Music Supervisors and Synch Licenses

After watching prime time dramas such as ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy, the amount of new music that a show like this introduces to the public is astonishing: “Anyone’s Ghost” by The National, “Abducted” by Cults, “Chameleon/Comedian” by Kathleen Edwards, “Hit It” by Miss Li, and “Echoes” by Mostar Diving Club. Who is responsible for introducing all of the amazing new music from today’s hit TV shows?  Week after week, these people have the uncanny knack for selecting uberhip underground artists barely breaking the film of the jellied masses of independent musicians.  Women like Alexandra Patsavas of Chop Shop Music known for her work on Grey’s Anatomy, Andrea von Foerster of Firestarter Music known for her work on Modern Family, and Lindsay Wolfington of Lone Wolf, known for her work on One Tree Hill are not only outstanding entrepreneurs, they are also the purveyors of musical cool.

For the record, MXSup is the slang industry term for music supervisor, a person who finds and licenses music for films, television, video games, or advertisements.  Music supervision began at the turn of the 20th century when silent films were all the rage.  At that time, organists accompanied the film and the supervisor indicated at various places on the score where classical themes were to be played.  Today, music supervisors select music for critical points in the film soundtrack to increase the dramatic effect of the content on the screen.  The music leads the audience emotionally and heightens their anticipation and fear before the critical action takes place.

Music supervisors clear two sides of the copyright: the PA Copyright for the music and lyrics as well as the SR Copyright for the master recording.  Although a legal background is not a prerequisite, it is necessary to understand the rights of Intellectual Property holders and the terms of their copyright.  Music Supervision is often a long process that takes careful consideration and attention to detail.

Clearing A Synch License

Ramsay Adams, David Hnatiuk, and David Weiss have suggested in their book, Music Supervision, that “music supervisors must be chameleon-like in their business dealings, [and develop] an ability to adapt their methods to the needs of every new production environment”. For that, they write, it is essential that every project be well documented, especially as regards the parties in every transaction: the composer and song title, the publisher, and the record label.

For Lindsay Wolfington, the music supervisor for One Tree Hill, the licensing process starts after the spotting session.  During the spotting session, the music supervisor, producer, director, music producer, and music editor go through the script and highlight areas that require music ( ‘Jim drives to Malibu to find his ex-girlfriend and hears a song on the radio that reminds him of her’). The song coming from the source—the radio—must be integrated into the scene with a synchronization license. To minimize work, it is best to procure that license when the picture is “locked” to the music in a final version. A quote request is then sent to the publisher, who returns information about the credits used, her stake in the work, and the rate charged.  Wolfington then sends a confirmation of the terms and includes a grant of rights, the fee, and her contact information for final signature.

Cindy Badell-Slaughter CEO of Heavy Hitters Music, a contemporary music library that places music for television in shows like CSI-NY and True Blood, clears licenses following a similar multi step procedure. In both cases the publisher, who holds the rights to the Performing Arts (PA) Copyright, i.e. music and lyrics, is the first person contacted.

Next, the supervisor would approach the SR Copyright owner, usually the record label.  Once the publisher approves the request, the music supervisor creates a formal synchronization license with additional standard contract terms. Having an attorney draft a synch license to ensure its legality is recommended.

The Economics of Synch Licenses

Say an independent action film has a budget of $100,000. Most of the money is spent on actors, filming, and editing.  The director has $15,000 ($3K for the supervisor, plus 4 points – a percentage of ownership shares on the back end income from the movie) and $12K to find six pieces of music for the film – essentially $2000 per song. The director placed six temporary tracks into the film to give it the “feel” that she wants for the scenes.  These tracks are out of her i-pod collection and range from Foo Fighters’ “Rope”, Aerosmith’s “Love In An Elevator”, Broken Bells’ “The Ghost Inside”, Chris Cornell’s “Ground Zero”, Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android”, and Muse’s “Time is Running Out”.

Al and Bob Kohn, authors of Kohn on Music Licensing, state that the going rate to individually license one of these tracks for the life of the copyright in a worldwide release would be $5,000-25,000 for background use, $7,500-50,000 for Visual/Vocal use, and $15,000-100,000 for Featured use. Use of the title of the song as the title of the motion picture should bring an additional $50,000 to $100,000 over the above fees.  Use of the music for opening credits might double the synch fee with closing credits slightly lower.

Clearly, major labels’ songs are too expensive.  It is up to the music supervisor to find songs that fit the scenes with a similar mood and tempo as the temp tracks.  This can be a daunting task when everyone from the producer to the music editor has fallen in love with how perfectly the temp tracks fit into the film score.

The best option is an online music library.  These pre-cleared and professionally recorded tracks are an easy way to get music in a very cost effective and efficient way. Heavy Hitters, at, is one of the top music libraries in the country. Heavy Hitters has an online “Jukebox” which allows the music supervisor to search using many options.   Searching for a replacement of Muse’s “Time Is Running Out”,  under “rock” and “Vocal Male”, returns 2,200 hits, but refining the find using “Bad Times” (since the title was “Time Is Running Out”) returned nine songs. One of them was “Wrong Way Down”. Being a hard-rock tune with distorted vocals, heavy guitars, and a similar tempo (111vs. 118 bpm) makes it a good fit.

Communication Skills

Overall, it is important to remember that being a music supervisor is also about facilitating relationships. Lindsay Wolfington, for example, has always tried to be upfront during negotiation by being transparent with the budget and offering fair rates.  She starts on, where she searches for publishers’ information.  She notes that licensing can be difficult when the parties are not registered with the major PRO’s (Performing Rights Organizations).  Oftentimes she will find songs with an unlisted publisher.  On One Tree Hill, for example, she used a Black Eyes Peas song and couldn’t find the person who owned 2.5% of the song.  She told the producers and other publishers that unless it was all cleared, she would be unable to use it. She advises songwriters to “have a business head” and register with the appropriate PRO so that paperwork goes quickly and efficiently.  Brad Hatfield, Emmy award winner and music supervisor for the show Rescue Me stresses instead the benefits of the book Getting to Yes, by Roger Fisher and William Ury; for the parties to come to terms, the authors suggest use of the Best Alternative To A Negotiated Agreement method, known as BATNA.

A good licensing strategy depends also on good internal communications. Music supervisors usually report to a creative director, a producer or director of a film, and a video game designer, so pleasing those that have deposited faith in them is essential.


By Andrea Johnson



9 Replies to “Music Supervisors and Synch Licenses”

  1. Covering the news and information on music supervisors and soundtracks in the Entertainment Cyberscope

  2. MusicSupervisor says:

    Brad Hatfield composed music for Rescue Me but is not the music supervisor. Alex Patsavas supes that show.

    1. Thank you for that clarification. Will ammend.

  3. There’s also, an interesting website working out of Europe where advertisers, filmmakers, artists or private Youtube users can quickly and easily find suitable music for their projects. Check it out.

  4. hermes new york says:

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