Indie Music in Indie Films

A how-to guide for getting your band’s music in to the movies

With the growth of the independent film world comes the increasing need for independent music to fill the soundtrack. If you have your band’s music on a CD or CDR, you are on your own label or no label and you do not have a publishing deal, then you’re an ideal candidate for the indie film world. The more rights that are exclusively yours, the better, as this gives you complete control and the power to negotiate with the movie production companies.

First, let’s get a couple of facts together. There are basically two licenses you will be granting to a production company. One is a Synchronization License and the other is a Master License. Leaving the big legal aspects of these issues to a lawyer, what you need to be aware of is that there is a fee for each license. These are often referred to as “sides” instead of licenses. The phrases to look out for are exclusive rights to your music in perpetuity throughout the universe. If you see that line in a contract, you can either talk to a lawyer or run. Most companies are on the up and up but some will try anything to rip you off.

You Are Your Own Biggest Asset

The best way to get the word out that you want your music in films is to open your own mouth. Start letting everyone know how excited you are about your new CD. Connections to the film industry can pop up in the weirdest places and you will be surprised who knows who in this town. The key aspect to remember is it’s cool to be enthusiastic. It’s a drag to be repetitive. Without being a pest, always carry your CDs with you. Find ways to bring up your band’s music in conversation at the grocery store, to your auto mechanic, and to your day-job colleagues. Basically, everyone you come in contact with is a potential path to the movie soundtrack that can make your band the next big thing.

The Band Rejects

Every band has songs they don’t use or throw out after a while. Just because they’re not currently in your set doesn’t mean they wouldn’t be perfect for a scene in a film. Get those rejects onto a CD, too. You can make up a name for the artist that recorded them so your band won’t be associated with this material. As long as you own the rights to the song, publishing and record release (if it was released at all) you are sitting on music that could be paying for rehearsals, or, if it hooks in a big fish, a touring van.

But Our CD Isn’t Done Yet

This is one scenario where the packaging does not matter at all. In fact, many production companies prefer to receive the CDs with no shrink wrap. Do anything to make it easier and faster to get to the music. Just make sure your CDRs have your contact info, song titles and band info on them. Include this on everything. It seems obvious, but you’d be amazed at how many bands do not write on their CDs. You don’t even have to have professional labels on the CD. Use a sharpie. Production companies don’t care what you or your packaging looks like. They just want to find a song or piece of music that fits a scene the way they envisioned it.

Right Place, Right Time

Here is a guerilla approach in the spirit of true independent thinking! Search the film and music trade papers (Billboard, Variety, ASCAP) for upcoming “film/music” seminar dates. Make a note of which hotels will be involved. You don’t have to sign up for anything! Just go and hang out in the bar of the hotel hosting the seminar and have your CDs in your bag. If you go with your bandmates, it might be a good idea to split up so you can work different parts of the room. Eavesdrop. When you overhear a film executive say that they just haven’t found the music they were looking for yet, that’s your cue to dive in. Once again, make sure to have your contact details on the CD!

Also, go to Slamdance in Park City, Utah. Type in “independent+film+festival” at Google and find a festival close to you. Schmooze, schmooze, schmooze.

The Money

As briefly mentioned before, you will get paid “per side.” There will be times when you will be asked to grant a gratis (free) license. If the film is going to a festival with the hopes of getting picked up for distribution, it may be worth it. When the film gets picked up, you can renegotiate your license fees. However, if it gets picked up by a huge company, you may be booted out in favor of a name artist.

If a company asks you to give up your song because they just can’t pay you anything, that’s another story. At least ask for $100 per side. Come on. Musicians are always ripped off. For your efforts you deserve a bare minimum from the smallest film or TV production. If they love it that much, they can find $200 measly bucks.

The general price range you can expect is anywhere from $100 up to $1,000 per side. When you actually get paid can be tricky. A lot of companies don’t pay until a film is released so don’t expect a check immediately. Television works faster than film but is still slower than getting paid from a job.

If a movie company decides to release a soundtrack CD, this is an entirely separate negotiation and you will need to consult an attorney. A soundtrack CD is not part of the licensing fees. In the case of a film that is using big name music along with indie music, the big names will get a larger portion of the music budget. This also applies to any soundtrack CD negotiation.

Real Life Examples

My band, Bubble, has placed three songs in films with a fourth one pending approval from the movie’s producers. The first song was placed by the good people at Sugaroo. (See details below.) The second song, “Drug” was placed in “The First $20 Million Is Always the Hardest” through a friend who was a nanny for the film’s director. The third song, “Kickin’ Walls” is in “Try Seventeen” and got there through a friend who is an independent rep in film and television and who happens to love our band. The fourth track is an unreleased song that a good and enthusiastic friend had in her bag when she was working as a production assistant. She overheard the director complain that he couldn’t find the right song for a scene and she handed him the CDR.

Getting your music on to the big screen can be a “who knows who” game but it’s definitely worth playing. You might not get rich enough to buy a mansion or catch a big break but the money helps and the credits will look good on your band bio.

Outside of making personal connections with directors and music supervisors, here is a list of online resources:

  • Sugaroo: A reputable company that represents artists to film and television. They placed our award-winning song, “Sparkle Star” in “Dancing At the Blue Iguana.” This is a good choice if you live outside of Los Angeles.
  • Tonos: By joining Tonos, you can find many opportunities to submit your music for soundtracks. However, it will not be accompanied by a pitch just for your song; it will be placed on a CD along with several other tracks for a show’s producers to consider.
  • If you are willing to part with a lot of control, you can try the resources at the online licensing company Relia Music, Inc.
  • A slightly different approach is available at Song Catalog. This is a fee service (about $4.95/month) but may be worth a try.