How to Obtain Music Licensing for Your Project in America [2019 Edition]
Do you need a music license for your project? If so, you’ve come to the right place.
If you want to record or distribute a song that you do not own or control, U.S. Copyright Law requires that you get a mechanical license. This is required regardless of whether or not you are selling the copies that you make.
That’s when things complete complicated, and sometimes so much so that they stop independent creators pursue the path they were on. It’s extremely frustrating! Not everyone wants to or has the time to learn all about music licensing, and the information available online is surprisingly limited. I hope this article brings light and hope to both independent creators and musicians.
In this article, you’ll learn:
How to find the information (artist, record company) you need to begin securing music licensing
Ways to contact people for music licensing
The easiest, cheapest, and most streamlined option is a pre-cleared library (https://search.rumblefish.com/)
Working with Songfile.com to secure most of your music licenses
Choose the right music licensing service for you
Songfile (distribute up to 2500 physical units, digital downloads or ringtones, or up 10,000 units for interactive streaming)
HFA (Labels that distribute over 2500 physical units, digital downloads or ringtones, or over 10,000 interactive streams)
Rumblefish (comprehensive licensing and royalty administration service offering for all types of formats)
A general guideline for different music licenses
Synchronization license for music reproductions with visuals (film, video, etc.)
As a reader, you can skip to the section that’s most relevant to you. If you identify any information we can improve upon, please leave us a comment, or drop me an email email@example.com
Also, a friend of who’s an expert in music licensing recommended this article which is very helpful How to License Music For Your Videos. Please have a read too after this article.
First, why I wrote this:
Jorge (a good friend and a talented dancer) and I decided to put together an online course for people to more easily access and learn how to dance from home. Jorge isn’t only a dancer but also a choreographer. Over the years of working as a dance instructor in various local gyms, he’s built a name and a following for himself.
This is one of the most exciting projects for me in 2019. But…
Music licensing is a nightmare - or rather I should say - a black box to most people in and outside of the industry.
Even if you are a musician, you will likely work with a record label and let them handle everything for you.
And the rules change frequently and vary from country to country.
After researching for days, speaking with friends in the industry and influencers, the outlook was not positive.
Several YouTubers (who also happen to be dancers) told me that YouTube (and other social platforms alike) will always be able to detect music. Even after you’ve clearly indicated where the music is sourced, licensing information, etc., there’s a still a chance for the music to be blocked for your video (this means the music will not sound in your video, yikes! All your post-production work goes out the window). In addition, if you’ve received thousands of downloads as a YouTuber, you will not be paid for the viewership from YouTube.
This article on StackExchange was very helpful for me to read as a start. In which the person called out the following steps to obtain music licenses for his cover songs. By the way, a cover song is your recording of a song you didn’t write. Read a more in-depth explanation here from CD Baby.
We contacted the bands (which included successful folk artists such as Show of Hands and Tracy Grammer) whose songs we were covering, explained we would like to put our versions of their songs on a CD that we'd be selling, and asked their permission/conditions.
Some of them sent us a standard 'Mechanical License Request Form' with a fixed royalty rate per 1000 copies of CDs produced. We paid this rate upfront.
Some of them gave us permission to use their song for no payment, but told us how they would like to be credited.
One artist's estate refused permission. We therefore did not record their song.
For singer-songwriters who are our friends, we drafted a suggested Mechanical License Request Form for their agreement - to respect the fact that they too deserve to earn money from their music! We are therefore still both colleagues and friends.
The key element of the information above is the “Mechanical License Request Form”. I’ve never heard of that term but it sounded a lot more promising.
While it’s one of the options and sometimes a good idea to contact the musicians/bands/record companies directly, they may or may not respond. This alone leave the music licensing unresolved and you the musician is sent back to square zero.
Instead, if there are license request form and a standard process in place, it’ll make EVERYONE’s lives easier. I went down a rabbit hole.
