How to Get Your Song in Film or TV Every Montage Needs a Tune

How to Get Your Song in Film or TV Every Montage Needs a Tune
Every filmmaker knows that running just the right song in the background can really boost the emotion in an otherwise blank scene. And you wouldn't dare run a silent montage: it's the song — that one great song — that turns your tidy time-lapse into a device that makes emotional sense.

The marriage between the filmed entertainment and music markets has spawned some delightful opportunities, both commercial and promotional, for Canadian music. In the last 15 years Canadian bands have done increasingly well on American TV: the Waltons on Friends; Tegan and Sara on Veronica Mars; the Arcade Fire on Six Feet Under.

Canada's filmed entertainment industry has been slow to catch on to the trend of placing Canadian tunes in indigenous productions. But now that Hollywood has shown us the way, Canadian producers are cluing in that using Canadian music, both old and new, can enhance the emotional experience of the show and — here's a concept — snatch a savvier audience for a Canadian show away from the WB. Global's Falcon Beach is a good example: the production is running an open call to attract Canadian indie bands. (For submission info, go to and click "music.")

There are two key reasons why you might want to get a song on a soundtrack. One is money. Money for the use of your song on a film or TV soundtrack is going to come from three places: first, the production will have to pay you for a license giving them the legal right to use your song and/or your recording of your song, and to pass those rights along to the production's broadcasters. How much you get for a license will vary hugely. "The size of the license fee often depends on your profile and track record in the music industry, but not always," says music supervisor Amy Fritz. "In Canada, our music budgets are more limited than U.S. productions. I always say that getting a song in film/TV is gravy to the artist." Other factors contributing to the size of the license fee include what, where and how long the use is (Community cable production or prime time? Local or worldwide? One play or syndication unto perpetuity, amen?). It could be ten thousand smackeroos; it could be goose. But as Fritz points out, "If the front-end license fee is not substantial, there is always the backend performance royalties that can accumulate, especially on TV shows, and those SOCAN cheques are always a nice little surprise." As with radio, every time your song gets played on TV or in a cinema it generates mechanical and other royalties to which you and your crew may be entitled. These aren't insubstantial: if 30 seconds of your song ends up in the tail credits of Desperate Housewives, you're looking at thousands of dollars coming in the door.

A third revenue stream is from soundtrack sales. If the film or series is a hit, the soundtrack may end up selling very well, and film and TV producers will want to grab soundtrack rights at the same time as the license for the use of the song in the production. You can and should negotiate a cut of the "points" from soundtrack sales when you make the deal for the license.

A rather more important reason to get your music on a soundtrack is the exposure. Your music buying public arguably watches more TV than listens to radio, and breaking radio is ridiculously tough, especially in this big ole country, or internationally. Fritz agrees. "Widening your exposure to a broader audience is always a bonus. I know an indie artist who went to #15 in Beirut after her song was licensed for a film that had international distribution there. I can guarantee that Beirut was not her original target market."

So, where does one catch this particular gravy train? There are a number of ways to get your song on a television or film soundtrack. The first is to write a slew of international hits, sell a pile of records, then wait for TV and film producers to bash down your door. But since you're probably not Sarah McLachlan, the next best way is to try to catch the ear of a music supervisor. Music supervisors act as finders and liaisons between the film or TV people (the producer, director, show runner, post supervisor, picture editor, music editor, mixers, business affairs and accountants) and the music people (artists, agents, managers, record labels, publishers, music producers and composers). It's their job to keep on top of who's hot, but they'll also refer film or TV producers to just the right track, however old or obscure.

There are a number of agencies in Canada specialising in music supervision, most notably S.L. Feldman & Associates with offices in Toronto and Vancouver, and Toronto-based Arpix Media. Both keep up a deep pool of talent to draw on. Chris Robinson of Arpix says his job often entails "building up a library. It's creating a musical culture for the show based on what makes sense for that world." Robinson's extensive Rolodex of bands, managers and labels swells with new stuff he gets every day. He also actively searches it out, much like an A&R guy, by attending endless gigs, showcases and conferences. Even so, Robinson can point out holes he'd like to see filled: "Great sample-free hip-hop is golden!" (Digital samples are a legal nightmare for film/TV producers. Even if you've cleared your samples, producers will be dubious.)

Finally, you can take your music directly to film/TV producers. To avoid a totally scattershot approach, do some research first and find out who's doing what, and whether it seems like the kind of film or show that makes a good match for your music. A good place to start is Playback Magazine, which publishes a list of current productions in each issue. If you're serious enough to consider parting with $25, Arpix Media's downloadable publication "How To License Your Music Into Movies & Television" ( includes legal information and a searchable database of good-to-know film and TV people.

Frequently Asked Questions

Will I have any say in how the song gets used?
Producers prefer to get your song without limitations, but savvy musicians will make it a deal point that they get to approve the scene. For example, the producers of One Tree Hill, whose writer/director was a big fan of the band, approached the Constantines for a song. But the band felt the scene's context (a date rape) was inappropriate and passed on the deal. In a happy, if mystifying turn of events, the writer ended up making one of his characters a Constantines fan whose obscure love for the band became a story line without any of their music being featured.

An indie film producer approached my band. Do I need to bring our record label in on it?
Probably. Even if the label isn't entitled to a cut of the money, your deal will almost certainly require you and therefore the film producer to credit the release details, which is good for sales.

Must I have a deal with a music publisher to get a song on a soundtrack?
Amy Fritz answers: "No, definitely not. A lot of the music that we license is independently owned by the artist. However, a publisher is a professional who understands the process of licensing tracks to film/TV and the legal and economic issues around that. They also have contacts to get the artist's music in the right hands for such licensing, but that is something that an independent can develop on his or her own. As a music supervisor, I recommend that independent artists consult with a lawyer before signing anything."

Do I have to sign away my copyright to the film producer?
Fritz: "No, no, no! The majority of song licenses are non-exclusive, meaning that the songwriter can do whatever she or he wants with their pre-recorded song. It is the ‘economic right' of the songwriter to receive royalties and if they assign their copyright to the producer, then they receive no money other than the one-time fee that someone paid for the right to use (and in that case, own) the song. That said, there are sometimes ‘work for hire' agreements where a piece of music is commissioned for a soundtrack and in that case, the copyright is bought out in its entirety or the publishing is shared with the author."