Music Licensing Terms

Common terms used in today's music licensing

Glossary of Music Licensing Terms

Here is a small list of commonly used terms that are used with in everday language with in the music licensing side of things. You need to educate yourself to be the best you can. I hope you find this helpful. I got this info from a variety of sources all over the web, I did not make it all in its entirety but added and been adding all the time. If you would like a glossary on recording terms CLICK HERE If you would like to add to it or have thoughts concerning this please feel free to contact me at EMAIL

All in

  1. Composer: “All In” for a Composer means that they will deliver the score in final format to the producer for one, all-in fee. That means they will usually be doing a “synth score” where all the music is recorded via digital means, using instrument samples, etc. If they need to use a live guitar or sax player (or whatever), they have to pay the player from their own pocket.
  2. Songwriter: “All In” means BOTH the master use and synchronization fees are combined into one “all in” fee for licensing the song.


Not to be confused with the composer, although composers often arrange their own music — especially anyone whose name isn’t John Williams or an equally A-list composer (they’re the ones who can afford to have their nails buffed while the Arranger weaves their magic). An Arranger takes the composition and decides what instrument will play what and adjusts the music for the type and/or size of the band or orchestra that will be performing and/or recording it. Sometimes arrangers take a huge orchestra score and trim it down for a smaller group, or will take a classical piece and arrange it for a rock band or pop artist (think “Fifth of Beethoven” as an example).

Background Vocal

A term used in cue sheet preparation that describes a vocal or non-visual vocal source, such as a song playing on the radio or jukebox in the background.


These are the short pieces of music you hear before/after commercials as we come “back to the show!” Game shows use these a lot — and not just at commercial breaks, but to emphasize various key points in the game. Short music cues in the midst of the action can also be referred to as Bumpers.

Click Track (aka Click)

This is a digital metronome signal (Click) that helps the musicians hear the exact beat/tempo while they record.

Closing Theme

A term used in cue sheet preparation noting the end title (Closing) Theme. This is most-often considered a featured use, since it is the primary focus of the scene/end credits.

Contractor (aka Music Contractor or Vocal Contractor, aka Fixer)

These folks hire the instrumentalists and/or vocalists needed on a session and know the skilled, professional people in their town who work well together, won’t waste anyone’s time and will produce great results on time and on budget — every time. Sometimes the production company will designate a Contractor, but more often they work with the composer (who often just tells them “Get me the best you can for the money we have”) and they also liaison with the music coordinator or whoever is setting up the studio time, location, etc. The Contractor notes how many minutes of music are recorded and/or how many tracks are recorded. For union sessions, the Contractor helps to handle the A F of M (Musicians Union), SAG and/or AFTRA paperwork and forms for filing with the respective union(s). They make sure that during the session the performers get proper break times, meals, etc. and oversee the full recording process. The Contractor may also be one of the performers during the session, and is in charge of making sure all the performers get paid the right amount of money and in a timely fashion (according to union rules, if applicable). Cash is good, but more often than not, expect a check in the mail.

Corporate and/or Industrials

Commercials are self-explanatory, but an “Industrial” can be anything from a national sales meeting for a company to a live show for potential clients. Music can be pre-recorded or done live — or a combination of both. Whether it’s music for a film or launching a product line, the knowledge and skills required to license or create songs are the same. Music can add excitement to a car chase or a commercial, punch up dialogue between actors or even help a CEO in a national presentation to the stockholders. Music is a prominent feature in advertising and commercials. Music can be custom-created for an ad campaign, or a “famous” song can be licensed. So whether it’s a string of commercials touting the newest Disney TV show, or custom-created music to motivate the corporate sales force, the principles are the same.

