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A Definition Of Music Licensing Terms


The following music licensing term definitions are from Emmett Cooke’s eBook ‘The Business of Music Licensing – Generating Revenue Through Your Music’.

The full eBook is available at:


Exclusivity – In music licensing, you can choose to have one company represent your music exclusively, or have numerous companies represent your music non-exclusively. Both options have benefits and downsides to them – we’ll go into this later. Exclusivity refers to whom you are offering exclusive use or licensing to.

Keywords– When you upload a track a music library, you are usually asked to add its “Name”, “Description”, “Keywords”, “Genres” etc. A track’s keywords (sometimes also called “tags”) are single words or phrases you would use to describe the track – for example “fun”, “upbeat”, “ukulele”, “positive”, etc.

Metadata – Metadata is the information you add to a track when you upload to a music library – it can be a spreadsheet with a list of all of the track names, descriptions, genres, keywords etc., or it can be entered manually into a special uploading panel when you upload your music.

Meta tagging – The process of adding the metadata (name, description, tags, BPM etc.) to your tracks so they can be found amongst the tens of thousands of other cues in the library.

Stinger – A short piece of music used for many purposes including logos, highlights, scene transitions etc. Good examples of stingers can be heard in every episode of Friends: when the scene changes, you often hear a short piece of music.

Bumper – A bumper is similar to a stinger in that it is used to transition between two scenes or segments in radio or TV, but is slightly longer than a stinger at around 30 secs to 1 minute in length.

Edits – When writing music for certain music libraries, you will be asked to create additional edits. The most common edits are 15 sec, 30 sec and 60 sec edits (sometimes additional loops are useful too).

Stems – Stems are a sub or partial mix of one or some instruments in a track. For example, if you have a song comprised of one drum track, one bass track, and one guitar track, the guitar stem would be just the exported soloed guitar track.

Cue – Another name for a track

Publisher – A music publisher (or publishing company) is basically an entity in charge of ensuring you get paid when your music is used commercially. Music libraries are usually publishers – they agree to register your tracks, market your music, ensure cue sheets gets filed, handle payments, collect royalties, protect your rights etc., in return for a share of the income.

Re-titling – If you are part of a number of non-exclusive music libraries, and they all place your music on TV, how will they know which one of them placed your track? In order to stop disputes arising, some companies will actually re-register your track again with a new unique name so they can collect their share of the royalties from it.

PRO/PRS – A Performance Rights Organisation or Performance Rights Society. Examples of these are ASCAP, BMI and SESAC – they are also known as royalty collection agencies.

Watermark – A watermark can be used for music or software (and images). For music, a watermark can be a “beep” every 10 seconds which inhibits people downloading your music and then using it in their projects without your permission. A watermark in music software is where the developer will hard code customer information into the software, in order to stop people from illegally sharing their libraries (if it does show up on a file sharing site, they can identify who shared it first).

License – A “license” is a document or agreement to allow a person/company to use your music – usually in return for a fee. When you “license” your music to someone, it means you keep the rights to the music; you’re simply allowing them to use it for a specific project.

Mechanical Royalties – These are payments due to you from the sale of physical media containing your music – i.e. music CDs.

Mechanical license – This allows the licensee to record and distribute a song via “phonorecord”, which includes anything from tapes to CDs and MP3s. There are actually two subtypes…

Compulsory mechanical license – If a song has been made available to the public (intentionally), U.S. law allows anyone to record their own version of that song and sell it by acquiring this kind of license. They do not haveto ask permission or negotiate with the copyright holder, but they do have to pay a standardized royalty rate based on number of physical sales and downloads.

Negotiated mechanical license – The opposite of a compulsory mech. license (CML.) An NML means that the licensee is not acquiring mechanical rights via statutory law, but is deciding on terms with the licensor. The Harry Fox Agency is an organization that makes the process of obtaining NMLs as easy as obtaining CMLs, though they do not represent all songs or all writers.

Performance Royalties – These are payments due to you from the performance of your music – ie., a live performance by a musician, a TV show being broadcast using your music in a scene, etc.

Master use license – A license in which the copyright owner allows someone to use that sound recording in a project (visual work). A sync license is also required along with a master use license.

Sync license – A license that allows someone the right to synchronize that piece of music to a specific media output.

