How to Legally Use Music in Your Films and Videos

Perhaps one of the most often asked questions I get from fresh talent entering the world of filmmaking and video productions is: “Can I use popular music in my videos?” This is particularly a common question among wedding and event filmmakers whose clients naturally want them to use their favorite Jason MRaz tune for their wedding video, or Justin Bieber’s latest hit single for that bat mitzvah recap (oy vey!) Well, here’s the scoop.


By law, in order to use a song in a film or video you need TWO types of licenses: a master use license (controlled by the record label) and a synchronization license (controlled by the publisher). The former is for the rights to the song from the originator. The latter is for the rights of the specific version of the song you want to use. In some cases, the label and the publisher may be the same entity. But in many cases they are not. Here are a couple of examples:

Let’s say you want to use the 2010, Haiti Charity remake of R.E.M.’s classic “Everybody Hurts” for some non-profit video you’ve made. You’d need to get a master use license from Warner Bros. music label (from which the original R.E.M. version hails), and a synchronization license from Simon Cowell’s company (which produced the remake).

Or, let’s say you want to use Chris Tomlin’s “Amazing Grace.” Well, as a hymn older than 70 years, the song in the public domain. So there’s no master use license needed. However, you’d still need to get the sync license from Chris Tomlin’s publisher. However, if you got your 16 year old daughter to write and sing her own arrangement, you wouldn’t need any license. (Here’s a link to a 2005 promo video I did for the northern California campus of Fuller Seminary, the largest seminary school in the country. The song used is the hymn “Come Thou Fount.” I used a version from my church’s worship band. For a $100 donation they allowed Fuller to use it.)

Buying the song DOES NOT give you the right to use it in a video. The issue is not one of ownership of the song. It has to do with the artistic use of that song in another form of art. So, while I’m sure the artist whose song you’re using appreciates you paying the $0.99 to $1.29 on iTunes to download it, they may not be too crazy about you using that song in your video.

Oh and here’s something for you. Just because you know a band member and he/she gives you the okay to use a song, that doesn’t necessarily mean they have the right to do so. Check with their label. Because unless it’s Bono or Michael Stipe himself, many band members don’t have the right to issue the correct licenses you’ll need. They may have the ability to pull some strings to get you the rights, maybe even at a good deal.


Now, with all that said, in practice, it’s apparent the record industry is not currently as invested as fighting this issue as it was the likes of Napster. I say that because there are literally thousands of violating wedding video clips online that record labels aren’t forcing to be taken down. (Facebook does have the power to recognize copyrighted music and remove it. I’ve seen that happen to a number of videographers I know. Same goes for YouTube. Although, sometimes YouTube may keep your video up, but it may then add advertising it splits with the copyright holder.) Who knows if and when the industry might start making examples of companies. So, beware if you be one.


So how do you go about getting the rights for the popular music you want to use? That’s the million dollar question. The Harry Fox Agency used to handle such rights, but they discontinued the service. Music organizations like BMI and ASCAP can’t help either because they don’t manage or govern sync usage rights (though you can use their sites to find information about the publisher). As far as I know, you have to use old-fashioned ingenuity and elbow grease to work your way to the right people at the right companies in charge of the licenses you need. Social media can be a big help. Last year I needed to get the rights to Tenth Avenue North’s song “Hold My Heart” and I just tweeted if anyone knew someone who knew someone, etc. Bingo! I got connected to the right person via Twitter. (I actually Replied the band and someone from their label tweeted back the correct contact info. Twitter is awesome!)

But, even if you find the right people, depending on how much of a song you plan to use and in what capacity (i.e. feature film, short film, TV commercial, promo video, etc.) you may find the cost too prohibitive. So what’s a poor filmmaker to do?

Triple Scoop Music’s “True Romance” Collection
My “True Romance” collection on Triple Scoop Music is a great resource for legal music for wedding videos or slideshows.