This is how you can locate the MOST IMPORTANT information about a song you need to license.
I used YouTube to look up the exact song I’m looking for. Keep in mind that there could be many versions of the same song that exist. For example, Love Me Love You (Bachata Version). You’ll notice that by searching that on YouTube will result in many search results. Therefore it’s often necessary to include additional information such as “artist name” or “song writer name” in your search term. In my case, it’s DJ Snake
Here’s the crazy amount of information you’ll find inside the YouTube video details (you might need to click “Show More” to see this level of details)
I call this crazy amount of information because it’s difficult to figure out who you need to get in touch with.
There are a few solutions that might just get you there, or at least most of the way there…
The easiest, cheapest, and most streamlined option you’d have is a pre-cleared library (https://search.rumblefish.com/). If you can’t find the type of music in pre-cleared library that can work for your projects, then keep on reading…
Songfile.com (audio licensing only)
Songfile.com is a great music licensing option for you if you need to distribute up to 2,500 physical units, digital downloads or ringtones, or up to 10,000 units for interactive streams.
Songfile is part of HFA - Harry Fox Agency (https://www.harryfox.com/#/) “The Harry Fox Agency (HFA), established in 1927, has long been America’s premiere licensing agent for issuing mechanical licenses, and continues to serve the industry today through its commitment to innovation while enhancing value for music creators and publishers. ”
What is Songfile.com?
Songfile is a limited quantity mechanical licensing application that gives all users the tools to license copyrighted works. They have made it easy for users to pay the proper royalties to publishers and songwriters for their work.
Songfile can be used to get mechanical licenses for up to 2,500 units of physical recordings (CDs, cassettes, vinyl), permanent digital downloads and ringtones made and distributed in the U.S.Up to 10,000 interactive streams per song. Please note that HFA only grants mechanical licenses for units that are manufactured and distributed in the U.S.All processing is done online, and in most cases, you will have your license in 24 hours. Once processed, licenses are made available to you electronically for viewing and printing through your Songfile account.
What does Songfile cost?
Royalties for Songfile licenses are the following:
Physical product and downloads:
$0.091 (9.1 cents) per unit for songs that are five minutes and under in length or$0.0175 (1.75 cents) per minute or fraction thereof, per unit for songs that are over five minutes in length.
$0.24 (24 cents) per song, per unit
$0.01 (1 cent) per stream
In addition to royalty fees, there is a per-song processing fee of $16 for up to five songs. If you license 6 or more songs at one time, the processing fee is reduced to $14 per song.
About the Public Search Feature on Songfile
If you aren’t convinced that Songfile could work for you and before you create an account, check out their Public Search Feature which allows you to look up the song you need to license with a Song Title and Writer.
However, I personally find the Public Search Feature earlier to use once I created an account.
As a reminder, you need to be patient with the search. When you search for a general term such as “Let Me Love You”, you’ll see more than a dozen results. It’s important to combine other search elements such as “Writer”, or simply try different combinations before giving up too early.
Songfile.com is where you start, but here are two other premium services
If Songfile.com isn’t for you, and you need to distribute over 2500 physical units, digital downloads or ringtones, or over 10,000 interactive streams, click here to apply for a licensing account with HFA
If HFA’s licensing account still isn’t sufficient for you, and you need a comprehensive licensing and royalty administration service offering for all types of formats, click here to learn more about Rumblefish service (also part of HFA). This is their premium service. You can schedule a call with them to learn more.
Caveats with using Songfile.com
Songfile is US Only (as I’m writing this article in the summer of 2019)
Songfile covers audio-only reproductions — keep reading if you are working on other types of media such as online courses, videos, etc.
Songfile has a license limitation (as described above)
The Songfile/HFA licensing percentage is not always 100%.
What to do if Songfile/HFA doesn’t own 100% of a song’s licensing
During checkout of purchasing a music license, you’ll see an indicator letting you know if the HFA (Songfile) licensing percentage is 100%, or not.