Blanket license – A license that allows the use of a large amount of tracks for a set fee. This is generally used by radio stations as it would take forever to get an individual license for each track they play within a day. It’s also becoming more popular in TV – a number of TV stations pay a fee for a blanket license which allows them to use any music from that music library in their shows. The music library will keep this blanket license fee, and then split the performance royalties with the composer when the music is used on TV.

Pre-cleared music – Most music libraries only offer this – it’s simply music that has been cleared to use before sale. The music library will clear the rights to use your music in X type of productions in the contract you sign, meaning when someone purchases your music from the library, they don’t have to come to you to ask for permission to use it – you’ve already given the library permission, who in turn give the customer permission.

Buy-out – Buy-out music is a term used to describe music you can purchase once, and never have to pay for again. It can often be confused with “royalty free music”, which is technically not buy-out music.

Placement – “Placement” is the term used when your music is used in a project – i.e. “placed” in a project.

Creative commons – A license under which you can release your music, allowing people to share/use your work for free, though with certain conditions attached. Your music must be copyrighted in order to release it under the Creative Commons license.

Royalty free – “Royalty free” is somewhat misleading in its title. Some libraries take “royalty free” to mean if you purchase a track once, you can use it as many times as you’d like in the future. Other libraries take “royalty free” to mean if you purchase a track, you will not have to pay any royalties for TV usage (this means your tracks cannot be registered with your PRO). It has a number of definitions, and it’s always best to check with the library as to what they take “royalty free” to mean.

Royalties – When your music is used on TV, you are due royalties from the television station that aired the program where your music was featured. In order to get these royalty payments, your music must be registered with your local Performance Rights Organisation (PRO).

Public domain – When music is in the “public domain”, it means the original owner/creator’s rights to it have expired. Once this occurs, anyone can use the music, make a copy or record their own version. The length an owner can retain copyright of their music varies from country to country but is generally anywhere from around 50 years to 75 years.

Work for hire – Work-for-hire is when an individual is paid an up-front fee and in return, their artistic creations become the property of an employer – no copyright is retained by the creator. For example, Warner Bros. ask you to write a theme for one of their films – they then become the author and owner. You are sometimes paid more for work for hire since you forfeit credit and ownership, but this is not always the case.

Music library – A music library nowadays is usually a website that offers music to be licensed on behalf of composers. Sometimes music libraries are run from home by one person, or can consist of a huge team of staff in an office in LA., for example. Music library sizes (and popularity/turnover) vary widely – getting your music into a good music library can create a great source of passive income for you when there are no projects to work on.

Production music – This usually refers to music that is written specifically for licensing through a music library, and can be used in a wide range of projects. It can be in any style or genre – other terms for production music include “Media Music”, “Library Music”, or “Stock Music”.

Upfront fees – When you or your publisher licenses your music on your behalf, you can sometimes be paid “upfront fees.” This is money paid in order to purchase a license to use your music – often you will be entitled to further income generated from TV royalties later down the line as well.

MCPS – Mechanical Copyright Protection Society – an organisation which collects mechanical royalties due to you.

Hybrid – “Hybrid” is a term becoming more popular in the music licensing industry. As people are getting bored of hearing the same styles of music in productions (in particular, epic film trailers), composers are now starting to mash musical genres together – for example Dubstep Orchestral hybrid music.

Samples – A sample can have a couple of different meanings. If you take a portion of someone else’s music and use it in your own track, you have just “sampled” their music (and need a license to do so). “Samples” can also refer to select music creation software that contains sampled sounds.

Dev – A developer – this can refer to a music software developer, video game developer, website developer, etc.

Term – Used in contracts to describe the amount of time being agreed upon. For example – some contracts agree on a term of 3 years, meaning the contract is valid until 3 years elapse.

Territory – Used in contracts to describe any regional laws under which a negotiated contract is subject to.

Licensor – The person who is providing someone else with a license or permission. This is a common term in music licensing contracts – as a composer, you are the licensor, providing a music library or publisher (licensee) with permission to provide others with a license to use your music.

Licensee – The person/company who is being granted a license – by you – to become your publisher.

Work on Spec – Writing a piece of music without a guarantee that it will be used, and thus without guarantee of payment. If they like what you write, they will pay you. If if not, you get nothing.


Check out the full eBook at

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Emmett Cooke

Emmett Cooke

Emmett Cooke is an Irish composer for film, tv and video games. His music has been used around the world by high profile companies including Sony Playstation, Ralph Lauren, ABC, CBS, NBC, Lockheed Martin and many more.

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