In truth, and this is just my humble opinion, I don’t think artists care that much if you include copyrighted music on someone’s wedding video so long as it’s only played at home. (I do know of videographers who have contacted labels in an attempt to get the rights only to be told that it was not worth the record company’s time to issue a one-off license like that kind of personal use). The issue comes when videos are used online to promote the videographers’ businesses. (Note: my friend, award-winning musician, and Triple Scoop Music CEO Roy Ashen may give you a totally different take on this issue. 🙂 ) So, what are some options you could do if you want to stay 100% on the up-and-up. Here are a few:

Specialized Music Sites: Sites like Triple Scoop Music, With Etiquette, Shawn Reeder Music, Incompetch and Truetone Productions offer songs that you can legally include in your wedding, event, and corporate productions that you use in short DVD runs, on-hold music, or for online use. (Although TSM is my usual go-to site whenever I need a quality song, I have used music from all but one of these sites at one time or another. See below.) Rates for these songs range from $48 to $100 per song. I know that is considerably more expensive than the buck you’d pay for a copyrighted song on iTunes, but these rates are a bargain compared to what you’d traditionally pay for these kind of licenses. Keep in mind that for some of these sites, there is an additional license fee required if you want to use the song for broadcast TV, feature film, or any other high volume enterprise. Update: since writing this post, has also been mentioned to me a couple of times. They offer a monthly subscription format and claim access to some popular song titles too. Worth checking out.

Royalty Free Music Collections: companies like Digital Juice have royalty free music products you can purchase that have hundreds of versions of songs at less than $1 a version. The downside of these songs vs. the sites I mentioned above is the quality of the music. The sites above have music that sounds as good as tunes you’d hear on the radio. Many of them offer songs from Grammy and Emmy award-winning artists. The tunes on these royalty free collections have a more “canned” sound and are almost all instrumental only (whereas many of the songs from the above sites have lyrics). They prove to be very popular for local cable commercial spots, commercial jobs for small to mid-sized businesses, or video podcasts. (I have an example below of how I used it in a promo for our photography studio.)

Software: products like Apple’s Garage Band or Smartsound’s Sonic Fire Pro allow you to assemble guitar riffs, drum beats, piano tunes, etc., and create you own music.

Find Your Own Composer: if you’re creating original film productions, you may want to just go out and find yourself a talented composer to make original music for you. My friend and colleague Brandon McCormick of Whitestone Motion Pictures has a great thing going with his producing partner, sound designer, and music composer Nick Kirk. You can actually download Nick’s music FREE from Whitestone’s website (not to be used in your productions of course, but just for your own enjoyment).

UK and Aussie Filmmakers: if I recall, the UK and Australia have some how figured out how to do what we haven’t been able to do here in the U.S. Create a service whereby for a yearly fee, get access to popular music. Thanks to DIY Film UK for this link to PRS For Music. in the UK. And thanks to Shane Kerr at Lumina Video for this link to The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA).

Some of you may be thinking, “That’s all well and good, but my wedding clients want their Jason MRaz.” Well, here are a couple of ideas for using these songs with your event video services.

Only Display Demos Online: use a legal song from one of the aforementioned resources to create a personal event demo that you use online. You can create a very compelling, emotive piece easily from any of the resources mentioned above. Then, if you still decide to include copyrighted music in your clients’ personal videos, at least it won’t be publicly displayed. (Note: I don’t want this to come off as me suggesting you use copyrighted music. I’m merely addressing the fact of life that many of you will anyway, so this is an option for you to approach it that is not as egregious as posting videos with copyrighted music online.)

Sell It: position your work as unique because you create videos that don’t sound like everyone elses. Whereas every other wedding video has a “Gladiator” soundtrack (or whichever song is the flavor of the month), yours will stand out because of your use of great sounding music that is not heard on the radio. Then charge your rates accordingly.

Below is a collection of videos showing songs from each of the specialized music sites and Digital Juice in action. All but one of these videos was produced by my company Dare Dreamer Media.

Triple Scoop Music in Action – Joe Buissink in “Mirrors & Shoes”

I produced this for Pictage and it’s not part of their PhotoLife Film Series. Inspired by the movie “Social Network,” I was looking for something hard-hitting with a Trent Reznor/NIN feel to it. The opening song “Hall Mongers” by Shotgun Radio. Ending song “Gooding” by Marie Laveaux.