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What is a Music Library?

May 10, 2010
*Public Domain

Not a music library

Music libraries, more accurately described as production music libraries, supply music for productions.

Why do you need one? Can’t you just use whatever might sound good from your CD/iTunes collection? No.

If you want to do just about anything with recorded music aside from listen to it, federal law requires you to get one or more licenses from two parties: 1. The publisher of the music, and 2. The owner of the sound recording.

License Types

  1. Synchronization License. If you are making a production, a synchronization license gives you the right to marry (synchronize) music with other media such as visuals, sound effects and voice-over
  2. Mechanical License. If you want to make copies of your production –for example, on DVD – you will also need a mechanical license.
  3. Performing License. If your production is to be played in public you need a performing license.  For this purpose, the definition of “public” is broad, encompassing everything from radio, broadcast and cable TV; to websites, youtube videos, music-on-hold and phone apps.  Here it gets a little complicated, because Performing Rights Organizations such as ASCAP and BMI sell licenses to many of the outlets where productions are performed.  In these cases a producer is not required to get a performing license: ASCAP or BMI has already granted a license to the venue. But the producer needs to check.

Options for Licensing Music

  1. MAINSTREAM MUSIC If you wish to use music on a record with a major or independent record company, you need licenses from both the record label (for the sound recording) and the publisher (for the song). These two parties are usually separate entities, and it typically takes many phone calls over several months to negotiate with both parties. If you’re lucky the license will cost only $500, if you’re not so lucky it could be $50,000.  I’ve seen cases where the answer is simply no, you can’t use the piece you want for any price.
  2. A COMPOSER The right composer with a sophisticated computer music system can make you a nice custom score.  But it’s still going to take him some time to produce the music, and what if you don’t like what he does?  Then you’ll need more time, and maybe more money. To increase the odds that you’ll like what the composer makes and that it won’t take until next year for her to do it, you need someone with talent and experience, not your cousin who recently got Garage Band.  That’s going to cost at least several thousand dollars.  And what if you need a piece that has live instruments? Now we’re talking about New York, and big bucks.
  3. MUSIC IN THE PUBLIC DOMAIN Say you want to use a piece by Mozart.  In the US, music written before 1923 is in the public domain, which exempts you from getting a license from a publisher. HOWEVER, you still need to get licenses for the sound recording.  So unless you know someone who plays well and you know how to record them, you’re back having to contact a record company

All of which might lead you to…

4. A MUSIC LIBRARY Production music libraries have a great variety of music, pre-recorded.  The better ones have, when appropriate, hired live musicians; first call New York cats and European orchestras. Prices for most applications are set.  Even in the case where a price needs to be negotiated, it can be done in a few minutes.  With an online library, such as the Manchester Library, you will be able to browse for what you want, download the music along with a license, and pay with a credit card for as low as $45.

Of course, you’re still welcome to try to get the rights to that song by Prince


A last note –

I wrote this post at the suggestion of Paul Reid, who was curious after reading a previous post, Convergence. Paul is not in the music business, but is a writer.  Paul is completing an unfinished project of my late father, the historian William Manchester, the third volume of The Last Lion, a biography of Winston Churchill.  Paul has faced a Herculean task, stepping into my father’s shoes to write a thousand pages.  Fortunately, Paul is very near to the (hopefully not TOO bitter) end. The manuscript should be finished within just a very few weeks.  Then, the editing process, and if all goes well, publication in 2011.

Also perhaps of interest, the cover article in last November’s Vanity Fair describes my father’s epic battle with Jackie Kennedy in 1966 over the publication of his book The Death of a President.  I’m quoted a number of times in the article

  1. Great job John. Thanks for the enlightening piece on the music business.

    It is a complicated industry and the way you’ve synthesized it all makes it a quick and informative read.

    We can easily understand how production music libraries play a crucial role and fill in a gap for most folks with limited means who want to use music in their communications.

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  3. joe jacobs permalink

    Very informative, and helpful, i learned alot in just a few minutes, if you have a newsletter or the like, sign me up

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