An In-Depth Guide to Sync Licensing and Pitching Music Supervisors

Production & Music Industry
Updated on
July 24, 2023
Written by
Unchained Music
Explore the world of sync licensing and the pivotal role of music supervisors in TV, film, and gaming industries, bringing insights to beginners and professionals alike.

Music supervisors have significantly influenced some of your favorite scenes in TV shows, films, and even video games. Think about the end sequence of "The Breakfast Club". Did you ever wonder who introduced Simple Minds' soundtrack to that iconic scene? Music doesn’t merely "fall" into these visual mediums. It is the result of skillful track selection and a complex web of licensing agreements before it gets to your screen. So, what is sync licensing?

Sync Licensing Explained

You might be asking yourself, what is a sync license? In a nutshell, sync licensing is the process of pairing music with visual media. This could be an advertisement, film, TV show, or any other form of media. For any music to be legally used within these contexts, various licenses must be obtained to compensate the rights holders for their work.

For example, if you are an artist and have released a new track, a supervisor might decide they want to use it in a movie and pay you for that use. After negotiation, a contract would be signed, you'd receive payment, and the music supervisor would be able to use your music in the way you both negotiated.

Want help getting started? Unchained Music's Artist and Labels Services can help.

A Sync Placement Can Make an Indie Artist

A good stream of sync opportunities can be particularly beneficial for emerging and independent artists since a well-placed sync can change their career trajectory. An example of this is the band Simple Minds. In the mid-80s, they seized an opportunity to record a track for John Hughes' new movie, "The Breakfast Club". The song, "Don’t You Forget About Me", became a hit worldwide and gave Simple Minds their only No.1 hit in the US throughout their career.

Sync placements using your own music can be the difference between struggling and making it as an independent artist or music producer.

The Importance of Sync Licensing for Artists

Greater Exposure and Reach

Sync licensing allows artists to expose their music to broader and more diverse audiences. When a song is used in a popular film, television show, advertisement, or video game, it has the potential to be heard by millions of people. This synchronization licenses exposure can significantly enhance the artist's visibility and attract new fans. Sometimes your track will be picked by licensing companies to use in a music library for non-exclusive sync placements in various sync opportunities.

Gary Jules' cover of "Mad World" was relatively unknown until it was featured in the film "Donnie Darko" in 2001. After the movie's cult success, the song gained popularity and reached number 1 on the UK Singles Chart.

It's no surprise that being visible helps gain sync placements. Click here for how to market your music in 2023.

Financial Gain

Sync licensing can be a significant source of income for artists. In addition to the initial licensing fees paid for the use of a song in a sync agreement, artists can also receive performance royalties each time the film, TV show, or advertisement is broadcast. For popular and widely-distributed media, these royalties can accumulate substantially over time.

Dolly Parton's "I Will Always Love You," famously covered by Whitney Houston, was featured in the movie "The Bodyguard." It was a huge financial success, generating considerable sync licensing revenue on top of becoming one of the best-selling singles of all time.

Enhances Artist Reputation

Being featured in high-quality and well-regarded media can enhance an artist's reputation. It can denote a certain level of prestige and respect in the industry, and may open doors to further opportunities.

Radiohead's Sync Deal

Radiohead's reputation was enhanced after their song "Exit Music (For a Film)" was used in the credits of "Romeo + Juliet" (1996). The band has since been regularly sought after for other sync licensing opportunities.

Cross-Media Marketing

A song's association with a successful film, television series, or brand can serve as effective cross-media marketing. The popularity of the visual medium can boost the artist's song's popularity, and vice versa. This can lead to increased sales and streaming of the artist's music.

The Later Music Career of Led Zeppelin

"Immigrant Song" by Led Zeppelin was used in the trailer for "Thor: Ragnarok" (2017). This usage of the song in the movie's marketing helped reintroduce the band to a younger generation and led to a significant boost in streams and downloads.

Creative Fulfillment

Artists often appreciate seeing their music used in new and creative ways in visual media. It can be deeply fulfilling to see one's music contribute to the emotional depth and narrative of a film or television show, or align with a brand's identity in an advertisement.

Nine Inch Nails Sync Placement in "Logan"

Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails has spoken about the satisfaction of seeing his songs used effectively in films. His song "Hurt" was used in the trailer for "Logan" (2017), adding a poignant emotional layer that complemented the movie's themes. Reznor has since transitioned to scoring films, including winning an Oscar for the soundtrack to "The Social Network" (2010).

What Does a Music Supervisor Do?

So how does an artist get their music placed in TV or film? This is where a music supervisor comes in. These professionals are the experts who navigate the complex world of sync licensing. They are typically employed by the media creator - which could be a director, producer, or advertising agent - to source and license the music for a project.

Almost always, they have a background in music or film and have a deep passion for both. They understand the process of obtaining the necessary licenses and ensuring that every rights holder is paid their fair share. The role of a music supervisor is not an easy one, but the fulfillment derived from bringing music to visual stories is in abundance.

The Importance of Education and Training

For anyone seeking to explore music sync and licensing or considering a career as a music supervisor, a clear understanding of the legal, clearance, and licensing process is crucial. The difference between mechanical, performance, and synchronization rights must be understood to perform the job effectively.

Additionally, knowledge of how labels and music publishers operate can aid in negotiations for rights and fees. While formal education in music supervision might be difficult to find, resources such as books, podcasts, and online courses can provide the necessary knowledge.

