Music in Films: An Introduction to Budgeting

The question we are asked most frequently usually begins with “How much..?”

Unfortunately there isn’t a simple answer when it comes to the tracks you already know and love. Unless it’s music that has been specifically composed and recorded for film or TV use (usually called Production Music) there isn’t such a thing as a rate card. In each instance a quote must be obtained.

It comes as a surprise to some film makers that quotes aren’t available immediately but recording artists have definite opinions on how they want their music used and even more particularly, how much they are paid for it.

If all that’s required is generic filler for say, a club or a restaurant where music would be expected but doesn’t fulfil any particular need, there’s plenty available for a nominal fee.

However when a film maker requests a specific track for a specific scene then it’s assumed there is a value in that particular piece of music being used at that point. It’s in determining that value where the fun begins.

Before any rights holder, (that is the entity which controls how a copyright is used – it may be the creator, their heir or an assigned third party such as publisher), will consider granting permission they will have a few questions of their own. It is entirely possible you will get a flat ‘no’ without a single question being asked. Some artists – The Beatles are the prime example – say ‘no’ as a matter of course, others are just very selective. The reasons vary from a belief that indiscriminate play lessens the music’s impact to using scarcity as a way of maintaining monetary value.

Even if the people behind the music are open to its use they will want to know a few things first. Most important is context; so a film synopsis and a scene description is a must. Aside from the obvious wish to avoid associations with drugs or violence; meat, alcohol or smoking may be issues for some artists.

The next question is, “What is the film’s budget?” This feels a bit chicken and egg as the chances are you are in the process of building a budget and the cost of the music will be a key factor. This question can actually be helpful to you. No one is looking for a definitive answer that second but there are certain benchmarks £40,000, £100,000, £500,000, £2 – 5 million and so on, all of which are considered low budget in their way. Most rights holders will tailor their quote to the overall film budget and not try to take too big a slice of the pie for themselves.

Other more mundane matters also carry some weight. How many times the track is used and the duration of each use are important. When you licence a piece of music it’s not a general licence, it’s very specifically in timed relation to a visual sequence and you cannot use it in any other way or with any other part of the film without a potential change of terms. You certainly can’t use it in a trailer or even refer to the song title or artist outside the agreed credits without coughing up extra.

There are a variety of parameters that frequently crop up which directly affect the quote. The usual ones are territory, (UK, Europe, the World?), media, (TV, Cinemas, Online?), and term, (one year, five years, perpetuity?). There are of course many others and in theory the music portion of the pie can be infinitely sliced.

It’s the latter fact that makes those working in the industry doubtful about the idea of a rate card – especially one devised by academics, technocrats and civil servants as a recent government report is suggesting.

Rate cards only work if everyone wants the same rights and has a similar budget available. The moment someone tries to cut a deal the whole thing falls over. And isn’t that what producers do, cut deals?

The second most asked question comes in the form, “Wow, that much! I can’t afford that. Is there any way we can get it down?”

The answer is generally yes, but only by limiting the rights you are given. The most common licence which you can get for (comparatively) little is the limited term festival licence. Basically it starts at the beginning of the festival season and lasts for a year. Some companies are happy to agree this at no cost; some want around $500 and others, more rarely, as much as $1,000.

At the opposite end of the scale is the worldwide all media in perpetuity licence which will be top whack. In between you can limit the territories, exclude theatrical or online, leave out DVD and DTO etc etc; there are any number of variations you can employ to lower the price.

You must keep in mind that shaving rights might only carry short term benefits. If you are looking to take your finished film to distributors then they will have contractual requirements for all the property clearances related to your film. If you have to go back to rights holders to renegotiate then it will cut into whatever the distributor has offered you for your film.

What cannot be emphasised enough is the timing and mode of approach to the various rights holders. There’s a temptation to go right ahead and ask the straight question, “How much…?” but this brings its own dangers. It’s great if you are putting a budget together and want an overview of costs but it’s not good negotiating practice to start with asking for a quote… then saying it’s too much. As a statement it may be true but it isn’t much of an argument for it being lowered. Unlike cutting back on locations or cameras it’s not always so easy to cut back on the music spend especially if its part of the director’s vision from the start.

If you are planning on all score there are always new composers willing to go rock bottom for something that looks good on their CV. If known tracks aren’t vital and you can go with library music, that will save thousands. Alternatively a week trawling MySpace and an imaginative use of up and coming bands and can definitely make for a great soundtrack.

If however there’s a moment of transition of character, if a significant point in the story arc needs marking or you have to evoke a definite time or a place there’s simply nothing better than the perfect piece of music. Even a whiff of recognition sets the scene more succinctly than the sharpest dialogue.

As a film moves towards its final dub the music requirements change constantly and a specific quote which has been sitting on the table for months has the tendency to become set in stone. Take away your music supervisor’s flexibility to balance cost with creativity and negotiate a path through these changes and it will inevitably cost more.

There are two inescapable truths for music in film; the one song on which you have set your heart will threaten to swallow your entire music budget and the amount of money you have left at the end will be far less than the amount you set aside at the beginning.

So if you can’t actually ask “How much…?” how do you arrive at a figure for music? An experienced music supervisor will have a pretty solid idea of the level for each cue. They will also be able to tell you which rights holders tend to be more costly, which are the most intractable and which are the least sympathetic to budget restraints. They can dip into their considerable fund of knowledge or can have a quiet word in the ear of a colleague.

There are several ways of arriving at a sufficiently accurate budget without having to be tied to the first set of figures you’re quoted – most likely ones at the top rate as well. The film making process generally takes so long it’s best to avoid being stuck with the quotes you’ve been given a year or more before firm music decisions actually have to be made.

This of course begs the next question; how much will a music supervisor cost?

A supervisor’s fee is necessarily based on the amount of work involved and that, of course will be down to what you want from your supervisor. Every film’s approach to music is different and the way you work together can vary equally widely. The job description of a music supervisor is broad; too broad to cover here but a discussion with the producer and director should define the relationship sufficiently for work to begin.

Loosely, the balance between scored and sourced music and the amount and nature of the latter will be enough to come up with a base figure. Each supervisor will have their own way of calculating this reflecting their own modus operandi but they shouldn’t differ too greatly. It’s the demands you make on your supervisor which affect their final cost more than anything else.

One thing to watch out for is whether the clearing of the music, (the actual negotiating and issuing of the licenses), is included. The process of licensing music falls into three areas; sourcing, negotiating the fee and securing the exact rights you need. While the fee and the rights are intimately linked no two rights companies have the same default position and there is always a considerable amount of to and fro to bring all the licences into line.

If you have a strong reason for allocating these duties to separate individuals or companies make sure you have budgeted for each part of the process. If you have paid out for a supervisor without taking into account the cost of the paperwork, you may be surprised how it adds up especially if billed by the hour.

Planning mixed with flexibility and circumspection is the key. Last minute searches and negotiating when up against deadlines are the kind of things that can push music costs up and even lead to re-edits or worst of all, re shoots which makes everything skyrocket.

It may sound glib, but if the music content of the film is planned properly from the beginning, the music supervisor’s fees and the cost of the music added together will come in within the initial budget.

Music in Films: Budgeting Continued…