How much does it cost to license a song for a short movie?

by Jimmy on April 27, 2010

Email from Music Sales Corporation (A music publishing company) when I inquired about using one of their songs in Island Dog Robber for a film festival.  I wanted to obtain the rights to the copyrighted music I put into my movie in order to enter the movie into film festivals.  It would have been quite unprofessional and illegal to use unlicensed copyrighted music in a movie shown to audiences at a film festival.

Dear Jimmy,

Thank you for your email.

As discussed yesterday, we control “That’s the Way of the World” 33.33% throughout the world.  The remaining 66.66% world share is controlled by EMI Music Publishing.  There are no objections to this use in your film entitled ISLAND DOG ROBBER, subject to the following terms and conditions:

Media: Film festivals –  D.C. Asian Pacific American Film Festival, D.C. Shorts Film Festival

Term:                One (1) year
Territory:           United States
Use/Timing:       End credit – background vocal – 1:21 minutes
Quote:              $1,500.00 based on 100% on a most favored nations basis with the co-publisher

Best regards,

Synchronization Licensing Manager
Music Sales Corporation/G. Schirmer, Inc.
257 Park Avenue South, 20th Floor
New York, NY 10010


$1,500???  My ideal price for using the Earth, Wind, and Fire song in my movie was more in the range of “Hey, you can use it for free, just remember us when you make it big.”  Actually, I’m not shocked that they wanted to charge me so much money.  And remember $1,500 was only to have the rights to 33.33% of the song.  The other two members of the group had a publishing deal with another company, which would have probably charged me around the same amount of money for the rest of the rights to the song.  So in the end, it would have probably cost me at a minimum $3,000 to use this song for one year.  And if I actually did have the money to purchase the synchronization rights for one year, I would probably use the song in everything I did just to get my money’s worth.

“Hey, you know what would be great for that love scene?  Earth, Wind, and Fire’s “That’s the Way of the World.””

“Hey, you know what would be great for that shootout scene?  Earth, Wind, and Fire’s “That’s the Way of the World.””

The only thing that slightly upset me was the realization that Earth, Wind, and Fire probably would have only seen a small fraction of that money.  The $1,500 would have went to lining everyone’s pocket at the publishing company that in the end not much would have been left for the actual artists.  I wish I could just email Earth, Wind, or Fire directly and say, “Hey, I’ll pay you each $100 to be able to use your song in one of my amateurish short movies.  Deal or no deal?”  Then if they said yes, I would just send a check directly to their houses.  If any of my connected readers out there knows Earth, Wind, or Fire a.k.a. Charles Stepney, Maurice White, and Verdine Adams White personally, then you tell them to contact me directly because I have a proposition for them that they might not be able to refuse.

So now it’s back to the editing room, where I will replace all the copyrighted songs in Island Dog Robber with original scores by Eric Roberts and Raycurt Johnson.  In the end, I’m glad I was forced to do this because it’s the right thing to do both ethically and creatively.

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{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

1 huh May 20, 2010 at 10:56 pm

Music publishers SHOULD work on a horses for courses basis – if it’s a low budget film and it sounds like a cool project, it’d be nice if they’d still come to the party. You never though. I read a book by one of the producers of Focus Films and I think she mentioned getting a Rolling Stones song (I think? coulda been someone else big, I forget) licensed for something insanely reasonable like 500 bucks, though that sounds like a once in a lifetime kinda deal.

“Hey, you can use it for free, just remember us when you make it big.” is delusional, unless you’re talking some unknown artist… and even then, depends on whether they actually think your art is any good (and worth associating theirs with).

I’d say more of that publishing money goes to them than from their record contract.

2 Jimmy May 22, 2010 at 7:40 pm

Yes, I don’t think the music publishers that I contacted cared too much about really looking into my movies and deciding how much money they should charge or if they even wanted to associate their music with my song. Most of their applications seemed like they just wanted a quick synopsis of the project and provided some check boxes to discern if the project was big budget or low budget so they could adjust their price scale accordingly. When the only company to reply back to me, Music Sale Corporation, they did so only a few days after I sent them an informal email.

I think from now on I will only use original music or music from friends for my movies. It is cheaper that way in the long run and allow for even more control over the overall feeling of the movie I am making. Why should I settle for a widely recognized song that was written for something different all together. I wrote an article about this earlier here.

The one thing I will say is that I haven’t downloaded music illegally in almost 2 years! So I do respect the artists and of course, the music publishing companies to an extent. Everyone should get paid! YES!!!!!!!!

3 Just a nobody June 10, 2010 at 12:54 pm

You do understand that should you have managed to contact Earth Wind & Fire about using their song in your film, they would still be required to direct you to: Music Sales Corporation/G. Schirmer, Inc. – because they own a portion of the publishing rights. That 1,500 actually sounds like a pretty darn good deal. I would have expected the publishing rights to be much more considering it’s a popular song. Best of luck…

4 Jimmy June 11, 2010 at 5:01 pm

You forget, it would have cost $1,500 from one publishing company. I would have needed to pay another publishing company for the other 2/3’s of the song rights. So total that out and it’s $3,000-$4500 to use the song just for one year and only for film festivals. I could make 10 movies with that budget. So I don’t care for it.

5 Parker Davis July 26, 2010 at 1:11 pm

Interestingly enough, I just created a website for the very purpose of allowing anyone to commission high-quality music composition, to their specifications, for any project they have in mind. It is here:
And I would appreciate a look, followed either by feedback or by a reference in an article perhaps =)

It definitely pays off creatively and financially to commission music instead of paying a licensing company; here’s a site where you can get that direct connection with the artist who wrote the song, because he wrote it for you.