See example below - Body Can’t Lie is only 9% licensed to Songfile
If HFA represents 100% of the rights to the song, you are all set!
If not, it means HFA may not represent one of the publishers that has partial ownership, or HFA may not be authorized to license this format.
If HFA licenses part of the song, you can complete your licensing transaction through Songfile for the percentage of the song that HFA represents.
To obtain a license for the remaining percentage, or for a song that is not represented by HFA for this format, you will need to contact the publisher directly. It is your responsibility to obtain licenses from each publisher that owns part of the song so that you are licensed for 100% of the song. If you are not licensed for 100% of the song, you could be liable for infringement.
You can use the Songfile Public Search to find information on this publisher, or use the databases at the following websites:
That’s annoying and sounds like a lot of work. What can you do instead?!
HFA/Songfile has various licenses to different versions of the song. See an example below right from Songfile.com. Instead of choosing the song you originally planned on using, it may be much easier to find an alternative so that you can secure 100% of the rights in one place (I.e. Songfile.com)
I understand this isn’t always an option but worth a thought.
Are you a public performance artist?
The Harry Fox Agency does not handle public performance rights requests. However, a publisher may assign its public performance rights to one of the three following societies, in which case you may secure performance rights from that society:
Type of music licenses
The first you’ll see after you choose “Get a License” within Songfile is the following screen
Here’s what they mean:
We’ll skip over “Physical Product” as most people are familar with this type.
Permanent Digital Downloads
A permanent digital download is each individual delivery of a phonorecord by digital transmission of a sound recording (embodying a musical composition) resulting in a reproduction made by or for the recipient which may be retained and played by the recipient on a permanent basis.
A ringtone is an excerpt of a musical composition embodied in a digital file and rendered into audio. Ringtones are stored in a user's mobile telephone, pager or other portable communications device and played whenever the device activates its ring or alert function (upon the arrival of a call, message or other notification). There are two basic types of ringtones: Phonic Ringtones and Pre-Recorded Ringtones. Phonic Ringtones are, most commonly, standard MIDI sound files that are either monophonic, where the ringtones are recreated using standard single notes, or polyphonic, where notes can be played simultaneously creating harmony and/or counterpoint. Pre-Recorded ringtones play actual clips from sound recordings.
Interactive streaming is when a digital file is transmitted electronically to a computer or other device at the specific request of the user in order to allow the user to listen to a recording or a playlist contemporaneously with the user's request. Interactive streams are sometimes referred to as on-demand streams.
Rate chart for Streaming (online only)
Rate chart for Streaming (online and offline access)
Synchronization license to use music in combination with visual images, video, etc.
Songfile licenses would only cover you for audio-only reproductions. For videos, courses, multimedia, it would require a synchronization license, which is an authorization to use recorded music in combination with visual images such as film, television, video, web sites, video games and the like.
eSynch makes licensing songs you've combined with visual images or videos, such as a wedding, corporate, or personal website video, background music on websites, or in a film that will be shown at film festivals, simple. eSynch is limited to non-commercial use ONLY. eSynch cannot be used to license music for use in videos that will be uploaded to a third party website including YouTube and Vimeo.
Contacting the publisher directly (for commercial use)
You may also secure synchronization rights by contacting the publisher directly. You can use the following databases to locate publisher contact information:
How You Pay for Licensing
Ok, if you’ve made it this far, you may be wondering - how do I estimate the number of streams, or the numbers of CDs you could be selling before you do it?
You estimate and pay based on that estimate.
Once you exceed the license threshold you’ve purchased, you can go back into Songfile and update the information before submitting a new payment.
Obtaining music licensing for the songs you want to work with can be tough. Hopefully this article helps equip you with just a bit more hopeful and useful information than when you started reading.
There isn’t always a set path. Everyone’s situation and needs are different.
Best of luck!