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Sync Licensing 101: What is a Sync Deal?

This guide is meant to help you better understand sync deals and how they can benefit you, but it is not meant to replace seeking proper legal counsel. As always, do not sign anything without consulting with a lawyer. 

What is Sync? 

Also known as synch or synchronization rights, sync refers to the process where tracks are combined with visual media. Synchronization more specifically refers to time-perfect matching of audio, being a song, and video, such as in movies, tv series, advertisements, commercials, video games, trailers, etc. 

Sync deals involve two parties, the content owners (usually the artist, songwriter, publisher, record label, or other rights holder) and the production company in charge of the visual media. The deals are typically arranged between a music publisher and prospective client, being a music publisher or film producer).

Music supervisors source music for a production. Music publishers pitch your music to music supervisors and grant the sync license if they choose your music for the production. The sync license gives permission to use your song in visual media, subject to contract regulations and in exchange for a fee. 

But first, you should have an understanding of what rights are involved in a song. 

Every Song Has Two Components:

Every song has two types of copyrights, the master rights and composition rights. 

The masters refers to the recording of a performance of a composition. There can be multiple masters for live recordings, covers, radio versions, etc. Each master can be controlled by different labels or distributors. The royalties from a master recording are collected and controlled by the distributor or label, if the artist is working with one. 

Composition rights refers to the unique qualities that define a song as intellectual property, such as the melody, lyrics, rhythmic pattern, progression, the individual notes, etc. Not all compositions are songs, but all songs are compositions. Usually, the original author, indie artist, or songwriter of a composition is the owner of the copyright to both the masters and composition.

There is an exception if the indie artist or songwriter enters into a written agreement with another entity, person, or publishing company, as the rights are then transferred to the publisher. The publisher then pays them royalties from the commercial use of their music, such as in sync deals. If this same artist or songwriter signs a standard recording contract, any music created while the contract is in effect would typically be considered “work for hire” for the record label. The record company would own the rights to the recordings and pay royalties to the artist for both record sales and master use licenses, after any costs are recouped. 

What About Samples?

Samples refer to the use of some part of a master or sound recording in the creation of a new master or recording. Often occurring in hip hop but found in many different genres, a small portion of a track could be looped or various recordings could be sampled to make a new master. The rights must be created with both the master and publisher prior to monetizing a recording or composition with a sample. Music supervisors always err on the side of caution when it comes to samples and pay very close attention to the rights. You will have a hard time landing sync opportunities if you have not cleared and usually paid for the rights to use the sample with the original copyright owners. 

How to Get Sync Deals

Music has to be pitched to music supervisors, but there are now online services that will pitch your music to various productions. Some companies elect one of their employees in charge of sourcing music for their project. Many video game companies especially employ their own sound designers or composers. 

It’s key that only relevant and appropriate music should be pitched to increase the likelihood of your music being selected for a project. It also helps develop a better working relationship with music supervisors. 

Many types of visual platforms benefit from sync deals, such as movies, tv shows, documentaries, trailers, advertisements, commercials, video games, etc. Though sync revenue is estimated to make up less than 3% of the music market, sync opportunities are on the rise with platforms like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon consistently investing billions into developing original content. 

Sync deals often have the added benefit of paying out more than physical music sales, especially of songs are used or played on multiple platforms. The rights holder gets royalties every time a song is used in visual media. 

It can also be an effective way to increase exposure to your material and introduce new music to different audiences. Getting your songs in a movie, tv show, or commercial can be a step towards gaining more recognition and fans both locally and on a larger scale. In the long run, sync deals can pay off by making your music more accessible, so it may sometimes be worth negotiating a smaller sync fee to land a potentially lucrative contract. 

How Sync Deals Pay Out

Sync Fee

Sync fees are payments made to the songwriter or music publisher for the permission to synchronize a song with visuals, be it a tv show, movie, commercial, etc. These apply any time a song is synced to a moving picture and are typically a one-time sum paid directly to the rights owner. 

Many factors affect the amount, including scope of use, term, and territory. Scope of use refers to where the music will be synced to, the visual media. The term covers how long the sync will air, a week, a year, indefinitely, etc. The territory refers to geographically where the sync will run, such as locally, on nation stations, or internationally. Other factors are how much leverage a track or artist has. The more recognition and larger social media following, the more leverage can result in negotiating higher sync fees. 

Royalties 

There are two main types of royalties paid out, mechanical and performance royalties. 

Mechanical royalties are based on the physical or digital sales of a song and are paid out to the composer and collected by the publisher in exchange for a percentage. The current mechanical royalty rate is 9.1¢ per sale of physical recordings and permanent downloads in the United States. 

Performance royalties are paid to the songwriter and publisher any time a composition is played or performed in a public setting. Public performances include music played on the radio, on tv, or as cover in a venue. Performing Rights Organizations (PROs) such as BMI or ASCAP keep track and collect these royalties on your behalf. It’s important to note that the owners of master recordings are not entitled to public performance revenue, except mechanical royalties such as digital streams on YouTube, Spotify, Apple Music, etc. 

Publishing Administration

A publishing administrator is a person or entity responsible for maintain the best interest of a composition or catalog of compositions, similar to power of attorney. Also known as the pub admin, they often take a commission, a percentage of revenue, but they do not own the compositions they represent. The more revenue sources that can find for the compositions, the better it is for both the pub admin and the writer. It’s a win-win as when one makes money, so does the other. 

Splits

Revenue splits refer to who gets which portion of revenue from a composition and depends on the individual song and what the writers agreed to. The split determines how any royalties or sync fees are divided between writers. 

Performing Rights Organization (PRO)

A Performing Rights Organization (PRO) is essentially an agency that collects royalties on behalf of the music rights owners, the songwriters and publishers. Whenever a song is played in public, this counts as a performance and the network, channel, or venue is required to pay the rights holders. PROs collect and distribute these payments to the rights holders they represent. The main PROs in the United States are BMI, ASCAP, and SESAP. 

How everything is divided can be complex, and BMI, for example, covers over 150 types of licenses. Here’s a brief explanation of how things are broken down:

Venues purchase annual blanket licenses to allow musicians the freedom to perform what they want. There are three main factors that help determine the fee – capacity, free vs ticketed events, and the frequency of live performances. 

Retail businesses, such as stores, barber shops, and dealerships, are primarily based on square footage. Businesses in hospitality, such as hotels and restaurants, have various factors, such as square footage where music is played, capacity, whether it is played on TV or in the background, etc. For television, PROs receive cue sheets of all fo the music used in a network’s programming, which show when the music is used, and the fee rates depend on when the show airs (prime-time vs midday) and the network itself. The reach of a radio station determine the payment, with stations reporting usages to PROs directly. 

As you can see, with it being so complicated and varies, PROs are essential to ensure songwriters and publishers get paid for the use of their music in a public setting. Though the rate may not be very high, it can add up to a nice royalty check in the mail. 

In conclusion, we hope that this article was helpful in understanding sync deals and how they can be useful. Remember to always consult with an entertainment lawyer any time an offer comes on the table.

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