Cue Sheet

If a composer, songwriter or publisher wants to be a part of the Money-by-Mail Club they need to keep an eagle eye on the Cue Sheet and when/where it’s filed. It is the document that lets their PRO know (BMI, ASCAP, PRS, SESAC, SOCAN, GEMA, etc.) that money is due them for use of their music in a project. EVERY time a film or TV show is completed, a Cue Sheet is prepared that specifies who wrote and published each piece of music, who owns what percentage, the respective PROs and exactly how long and in what fashion the music was used. The most important thing about a Cue Sheet (assuming the writers and publishers want to get paid) is to file it with every PRO whose writers and/or publishers appear on it. The music supervisor, coordinator and/or administrator usually prepare the Cue Sheet based on information provided by the music editor and composer, and the production company or network is generally responsible for filing them with the PROs. Ideally, Cue Sheets should be filed within ninety (90) days of the FIRST airing/showing of the TV program/film, but there is no hard and fast rule or requirement by the PROs — other than “in a timely manner” (which can sometimes mean up to a year!) . NO WRITER OR PUBLISHER GETS PAID THEIR PERFORMANCE ROYALTIES UNLESS THE CUE SHEET IS FILED WITH THEIR PRO! This means that writers and publishers (or their administrators) should always request a copy of the Cue Sheet for any project in which their music is used.

Engineer (aka Scoring Mixer)

A great Engineer is a composer’s best friend — really! They record and mix the music, and oversee all the technical aspects of the recording session. The great ones are also often musicians themselves, so have that creative ear as well as the technical prowess necessary for a successful session. Composers often have favorite Engineers and will request them on a project. Sometimes the production company will ignore the composer and assign an Engineer — it often depends on budget, but sometimes an “I want to be in control of everything” person can enter into the process from either the creative or business end. As such, an Engineer often has to be a highly-skilled mediator who speaks all the languages: composer, director, classical instrumentalist, rock instrumentalist and singer — and even suit! The good ones are also up-to-date on all the current technology and how it can help in the specific session at hand, and will work closely with composer and score supervisor to make everything run smoothly, efficiently and quickly, without sacrificing quality or anyone’s sanity.

Ephemeral Use

Certain live TV programs require no licenses because there is no reproduction of the program for future broadcast. This may include news broadcasts, sporting events, telethons, awards shows, etc. or where only one copy of a particular program is made specifically and solely for the purpose of broadcast (“videotape exception”) — such as late-night talk shows or local TV shows. Any reruns, DO, however, require a license. The very fact that they are broadcast again means that they were recorded so that they could be reproduced. As such, reruns are outside the scope of this exception. ALL Ephemeral Uses are recorded on cue sheets which are then filed with the respective PROs (the same way it’s done for every other type of film or TV use).

Featured Instrumental

A rarely used cue sheet term where an instrumental cue is featured in some specific way other than visual. PROs most often will consider any instrumental cue/score as “background” regardless of its featured use (such as in a montage, etc.). Be very careful when using this category, and don’t be surprised if it gets bumped to a “background instrumental” use.

Featured Vocal

A term used in cue sheet preparation to describe music with a vocal (a song) that plays during a visual montage or other important scene. This is most-often considered a “featured” use since it is the prime focus of the scene.



Ever wonder how that composer manages to spew out three hours of music per week for all the TV shows he/she is doing, and still has time to write the entire score for that new blockbuster? Chances are, he/she is NOT, and no, human cloning didn’t sneak its way into the music biz. That’s where the struggling composer who is begging to be let in the door comes in. He/she writes music for another composer, but receives no cue sheet or any other credit for composing the music. The Ghostwriter is an invisible music elf who makes cues magically appear for the credited composer, who then pays the Ghostwriter a flat buy-out fee (usually minimal), takes credit for writing the music and appears as the sole writer on the cue sheets. Kinda icky, huh? In the most egregious instances, the Ghostwriter is not even allowed to tell anyone that he/she wrote any music for the film/TV program his/her creation appeared. There have been some court cases on this (thankfully, most in favor of the Ghostwriter), but most composers consider it to be an unethical practice (which it IS, in case anyone was still wondering). The busy composer who needs help to make their deadline not only pays the other composers he/she contracts, but makes sure the cue sheets reflect the correct composer name(s) and info for each respective cue, even though they can’t guarantee on-screen credit.

