image of a live stream holding screen saying "the live stream will begin shortly" and a headshot of Anna Hainsworth
NDCWales Presents

My ascent up the mountain known as ‘music rights’

Streaming from lockdown, music sync licences - by Tour and Projects Producer Anna Hainsworth

Streaming from lockdown, music sync licences - by Tour and Projects Producer Anna Hainsworth

A friend of mine, a professional double bass player, once posted an open letter on her Facebook page. It had been written by one of her musician friends, as a response to a request he’d received to use his music on a film and being told that ‘there was no budget for music’ but that they really hoped he’d agree and promised the usual ‘profile-raising’ benefits that the film would offer. His response was scathing and made the very reasonable point that, as presumably other elements of the film did have a budget, such as paying the person with the camera, and the folks on the screen, and for the sandwiches that were consumed over the course of the project, why was there no money for the music?

This came into my mind as I began my ascent up the craggy, disorientating mountain known as ‘music rights’. In my role as Tour and Projects Producer for National Dance Company Wales, I’ve always been involved in getting the right permissions to use music in our live performances, but this usually involves a few emails with PRS or a straightforward agreement with a composer. In the early days of lockdown, as we started putting in place plans for our digital programme, the scope of what music rights entailed when bringing our work to online audiences suddenly and overwhelmingly expanded. It basically took over my day-job, so that all I seemed to be doing was trawling the PRS database to find out which composer/publisher/lyricist might have dibs on one of the myriad songs featured in our dance soundtracks. This followed with trying to ascertain which record label made the particular recording we wanted to use, and when, invariably this record label had gone out of business, which of the mega-labels had acquired the rights (see Sony, Universal and Warner if you want to save yourself some time).

I’m in absolutely no way an expert and have no legal grounding, but basically what I’ve learnt is this –

  • If you want to show a live or recorded performance online that uses music accompanying some form of movement, animation, theatrical performance etc (as opposed to a concert-style performance), you need something called a ‘synch licence’. Literally, where the music is synchronised to some other action.
  • Using music, as outlined above, for workshops or educational activities doesn’t exempt you from needing a licence. Some people cite the ‘fair use’ clause but this doesn’t have any legal basis.
  • If you’re using music by a composer and lyricist who hasn’t been dead for 70 years or more, then the composer and lyricist or their publishers will have a right on the music. Which means - you need to get their permission and very possibly pay a licence fee.
  • If you’re using a recording which was made within the last 70 years, there will be a record label (either the original one or a parent label) which has a right on this recording (master rights). Which means - you need to get their permission and very possibly pay a licence fee.
  • Some composers, lyricists, publishers etc will say no to letting you use the music, even if you offer a fee.
  • Most of the independent artists I’ve approached have been really willing to share their music for a modest fee, and they often own the master rights. So if you’re looking for affordable music for future works, independent is a good route.
  • Royalty-free music sites are not the panacea you might expect. Usually for synch uses, there will still be a fee or subscription to pay, so make sure you read the small print.
  • All of the above takes time. I was told by a representative at Sony that it might take up to a year to clear the rights for using a track that was recorded in the 1960s.
  • You need to follow the above points for every piece of music. So, if you have a soundtrack that includes 6 tracks, and each of them has a composer or publisher and a record label, you’ll need to get 12 lots of permissions and potentially pay 12 fees. Which means – it will take time and money to be able to use this single soundtrack.

Over the last few weeks, I and colleagues have wondered if the people using music for their online work have all have gotten the rights, and the reality is some probably haven’t. And I can’t pretend that I haven’t occasionally thought, “Maybe I’m expending all this effort and time for no reason”. But then I think about the Facebook post, and about the composers and bands who have trained and practiced and strived to create music that we love, yet that’s become so ubiquitous that we take it for granted and just see it as part of the furniture, rather than work which has a value. And yes, often it’s not an individual artist who we’ll need to pay, but a multi-national corporation. But we do this every day when we buy any kind of commodity, so why should it be different when it comes to paying for music?

Music licensing is complex, time-consuming, and sometimes pricey. And we don’t always get it right. But if we value music as it ought to be valued, then we ought to take this on board and plan our work and budgets accordingly. When it comes to valuing the arts and artists’ work, we ought to lead by example.

For questions email