Licensing Songs For TV: A DIY Artist’s Guide


Sean McCauley

| Posted:

October 29, 2019

Licensing songs for TV (or film, or video games, or really anything) may seem like a big, complicated bother. But it doesn’t have to be. People are making money with their music on TV all the time because TV is only half visual. For the other half, TV producers need lots of dialogue and background music. And with literally hundreds of channels streaming out 24/7, we’re talking about an almost endless need for music.

The person supplying that music can definitely be you. But how? Let’s take a stroll through the not-that-difficult world of licensing songs for TV and make everything clear. With just a little knowledge and a clutch of mood music, you can be one of those thousands of people making money on their songs in the relatively near future.

Why Would I Even Want to License My Music for TV?

Licensing songs for TV makes far easier money than does streaming. Streaming remains the most popular form of music entertainment, but nevertheless, your songs will need 80000 streams monthly to make minimum wage in the United States, and that’s a best-case scenario. Apple Music, Google Music, Deezer and Spotify all pay three times less than that — or worse.

However, if you manage to license a single song for a television commercial, you can make between 25,000-500,000 USD per year. And that’s just for one song. That should be reason enough for a musician to want to learn about licensing songs for TV, but there’s also the ease factor. Compared to a traditional music career, there’s no question that licensing has a much more reasonable chance to make a songwriter some money.

Maybe licensing expert Jesse Josefsson at puts it best when he says:

“There is a cheat sheet and an indication of what kind of music you should be making to succeed. That doesn’t really exist when you’re selling music to fans. That’s like throwing spaghetti at the wall and hoping something sticks. In licensing, you have catalogs you can research. You can look up licensed music; you can look at what tracks are getting placed.”

Mr. Josefsson is talking about knowing how to write music which will sell. This is key.

“[When you’re licensing songs for TV] there are reference tracks you can use to make sure your tracks are up-to-par. You’re not having to sell to a wide audience base. You’re selling to just a couple of companies, maybe a music library and a music supervisor or two. You can really do some fine-tuned research to find what it is they really want so you can earn some passive income royalties.”

That’s pretty clear. Of course, musicians who write music specifically to make art (not money) will be less attracted to this idea. But for those of us who’d prefer to make a living with our songs, there’s music licensing. And hey, if you’re making money with your art, well that’s more time you have to make art. Right? Right.

So let’s look at how it’s done.

licensing music for tv

Licensing songs for TV and making money? Absolutely. – Dubspot

Licensing Songs for TV, Step 1: Research

Licensing songs for TV means writing and producing music which matches a specific need. You’ve got to look for where the needs are. You want to fill that need. Kind of like feeding the hungry, you can’t actually help them until you find where the hungry people are first. This is like that, but their hunger is for a certain kind of music.

You need to know what you’re pitching music for: a film, an ad, a TV program, a video game, or what have you. You’ll need to know the general feel and tone of the program or company brand. That way you can make music to closely match that feel and give your clients what they want to buy.

So where do you find examples of the kinds of music that is selling right now? You can probably figure it out on your own, but here’s a good, healthy start.

  • TV network websites. Networks are proud of the music they’ve licensed for their shows. They put it up for public listening. You can see what songs were featured in which episode of which program very easily.
  • YouTube has playlists of just about every commercial campaign, every TV show, every film. Just go in there and search “Microsoft,” “Chevrolet,” “Target” or whatever and see what music they pair their commercials with.
  • Tunefind has all the music from TV in one place. Search by anything you like. It’s all there.
  • There’s also iSpot which is like Tunefind but specifically for commercials. Again, super duper easy.
  • Commercials you see on your own. Become an ad connoisseur! Click on those ads you see in your social media and listen to the music. Pay attention.

And, like, probably twenty other sources because the Internet is a huge place. Don’t think for a second that because it’s not on this list it’s not helpful.

The last suggestion is huge, though. Hollywood directors need to have seen thousands of films before they’re ready to make one of their own. If you want to be licensing songs for TV, you’re going to have to start paying attention to stuff you may have been ignoring.

Licensing Songs for TV: What to Listen For

Licensing songs for TV as an independent artist depends on your ability to hear the things advertisers look for. The good news is that they don’t look for much. These pros aren’t music critics. They just need a song which goes along with their film, ad or show, and they pay attention to three main elements:

  1. Tone: is it upbeat and fun? Is it serious and mature? Is it a warm/fuzzy or a cold/prickly?
  2. Studio production: are they using lots of autotune? Is it ultra HD or raw and lo-fi?
  3. Lyrics: what themes do the words revolve around? Family? Romance? Action?

You can pick any brand (Levi’s, Coca Cola, Disney…) and listen to the music used in the last month’s worth of advertising from that brand. Listen for the above three things. Make a list of the songs you hear in each ad for that company and look for the common similarities.

For example: Disney will probably have upbeat, harmless music with a modern studio production and lyric themes about family. Coca Cola may have active, vivacious music with a rock-and-roll studio sound and themes about youth and excitement.

Let’s take a closer look.

Notes on keys like paper

Write it, make it available, and let the TV people make it their own for cash. – Pyragraph

Licensing Songs for TV with the Right Tone and Studio Production

Licensing songs for TV heavily depends on tone. But what’s tone? Tone is the overall feel of the sound. The chord progression tells a sonic story which makes us feel emotion. That emotion needs to match the mood which an ad, show, game or movie wants the audience to feel.