In Context Use

A term used in music licensing to note that the music can only be used IN Context — in the specific scene for which it is being licensed, and not in any other scene or advertisement (trailer).

In Perpetuity

Basically, this means forever. In publishing, it means that whoever owns the publishing rights to a song will own it for the full life of the copyright (not just the life of the composer). In music licensing, it means that whoever owns the rights to the project (filmmaker, production company, TV network, etc.) is given contractual rights to have a song/composition and/or specific recording of it embedded into the project forever. If a publishing company, record label or film company is sold to another entity/corporation, all contracted rights follow the song and recording to the new company(ies).

Linear Use

A Linear Use is when the music being licensed is being used in a specific manner without manipulation — which includes moving verses around, or taking out a horn section, etc. Film and TV uses are most often linear.

Master/Sync License

This encompasses both “ends” of the song — the song itself, and the recording of it. Independent artists often own the publishing and master rights of their songs and recordings.

Master Use License

Whoever owns the RECORDING of the song issues the Master Use License. There could be any number of people who recorded the song — the only one that counts here is the one the filmmaker wants to use. Whether it’s an independent artist’s recording of his/her own song or a major artist’s recording of a song, whoever owns the rights to the respective recording issues this license.

Mechanical License

This is NOT a license used in film or TV, but a license used when manufacturing, selling and distributing audio-only products (CDs, DVDs, etc.).

Most Favored Nations (aka MFN)

This is a term borrowed from the United Nations that basically means every nation will be treated equally and without preference. As it applies to music licenses, it means that if any other music of similar status is licensed at a higher price than you’d originally quoted, the production company is obligated to pay you the same amount for YOUR cue that they paid for the other similar cue(s). It does NOT mean, however, that Newbie Breakout Indie Band is going to command the same license fees as a song written and/or recorded by The Rolling Stones. It simply means that Indie Angsty Chick & Newbie Breakout Indie Band will be treated equally, and The Stones and The Beatles will price themselves out of most films who don’t have $250K to toss at one source cue. This is important language to have in EVERY music license.

Multimedia License

CD Interactive (CD-I), CD-ROM (read only memory), Karaoke and Computer Games are examples of Multimedia License uses. Licensing in this area is still a bit new, and as such, very often, only limited rights are being granted. This is where the fewest industry standards and practices have been established. With many types of interactive multimedia products, music is not necessarily used in the same sense as it is with CDs, DVDs or TV uses (linear uses). Some of the new media allows manipulation of the music (such as extracting the flute in an orchestral work or taking the guitar part out of a pop song so the user can play along). In some cases, the user can produce their own version of the composition (kinda like being your own producer). This is considered a “non-linear” use and one of the reasons rights holders are being very cautious about Multimedia Licenses.

Music Administrator

Ostensibly, their duties should be to handle all the paperwork for the music supervisor and/or coordinator. In reality, they often have to handle a lot of the duties most often associated with being a supervisor and/or coordinator because of budget, time or personnel constraints. They may not be in the room as negotiations are in process, but after that meeting, you can bet that they’re the one who actually types up the contract!

Music Breakdown

While this can happen at the rough cut stage of a film, ideally the music supervisor is brought on before shooting, at which time they’ll read the script and note every place where music would be appropriate (i.e., club scene, romantic montage, car radio, etc.). This does NOT take the place of a spotting session (although it may include some ideas for where the bigger score pieces might work), but is merely a heads-up for the director with a ballpark idea of how many source cues might be needed and, perhaps, a rough budget. The supervisor will note the scene, type of music — or even a song title/artist if they have a specific song/recording in mind. They’ll also note how the music will be used (visual vocal — such as the band playing as everyone screams “Rock on!” — or background or whatever).

