Music Licensing 101 - Masters vs. Publishing 801 words · 4 minute read

Music Licensing 101 Masters vs. Publishing

By Christopher Rucks | Music Dealers

To provide some insight to the many individuals who, either by choice or circumstance, suddenly find themselves dropped into the music licensing arena, we’ll be covering a few basic topics and ideas on the Music Dealers blog so we can help keep everyone sharp, up to speed, and sync smarter.

In the process, we’ll save you from displaying that music publishing & licensing look of confusion.

After all, you can’t license music like a badass until you know what music licensing badasses know, right? So let’s hop right into a concept that’s a little tricky to get, but integral to your ascension to music licensing badassery.

As a music licensor, you’re hoping to obtain permission to use music in media; which is what music licensing is. To license this music, you’ll need permission from two parties: the master recording owner and the publisher owner/controller. But why two parties? Who are these parties? Well, think of every song as a whole composed of two parts: master and publishing. They represent the copyright owners of the song. And they represent different concepts.

What is a master? The ever-wise Wikipedia says: “A master recording is the first recording of a song or other sound, from which all the later copies are made. Since sound recording was first invented, master recordings (usually called just “masters”) have been made on discs, tapes, and computers.”

So, at a basic level, a record label owns the master the recording (unless you’re dealing with an unsigned artist, then the artist owns their own masters). They own the copyright to the actual file, the file which contains the music you want to place in your recording. Whether you’ve gotten a hold of an mp3, a CD, vinyl, 8 track, or a 45, the music on each of these mediums is derived from one master recording. And it belongs to the label. So if you want to use the music contained on or within that mp3, CD, vinyl, 8 track, or 45, you want to utilize their copyrighted material.

The legal agreement that gives you permission to use a song, from a record label, is called the Master Use License.

Now, the second half of that recording represents the actual musical composition. It’s the lyrics, the melodies, the written music, the structure, etc. The publisher owns or controls this portion of the copyright.

The license required from this copyright owner to use their music is called a Synchronization License.

So Master and Publisher. Master = Master Use License. Publisher = Synchronization License. You need permission from both parties to license a song. Sometimes they’re the same entity. Sometimes they’re not. You have to do a bit of digging to figure out who owns what so you can contact the appropriate parties and secure your license.

Once you’re able to locate the appropriate parties, there’s a bit of methodology to help clear your license. Typically, you’re going to want to contact the publisher(s) first. They are the copyright owners that you can’t get around. What do I mean? Well, you can create a cover or “re-record,” which is essentially your own master recording of a song. If you create your own version, you no longer need to use the record label’s master, right? But regardless of the new master recording, you’re still using the composition and lyrics. So you will have to get permission from the publisher regardless.

In most circumstances, this is why you would want to deal with the publisher first and seek out your synchronization license. If you can get an agreement from them, chances are the master owner will agree to the terms the publisher has stated. This is what your clearance process will look like most of the time.

So for the basics, now you understand the Masters vs Publishing, who owns what kind of copyright, and why you need to obtain permission from both parties to successfully license a song. Of course, this is just the tip of the iceberg, but you have to know the tip before you can tackle the rest. And realizing that you have to negotiate with these parties is why many choose to work with a “pre-cleared” (a company that has already acquired the rights to license the music from both “sides” of the copyright) music licensing company like Music Dealers.

In the future, we’ll get into more music licensing concepts and you’ll be licensing like a badass in no time at all. We realize professionals from all backgrounds often find themselves in the unknown arena of music licensing, whether they’re working for a brand or simply trying to clear the use of a song for a huge corporate meeting. And we want to help ensure you’re all set!