing your music for film and TV. Once your songs of a higher quality, you can start submitting them to exclusive libraries, which have a higher percentage of TV and film clients. Or you can even start to develop relationships directly with TV and film supervisors and try directly pitching songs to them! 

Earning More Money from Your Licensing Through Public Performance Royalties

If you're lucky enough to get a song placed on TV, then you are also going to be entitled to earn public performance royalties! These backend royalties are collected by your Performing Rights Organization - I used BMI and would recommend it! 

In order to get paid for these performances, you need to be sure that you register each song with your PRO. Then, when your song is broadcast as part of a TV show, the production company files a "cue sheet" with your PRO. Every TV station pays a license fee to the PRO, and depending on how frequently your song is played, you earn a pro-rated share of those fees. 

Sometimes it's only a few dollars per broadcast, but it can really add up. Backend royalties have boosted my music licensing earnings by thousands of dollars through broadcasting music I licensed through Pond 5. And the best news is that every time that TV show is rebroadcast or streamed, you get paid. It's one of the ways the music licensing can really create passive income for you!

Closing thoughts on how to license your music

So there you have it. Each of these previous steps is very difficult to perfect, but incredibly easy to start.

So you should start on this sooner rather than later. You are not aiming for your first song to be perfect. You’re aiming for your first song to be good enough. And for each song to be a little better than that. 

A little better written.

A little better recorded.

A little better produced.

A little better described.

And a little better promoted.

If you really want to learn how to license your music, check out this free course

If you commit to constant improvement instead of immediate perfection, you will absolutely be selling songs online. And the sooner you start writing, the sooner you start selling songs. And once you start earning income from your licensing your music every month, you'll see why music licensing is one of the best side jobs for musicians!

If you're looking for other music side hustles, check out this list of the 9 best music side jobs

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