So, you want to license music for your new commercial?

You’re finally done shooting your new commercial. After coordinating with videographers, directors, marketers, ad buyers, script writers, editors, and maybe even some actors. Now it’s time to find the perfect music to go with it. Something upbeat that will fit just as well in the background as well as the climactic moments. But how do you find the perfect song, how do you license it legally, and how would you tell in advance if the licensing fees are in line with your budget?

For most small business owners and entrepreneurs the process is complicated enough to drive them mad, or compromise the potential impact of the work. However, licensing music doesn’t need to be something that keeps you from making the best commercial possible. Here’s a guide on how to license music as quickly and smoothly as possible.

The Licensing Journey

Licensing music for use in a commercial is troublesome because it requires approval from the rights-holders for both copyrights associated with a song. These are the owners of the sound recording (often the record label), and the composition (often the publisher). Unlike licensing music for a cover, there is no statutory rate. There is no requirement for the rights-holders to grant a license, and there is no mandated amount that the rights-holder have to charge if they decide to grant a license.

All this makes it difficult to know where to begin negotiating with artists and management teams when looking to secure the necessary “sync” license. The licensing process is further complicated when songs are written by multiple songwriters (and some pop songs today have as many as 15 co-writers) since each party has to sign off on a sync license.


When looking to do any licensing for music, the Harry Fox Agency (HFA) is a good place to begin. Harry Fox works directly with rights-holders to grant licenses for covers and is a subsidiary of SESAC (a music royalty collection organization, who also owns Rumblefish). Although Harry Fox may not have the rights to negotiate a sync license, they will likely have a relationship with the publisher and the owner of the sound recording to help point you in the right direction. If Harry Fox is unable to track down the people you’re looking for, the Performing Rights Societies (PRO’s) are the next place to find publishers and labels.

What Are PROs?

PROs collect royalties for artists, and most artists sign to them. In the United States, the PRO’s are BMI, ASCAP, and SESAC. Internationally there is often only 1 per country, and are often government sponsored. If the PROs and Harry Fox still are not able to put you in touch with all the rights-holders of the song, you can look up who the copyright holder is in the album liner notes, or at the bottom of the album on Spotify. Should a Google search not give any contact information, using the US Copyright office database will provide the last registered contact information for that copyright holder. Although this will likely only give one of the necessary entities you would need to clear the song; hopefully, the publisher or label will know who else has a stake in the song.

If all this sounds like a total hassle (and with older music it can not only be a hassle, but entirely fruitless), then luckily there’s another option. SoStereo has a database of pre-cleared music with state of the art search, filters, and curated playlists enhanced with audience demographics to give you the best information on what songs will reach your target audience.