Understanding Licenses and Rights Holders

Sync licensing encompasses several rights that you need to be aware of. These include:

  • Master and composition rights: These are rights tied to the song itself. The master right is owned by the individual(s) who recorded the track, while the composition rights belong to the owner of the lyrics/musical composition.
  • Publishing rights: These rights are usually managed by a rights organization on behalf of the artist. As a music supervisor, you will typically interact with the publisher to negotiate the sync license and fee.
  • Mechanical rights: These are the rights to copy music onto a CD, DVD, record, or tape granted to an organization by the copyright holder. This includes the rights when a song is sold or streamed as part of a soundtrack.
  • Performing rights: These are owned by the copyright holder. Whenever music is performed publicly, the copyright holder should be paid performing royalties.

The Making of a Sync Deal

Music supervisors play a crucial role in the sync licensing process. Here are some key responsibilities and steps involved in the sync licensing process, highlighting the important role of these professionals:

Creative Vision

They work closely with directors, producers, and other creative professionals to understand the vision and emotional tone of a project. They analyze the script, storyboards, or rough cuts of scenes to determine where music can enhance the overall experience.

Track Selection

Once the creative vision is established, they will curate a shortlist of potential tracks that align with the project's theme, mood, and target audience. They explore various genres, artists, and musical styles to find the perfect fit.

Rights Clearance

Before a song can be used in visual media, it must go through a rights clearance process. Music supervisors liaise with record labels, publishers, and artists' representatives to secure the necessary licenses for synchronization (sync) and master use. It is rare that a music supervisor will work directly with independent artists.


The next step is to negotiate the licensing terms and fees with the rights holders. This includes discussing the duration of use, territory, media format (e.g., theatrical release, streaming platforms), and any additional restrictions or special considerations.

Contract Management

Once the negotiations are complete, music supervisors oversee the preparation and signing of licensing agreements. They ensure that all parties involved are legally protected and that the music can be used in the desired manner without any copyright infringements.

Cue Sheets

These professionals are responsible for creating cue sheets, which document all the songs used in a production. Cue sheets help track the use of music and ensure that the appropriate royalties are paid to the rights holders.

Securing a Sync Licensing Deal

For emerging indie artists, securing well-placed sync deals can significantly impact their careers. Here are some strategies artists can employ to increase their chances of getting their music synchronized with visual media:

Building Relationships in the Music Business

Developing connections with supervisors, filmmakers, and industry professionals is vital. Attending industry events, networking, and actively engaging with professionals in the field can help artists establish valuable relationships that may lead to sync licensing opportunities.

Have Professional Representation

Working with a reputable music publisher, licensing agency, or sync licensing company can increase an artist's visibility and access to sync opportunities. These professionals have established relationships and expertise in placing music in visual media.

Make Sync-Friendly Music

Creating music that is suitable for synchronization is essential. Artists should consider the potential use of their songs in visual contexts, aiming for compositions that evoke emotions, tell stories, and have a distinctive sound that stands out.

Utilize Licensing Platforms

Utilizing online music licensing platforms can expose artists to a broader range of sync opportunities. While sometimes they focus on royalty-free music, these platforms can connect music creators directly with supervisors, making it easier for artists to showcase their work and explore potential licensing deals.

Proactively Promote Your Music

Artists should actively promote their music through various channels, including social media, music streaming platforms, and their own websites. This visibility can attract the attention of music supervisors and increase the likelihood of sync licensing inquiries.

Collaborate with Music Producers and other Emerging Artists

Collaborating with filmmakers, content creators, or other artists and music producers can provide valuable exposure and create opportunities for sync licensing. By combining talents and reaching new audiences, artists may increase their chances of having their music featured in visual media.

Education and Training

To tread the path of sync licensing, an understanding of the legal, clearance, and licensing process is crucial. Though no specific courses are available for music licensing and supervision, a music business degree can provide an overview of the rights in play. Resources are readily available in the form of books, podcasts, and online materials for those who prefer unconventional routes.

Moreover, it's essential for music supervisors to understand the difference between mechanical, sound recording, performance, and synchronization rights. An overview of how labels and music publishers operate can be advantageous for rights negotiations and fee discussions.

Licenses and Rights Holders

Navigating the legality of music in media production can be challenging. Two types of licenses are typically required:

1. Synchronization License: This license is needed from the music publisher who owns the rights to the song's composition - lyrics and melody. The name ‘synchronization’ comes from the need to 'sync' music with visual media.

2. Master Use License: The Master Use License must be acquired from the record label managing the master recording - the actual studio recording of the song. This license allows the use of a specific version of the song.

Negotiating these licenses involves identifying and contacting the relevant rights holders, which can be a record label, an independent artist, a music publisher, or sometimes, multiple parties.

Fees and Payments for a Sync License

Fees for sync licenses can vary widely depending on the usage and prominence of the music piece, the fame of the artist, the budget of the production, and many other factors. Music supervisors need to negotiate the fees considering all these aspects. Payment goes to both the songwriter(s) (via the Synchronization License) and the performer(s) (via the Master Use License).

Moreover, artists can earn performance royalties every time the production is aired in public - on television or radio, or played in a public venue. These public performance royalties are collected by Performance Rights Organizations (PROs) like ASCAP, BMI, or SESAC, and paid to the rights holders.

Media Companies and Music Licensing Companies

The role of music supervisors and the concept of sync licensing are crucial in the music and entertainment industry. They provide opportunities for artists to increase their visibility, engage new audiences, and generate revenue by working with partners, such as Unchained Music. As the media landscape continues to evolve with the proliferation of streaming platforms and new forms of digital media, the role of music supervisors and the importance of sync licensing through Music Licensing companies will only grow in significance.

Sync licensing and music supervision offer a rewarding career path for those passionate about music and media. The job involves connecting creators with artists, and creating an enriching viewing experience for audiences worldwide while ensuring fair compensation for musicians. The magic of music in film and television would be unimaginable without the intricate process of sync licensing and the dedicated work of music supervisors.




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