How to write music to evoke one emotion or another is a huge topic. That’s enough conversation to fill whole university courses in composition and music theory. We’re going to presume for our purposes here that you can do that.

How Can I Tell?

We can explain what the music should do in general, though. It should sound like pictures. It should take the listener on a little journey, the way certain paintings do. Let your song climb up a mountain, then jump off the top and soar on the wind like an eagle. Let some rain fall and some sun shine. Suggest some conflict and resolution. This is instrumental music that tells a story.

If you’re not really sure if it’s working, simply pick a film, ad, or TV program which has the tone you’re trying to match. Turn the sound off, play it, and listen to your track as if it were the actual background music. What seems off about your track? Does it motivate the imagery? Does it intrude on the action and take up too much spotlight? This simple test will help you know.

Note that your track should have both a lyric and an instrumental version. That’s because producers often want to be able to fade the lyrics in and out, so they’ll want both. Make sure the instrumental version still has enough verve on its own to make the video feel the way it should feel.

Matching the overall sound of the songs may be the most important part. Make your vocals sound like vocals they’ve licensed recently. Make your guitars sound likewise. Drum beats, bass lines, etc. etc. etc.

But they’re not going to license your stuff if your lyrics don’t match the image they’re going for, so while that’s relatively easy, don’t take it lightly. It’s crucial.

Guitarist at the DAW

Tone is very important, naturally, but the lyrics are equally crucial if not more so. – Discmakers

How to Write Lyrics for Licensing Music

When you’re licensing songs for TV, you need to write lyrics which are general rather than specific. They should be universally relevant. They should resonate with just about anyone, or at least as many people as possible. Stay away from love songs, torch songs, and breakup songs. They’re not used. Neither is it a good time and place for political or social commentary. Save that for another time.

Themes used in commercials are vaguely positive and affirming. They deal with ideas everyone can relate to, words people find attractive, like “strong,” “fresh,” “freedom,” “mom,” “home,” “winning,” “healthy,” and such. You don’t want to write something too obviously cheesy, but if you can find a way to write a feel-good song about freshness without actually mentioning salad, you stand a good chance of getting it picked up by a grocer or soap company or something.

Try to make your song feel like the lyric theme you’re going for, too. If your theme is youth, fun and energy, make it a very boing-boing! Song. If your theme is serious, mature and businesslike, make it sound like singing electrons to the beat of rhythmic typing. You get the idea. Once you’ve got that, the lyrics will be easier to create because you’ll have a mood to match them up with.

So you’ve got your song all dialed in for your target audience. Now what?

Now you try to sell the thing. Let’s look at how, where, and to whom you’ll shop your marketable music.

There are teachers for music licensing for TV

Can experts teach you the finer points of music licensing? Sure thing. – Michael Elsner

Licensing Songs for TV by Hitting Up the Right People

Licensing songs for TV makes many DIY artists think there’s some magic trick to it most people don’t know, some password, handshake or secret door. In a way, that’s not totally false. Filmmakers and advertising heads don’t want to get flooded with bad music by amateurs who’ve not done their homework.

(That “homework” is everything above this section. Make sure you do yours).

So they do force musicians to jump through a couple professional hoops. They’re not difficult challenges, though. In fact, they’re not even challenges. You just have to take the right steps. Those steps are layed out easily when you register yourself at the right websites.

What sites, exactly?

For beginners, Evan Oxhorn at SideHustleNation suggests two sites:

  1. Audio Jungle
  2. Pond5

According to Mr. Oxhorn, these two sites “have just the right combination of reasonable quality standards and a large group of buyers.”

At Audio Jungle, you can license your songs exclusively or non-exclusively for a larger commission. Exclusively means just one brand or company gets to use your song. Non-exclusively means clients pay to license your song but others may do so, too.

At Pond5, all songs are licensed non-exclusively.

There are publishers you can work through, too, such as Centric Music and Music XRay. If that seems too heavy for you, you can also go through a sync agent such as Music Gateway.

According to Mary Woodcock of Music Gateway, “We focus directly on sync opportunities for our community without taking any rights or royalties.” Not a bad deal.

Additionally, you can also shop your music to song selectors directly. This is a far more hands-on approach, but And you can find lists of music selectors you can shop your music to, also, like this one at Songwriter Universe.

Once you’ve got a lot of music, you could also go hardcore DIY indie artist and make your own website to make your songs available to the public for licensing! There are sites where artists just like yourself (though probably with more music) have their whole catalog available online for licensing, like Funkee Boy over at his official website here, or Mr. Tim McMorris at his site over here. There’s absolutely no reason you can’t do that, too. But you’d probably have to have a lot of music before you went this route.

Licensing Teachers

While this guide has been written to be a complete guide, it has been created from facts and opinions from a variety of experts. These experts undoubtedly have even more information which can benefit today’s DIY artist. We’d be mistaken to not mention the affordable music licensing teachers out there such as:

Licensing Songs for TV Isn’t All That Hard After All

Licensing songs for TV, games, film, and advertisements isn’t really that hard after all, when you look at it. Really the trick is in making the music, and you’ve already got the talent for that, right? Once you’ve got a clutch of songs ready to go, it’s all about contacting the people who can get it where it needs to go. That’s something you’re prepared to do, now.

So get into onto the web and start your research! After that, it’s a short journey through the studio and onto licensing sites to make your music available for licensing everywhere. Good luck! But you’re probably not going to need it.