Music Clearance

Before using a piece of music and/or its recording in a film or TV program, it must be “cleared” with the respective publisher(s) and/or master rights holders. This means you need permission to use the music and/or its recording — and this means whether it’s “only” for a student film or festival uses, for TV (of any kind and anywhere), foreign or U.S. theatrical, or for Dolly Dinkle’s Dance Academy’s local cable ad. There are TWO parts of music clearance & licensing: A synchronization license is issued by the publisher for the use of the song/composition, and a master use license is issued by whoever holds the rights to the specific RECORDING of the song/composition. For famous/known copyrights and/or recordings get an expert or become one. It’s not brain surgery, but the ins-and-outs and “who knows who can get what at a good price and fast” can be really important — meaning you may get your “yes” or “no” answer in a couple of weeks as opposed to a couple of months. Suggestion? Go indie artist/label instead. They usually hold all rights to their own music and are more likely to make a deal that fits your budget. You’d be surprised at the variety of indie music available — it’s not all angsty chicks or moody dudes, but retro ’80s, big bands & 1940s swing, ’70s disco and old & new folk music from all around the world.

Music Coordinator

This differs greatly, depending on whether they’re on staff with a TV network or a full-service music company or an independent person who works with specific music supervisors. The Music Coordinator’s duties can be as simple as creating and filing cue sheets for the project and making sure all the dollars and cents add up at the end of the day, or may be as complex as working hand-in-hand with the music supervisor on all aspects of the project. Sometimes, if there is no supervisor, the Coordinator will work with the director and assume many of the duties a supervisor would normally handle. A Music Coordinator’s primary functions are normally to make sure the music the supervisor is suggesting for particular scenes is properly catalogued and delivered to the director, film editor and/or music editor (as directed), and all credit information (songwriters, artists, labels, etc.) is readily available. They are also responsible for coordinating the compilation of all information for cue sheet preparation, and may actually prepare the final cue sheets, based on the composer and music editor’s notes from the final mix of the film. Basically, the budget often dictates their duties.

Music Copyist (aka Copier, Music Preparer or Music Prep)

The Music Copyist (“Copier”) prepares the printed music charts and/or lead sheets the musicians use at a recording session. These are extracted from the overall music score the composer provides so that everyone is looking only at the part they play, and have their music in the right key for their instrument (kind of important). In the past (as those of us who had the stained fingers to prove it), such charts were done by hand, with India ink, and done one by one in a rather painstaking process. Today, with the advent of some great scoring software, those who prepare music for sessions most often will do it via the computer.

Music Editor

The Music Editor, along with the composer (and sometimes the music supervisor and/or coordinator) organizes, documents, and times all the music cues used in a project. He/She is the obsessive, retentive type and will often drive the director crazy with almost indistinguishable cuts in/out of a piece of music, but that’s why we love them. They will often make suggestions as to the best start/stop points, and can make a song “fit” into the scene, dodging dialogue and enhancing poignant moments by “cutting and pasting” a song. They also work with the composer on timing, length, type and placement of music that the director, composer and music supervisor have discussed during spotting sessions. If the music is being recorded live (not a Synth Score), the Music Editor will often be at recording sessions to document, time and name each cue, and will often generate the click used to keep everything exact. The Music Editor also cuts all music (source, score or scource) into the film — although here is where the director and/or producer may return the “he/she’s driving me crazy” favor. The music editor also notes the correct SMPTE Time Codes for the cue’s in/out placement and provide that info to the music supervisor, coordinator and/or administrator so that official cue sheets can be prepared for filing with the respective performance rights organizations (PROs).

Music Publisher

A Music Publisher works with songwriters & composers to promote and market the writers’ songs/compositions. They pitch them to the folks who use music (movie/TV producers, record labels, video games, etc.). In return (and PLEASE NOTE: The Publisher will own this for the LIFE of the song/composition’s copyright — otherwise known as “in perpetuity”), the Publisher takes a percentage of the publishing half of a song (up to 100%). Publishers license the right to use the song (not to be confused with the recording of the song/composition), collect fees for the usage and split them with the songwriter/composer.

