Licensing Your Music Ain't Easy – Be Cool

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This guest post by Scott James (from Independent Rockstar) originally appeared on Echoes in January, 2011.

I recently had lunch with the founder and CEO of a popular website for independent artists. It was great to catch up and hear about all the exciting things going on with the site. On the other hand it was a bit of a concern hearing about some of what he and his staff have had to put up with recently in dealing with some of the more, shall we say, frustrated and/or unstable musicians that use his services.

On the site, artists can submit their music for a nominal fee to listings for licensing and other opportunities. As you can imagine, only a relatively small percentage of the music submitted can be accepted. There are high standards for anything that’s going to be used in film and TV and chances are that most of the submissions will fall short of this standard. Also, factor in that with licensing, it’s a bit of a crap shoot. You may have a better song than the next guy, but something about the other song just works better for the scene or they happen to have a lyric that fits perfectly for what they’re looking for. There’s no way around it – a lot of artists are going to end up frustrated.

The ones who ‘get it’ realize that you have to keep pushing forward and that you have to plant 1,000 seeds to grow 10 trees. The ones who don’t ‘get it’, in my experience, are poor judges of their own material and put too much importance on each submission. They also tend to underestimate how much work and perseverance it really takes to develop themselves to the point that they can produce broadcast quality music and get it placed. They fall into the trap of thinking that other people are responsible for their success or failure. Their minds play tricks on them and they imagine scenarios where the cards are stacked against them.

I remember when I first learned ProTools and started recording from home. I spent A LOT of time working at it. Before long I started to feel like the quality of my recordings were good enough to start getting placements. I signed up with some submission services in hopes to get some good breaks. I was sure that I was only a few months away from being able to make a living at it. WRONG! I was a lot further than I thought. My ears and brain just couldn’t tell what was lacking in my recordings. It all sounded great to me.

I remember the frustration well. I think one of the most difficult things for humans to deal with is when we can’t see the correlation between our actions and our results. I literally could not tell why I wasn’t getting the results I expected. A lot of explanations went through my head, but none of them gave me any peace. Eventually I ended up with a roommate who was much better at recording music than me and thankfully wasn’t afraid to call it like he heard it. It was painful to hear the truth at times, but I finally started to hear some of the things that I needed to improve. After several months of my roommate’s feedback I started to make money with my recordings.

Until you break through and have some success it can be a lot easier to blame someone else for your frustration. It requires a lot more effort to actually get the job done. Unfortunately, some people are so sure that their success is being thwarted by some evil-minded, greedy company or person that they will act like spoiled children and absolute jerks. This strategy only causes pain for all involved.

What I’d like for more people to realize is that when you submit your music for opportunities, the people who are screening your music are people who care, just like you and I. In most cases they’re musicians too. They probably understand and empathize with your frustrations more than you realize and they don’t enjoy having to deny anyone opportunities.

Even if you don’t understand why you’re not having the success that you believe you deserve I urge you to withhold judgement and to just stay at it and get as much honest, constructive feedback as you can. When your results in the outside world match your hopes and expectations then you’ve reached the point where you truly know what it takes and can judge your own work. Until then, you don’t and you can’t. If you’re not there yet then take 100% responsibility for getting yourself there, even if you don’t know how you will. If you have faith then you’ll have the strength to stay at it long enough to figure it out. In the meantime, be cool and treat people with kindness and respect.

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  • Brad

    Sometimes when you are happy with your recordings, that's enough. We're not all making music in order to make money. In fact, if you started making music to make money, you really ought to stop right now. You're hurting everyone. If you want take advice to make better recordings, that's cool. If you want to ignore advice and do what makes you happy, that's even cooler.

  • Every musician must be in music simply because of a deep love and grawing passion, not merely by a dry technical education.

    The common mistake of following endless cycles of how-to write, produce and record advice that streams from the inner circle of top music execs and others, often leads to a general one-size fits all method of dead ends.

    True artists are born with natural energy and creative incentives to write, produce and/or publish. They open doors with their own original ideas and leave available plenty of headroom for passion and flexibility.

    We should not forget that the overwhelming majority of true talented artists occupy the outside of the music business, not the inside.

  • Well said Brad. While many of us would not mind making money from our music, many are here simply to share their music. If people would stop trying to write music thats similar to whats popular today – perhaps we could bring "real" music back.

  • I really like the idea of music Licensing as farming!

    The other day I was listening to a pro songwriter saying that he might write 100 tunes for each hit.

    Definitely a numbers game.

    – Chris

  • PB

    Doing music makes me happy. Getting paid would make me happier. That's the difference between a hobbyist and a professional. I want to be a professional.
    If that doesn't happen, I'll just settle for being happy.

  • Errol Michael Phillips

    Very interesting pep talk. I am one of those frustrated musicians, but for a different reason. I placed some songs at a site in July last year and won four (4) bids by October. Not bad, I thought. Except, one promoter actually wanted me to co-finance the project, and the other who accepted three (3) of my songs never offered me a contract. He simply disappeared! I think site managers should de-list promoters who accept bids and then fail to follow through with an agreement.

  • Errol Michael Phillips

    Sorry! I think my comment was directed at the wrong audience.

  • I don't expect this to ever work for me. My music is way too far off the beaten path. I wish my tastes were more normal, so I could appeal to a wider audience and actually make some money, but they are not. Usually, less than 5 percent of the shelf space in a music store has stuff that I like, and most of the artists are unheard of by the general public. I probably should have gotten into something other than music.

    • Keep the faith! I have half-a-dozen albums'-worth of recorded material, and out of all those songs, guess which one has been licensed the most!— The weirdest one that I thought would be the absolute LAST one to be licensed. So… you never know what peoples' needs are.

  • Jimmie Vestal

    If I client likes a song and it isn't mastered, will Disc Makers master it (from a WAV file) for an amount less than $99?.

    • Nope. Whatever is being distributed by CD Baby will be considered the "master recording" by the end user, whether you've had it mastered or not.