6 Jimmy August 4, 2010 at 11:07 pm

Hi Parker,

Thanks for the resource. I think people could use your services. If I ever write an article about original compositions for movies again, I’ll try to mention you.


7 Parker Davis August 5, 2010 at 2:58 am

Thanks Jimmy, very much appreciated =)


8 Paul November 25, 2011 at 7:25 pm

Interesting. I’m trying to sell a teen comedy set in the 1970’s. I need 27 rock songs from that era – 10 definitely – the rest I can substitute or live without. I’d love to pay $4,500 per song but from what I see on these sites it going to be a struggle. Still I’ll do what I can. This is my first film and if I can’t sell it to Hollywood, I’m going to try the Indie circuit and do it myself. I just don’t want to have to use that cheesy psuedo-rock music we’ve heard in so many teen movies. My friend’s old garage band was better than that c***. There are some scenes in mine that need certain songs to help tell the story or set the vibe. Wish me luck!

9 Terro Goodie February 24, 2012 at 3:56 pm

Parker Davis, has moved? Is the service no longer available?

10 DEREK R. NYBERG May 25, 2012 at 1:33 am

Thanks for the article.
Thankfully with Logic pro and Pro tools there are lots of composers such as myself that want you to come in under budget. Here’s a sample of my work.
Take care, Derek

11 meritcoba June 15, 2012 at 2:37 am

Just my two cents.
I make machinima and use music for movies from creative common places like Jamendo and FMA. License are like 60 dollars.
Another idea is either to ask Kevin MacLeod ( to make you a song or to ask for a song in the cc-mixter website: a place where mixers gather. You don’t have a big name attached, but remember this: even lady gaga started some place and a potential lady gaga might be working there right now.
Another option is to see which songs have fallen into the public domain or have been published there.

12 Jimmy November 1, 2012 at 8:17 pm

Hey Meritcoba,
These are such great suggestions. Thanks for sharing. I’ll check out some of the CC-mixter websites. Have you been able to use some of the mixes in any movies?

13 Jimmy November 1, 2012 at 8:22 pm


The song that you created, “Good Girls Rule,” sounds really great. Keep up the good work. I’ve been out of the low-budget movie-making business for the last year, trying to start a small farm, but the movie-making bug has bit me again. I’ll keep you in mind for music if I ever get done writing a script for a Western.

14 Jimmy November 1, 2012 at 8:24 pm


How is the movie coming? Maybe you could get your friend’s garage band back together.

15 Derek Nyberg November 12, 2012 at 6:52 am

Hey Jimmy, thanks! and good luck! drop me a line at anytime! cheers.

16 Kron November 15, 2012 at 3:16 pm

You could probably license a good remake of “That’s the Way of the World” for much less. That is what the producers did with all the Beatles songs in the 2001 “I am Sam” movie.

17 April 8, 2013 at 2:43 pm

I have just made a few songs for friends films and have a big catalog of music.

I can also make songs based on your theme for around $ 1000.

Feel free to email me your project and I will send through music


18 Kathleen October 14, 2013 at 11:33 pm

The reason I want buy rights to published musical works is the known audienceempoitioan response to the music. For a home made you toue projecthat willbeseen by 50 people $1500 seems sop far from a 1980s mix tape..

19 Robert Payne November 24, 2014 at 8:27 pm

I am new to film writing but have several music suggestions. Does anyone know what it would cost for top classic hits, Broadway Songs etc. for a full length movie, some just background, others songs played in their entirety. Thank-you. Robert

20 Tony Garcia January 27, 2015 at 8:36 pm

I have a huge catalog of dance music hits, if anyone want to license any of my music under my label, feel free to contact me, i have one price for the license no years attached to the agreement,
thanks for listening.

21 Jd August 27, 2015 at 4:07 pm

I know Verdine and Maurice. I don’t think they would do it for $100. LOL

22 Alex March 30, 2016 at 7:58 am

You sound like a fking tight ass.

23 Maria May 2, 2016 at 4:34 pm

Thank you for this! I’ve been looking everywhere for this information. I appreciate you sharing your experience.

24 Beavis January 20, 2019 at 8:21 am

Wow some interesting perspectives and free advice here… I don’t agreee with the “use it an see if they notice”. What if they do? Even if they don’t, it’s one thing to not know what you are doing when starting out but if you do, then it’s just disrespectful, imho. I’ve been looking into this topic, now, am I correct in understanding that some music IS available for use under Creative Commons but that license is not or sometimes not ok to use if the product will be sold or shown for profit? (Probably means cc could be ok to create the project, but a different agreement would later be needed to charge admission and even more so to sell a copy or downloadable version) Just a different perspective, some areas have associations to help start up small businesses which includes low cost legal assistance. Has anyone ever gone that route? What about you more frugal types wanting to use the song repeatedly? Wouldn’t the agreement specify the approved work, contract length, how many viewings, copies sold, are royalties still a thing? Are those negotiable or fixed price? Is price fixing legal? *as with any free advice talk to a real attorney don’t listen to me I’m just here to steal your posted project ideas and know what songs you are planning to use, right? Well, if I knew what I was doing, which I might or might not, then I’d probably want to focus on the creative process including selecting the music most appropriate regardless of “big name” or cost, and would also start thinking about how to improve the funding which could mean self funding or not.

25 Jimmy January 20, 2019 at 11:19 pm

Hi Beavis or Leigh,

Yeah, I wrote this post when I was a young and arrogant movie-maker. I now understand that people should get paid for the work. I’m not sure if the money goes to the actual maker of the song, but yes we should pay for the license. If it costs too much, find a different song, or use no soundtrack, which could be kind of cool like the movie Ballast.

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