Music Supervisor

Regardless of whether they’re a “biggie” (meaning “I have a staff”) or an “indie” (“I get to do it all for less money”), the Music Supervisor’s main duty is in choosing music & licensing it for the project, and — as importantly — making sure the music they provide to the director/producer enhances the action/mood on screen, and helps the director/producer see their artistic vision realized. The Music Supervisor oversees all of the creative and business aspects of the music for a project. This includes helping to develop a music budget, assisting in the search for a composer, helping the director in his/her choice of songs, coordinating the soundtrack recording, “spotting sessions” (with composer & director), etc. It may or may not include doing the music clearance/music licensing paperwork, and can also include some (or all) of the duties of a music coordinator and/or music administrator. The earlier the Music Supervisor is involved, the more time they have to be creative — both with the music itself and with the budget. When a “famous” song, or a “classic copyright” is desired by a director, but the project’s budget does not allow for its use, the Supervisor will suggest (and often negotiate) budget-friendly alternatives from various sources, including independent artists and/or music libraries.

Non Linear

A Non-Linear use is when the user may manipulate the music — such as extracting the guitar part or moving verses around, etc. This is the option most often requested in multimedia licenses, especially for games, Karaoke, etc.

Opening Theme

A term used in cue sheet preparation that means the film/program’s opening title theme. This is most-often considered a featured use, since it is the prime focus of the scene.

Out of Context Use

A term used in music licensing to note that the music can be used not only IN Context during a specific scene, but may also be used in a film trailer and/or advertisement, whether or not the trailer uses the scene for which the music was originally licensed.


Performing Rights Organization (PRO)

To be a member of the Money-by-Mail Club one must be a songwriter, composer and/or publisher signed up with of one of the many Performing Rights Organizations (PROs) throughout the world. Performance royalties are collected by the PROs (BMI, ASCAP, SESAC, SOCAN, PRS, GEMA, etc.) for the public performance of music (TV, films, restaurants, foreign movie theatres, etc.). Those royalties are calculated and paid based on various PRO computations, factors and variables, such as the network on which the program is aired, the country in which a film is screened, number of minutes of music used, etc. Your PRO is at least partially (sometimes solely) determined by the country in which you are a citizen.


SEE: Performing Rights Organization

Public Domain (aka PD)

A song is in the Public Domain when it never has been, or is no longer owned by a publishing company. This applies to many old folk songs (but not all), older “classical” music (such as works by Mozart, Bach & Beethoven) and/or when enough time has passed since the composer’s death to classify the work as in the Public Domain. PD music can be recorded without negotiation or payment to a publisher, since there are no rights to negotiate because there is no ownership. RECORDINGS of PD music cannot be used without the permission of the owner of the recording (unless the recording itself has also passed into PD, and that can require a daunting amount of research to verify). DO NOT EVER assume that a song is in the public domain. A song can be PD in the US, but not in the UK, and virtually every music license’s territory is “worldwide” (some get freaky and want the Universe — maybe for “K-FLY, your ‘fly in the sky’ for all you groovy space station listeners” perhaps?). When licensing music, ALWAYS verify that the song is PD worldwide before plunking it into the project.

Score Music (aka Score)

This is music the actor on screen DOESN’T hear — the music the composer creates to let the audience know that the monster is coming, the damsel is in distress, the good guy is hunting down the bad guy or the two lovers are sad they’ve parted. This music is NOT licensed the way source music is licensed, but is most often done as a “work for hire” by the composer for the film/TV production company. A “work for hire” (aka “work made for hire”) means that whoever hired the composer to write the music owns the publishing of that music. In today’s indie film market, however, the composer may often accept a lesser up-front fee (or even do it on spec or for no up-front money) and in return, gets to keep 50-100% of their publishing, rather than handing all or any of it over to the production company.

Score Supervisor

During the recording session for a film or TV program, the Score Supervisor hangs out in the control room with the music engineer, music editor and whoever else wants the free food the string section and electric bass player always mange to find before anyone else. The Score Supervisor makes suggestions and comments to the conductor (often the composer) as the music is being recorded. The composer/conductor may not want to have to trek back and forth from the studio into the booth to listen to playback, and the Score Supervisor can give them fast feedback on what’s working and what is not (although the suggestion, “no you shouldn’t have hired any viola players” may be too late [just kidding]).

Scource Music (aka Scource)

A mix of the words “score” and “source,” this is music that is treated like score music on screen, but is licensed in the fashion which source music is licensed. Indie filmmakers, who often have already maxed out their credit cards to make their film may not be able to afford a score composer, but CAN afford a few music cues for their opening or end title, chase scene or seduction montage. Composers often have lots of that music sitting around gathering cyber dust, since it’s rare that all the music they write for a film gets used. They still own that music and will often license it out to indie filmmakers.

SMPTE Code (aka Time Code)

SMPTE is an acronym for The Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers. It usually refers to a standardized time code that SMPTE developed. SMPTE is a recorded audio signal that is shown in a window on the screen to reference where you’re at in the program/film (e.g., 02:01:22:14 refers to a time code location of “two hour, one minute, twenty-two seconds, and 14 frames”). SMPTE comes in several types (including Drop Frame & Non-Drop Time Code).

Sound Designer

This is the person who creates the soundscape and designs the non-musical sounds for a project. While not particularly common in the past, but growing in popularity because of “synth scores” being used due to budget constraints, the composer may sometimes help create the non-musical sounds (i.e., swooshy Sci-Fi sounds, “blow ‘em up good” noises, gunfire and/or just plain weird stuff). They may also work along with the Sound Designer in designing/creating sounds to be used as overlays to the music.

Spotting Session

After a movie/TV program is filmed and during the editing phases of a project, the director, composer & music supervisor get together and come to a meeting of the minds on what types of music will be used, and where specific musical cues will occur (this is why SMPTE is so important — these codes are used to note the timing of the cues). The music coordinator, music editor or music supervisor makes all notes and provides them to everyone in the loop as the editing progresses. More than one Spotting Session may occur, especially if there are substantial changes made in the film edit.

Synchronization License (aka Sync License)

This is a 50-dollar term designed to confuse the newbie. All it means is that whoever owns the PUBLISHING rights to a song issues a “Synchronization” License for the use of the song itself (NOT the recording of the song) in a TV show or movie. “Synchronization” simply means using the song in synchronization with the picture on screen — that’s it, nothing complicated or mysterious.

Temp Track (aka Temp Music)

This is the bane of the music supervisor’s existence. The director may have “pet” pieces of music on their compilation CD and/or very famous, very expensive pieces of music temporarily cut into a film or TV show before the actual music is composed and/or source cues are selected (and don’t expect him/her to know who sang the songs or have any other clue as to where to find the rights holders). This can also be a problem for the composer, because the director may be so enamored of that A-list composer’s music that nothing will ever compare in his/her eyes. If you — the composer and/or music supervisor — can talk the director/producer into using music YOU provide for the Temp Track, you’re more likely to avoid the dreaded “Temp Love” (where the director falls in love with The Beatles’ “Yesterday” in that “most important spot of the film” and has only $1000 all-in for the cue).

Timing Notes (aka Breakdown Notes)

The music editor makes notes that detail events, timing, etc. for scenes and supplies them to the composer, who will use them to reference time code & duration of scenes (it’s kinda nice to know how many seconds/minutes of music you’re gonna need to churn out before deadline). These Notes will often contain not only the timing and key action/dialogue, but the camera moves and edits as well.

Work for Hire (aka Work Made for Hire)

A “Work for Hire” means that whoever hired the composer to write the music owns the publishing of that music — yeah, and from the composer’s point of view it kinda sucks, huh? This may also apply to a SONG written specifically for a film, but most often applies to the music written by the score composer. In today’s indie film market, the composer may often accept a lesser up-front fee (or even do it on spec or for no up-front money) and in return, gets to keep 50-100% of their publishing, rather than handing all or any of it over to the production company.

Composer Mark Allan Wolfe offers music for Film, Television, Web, and much more. Specializing in a wide variety of genres with his primary emphasis being guitar oriented music from Rock to BACH. Styles such as Rock, POP, Acoustic, Electronic, R&B / Hip Hop and Underscore music. Mark Allan has a way of creating melodies and songs that covers a wide emotional and atmospheric range. For more information on Mark Allan Wolfe read more →

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