Music Licensing 101: A Guide For Musicians


Music licensing involves obtaining permission to use copyrighted audio or compositions. It entails an agreement between the owner of the material (the 'Licensor') and the party seeking permission (the 'Licensee'). Typically, music licenses include a fee, which can be fixed for mechanical licenses or negotiated for licenses such as Synchronization or Master Use.


Types of music license include:

  1. Synchronization license
  2. Master Use License
  3. Public Performance License
  4. Mechanical/compulsory License
  5. Print License


Synchronization License (Sync License): A synchronization license provides the permission to use a particular musical composition alongside various forms of visual media, including but not limited to films, TV shows, commercials, video games, and movie trailers. Typically obtained by film studios, television networks, production companies, visual media content creators (e.g., on YouTube), and film students, it's essential to note that a Sync License exclusively covers the underlying composition, not the recording itself. For the recording, a separate license is required


Master Use License: In addition to securing a Synchronization License for the underlying composition, acquiring a Master Use License is often necessary. This license grants the rights to a particular sound recording. While the owner of the composition remains constant for every rendition, the owner of the master rights varies depending on the specific recording being utilized.

Public Performance License: A Public Performance License grants authorization to play a song in public venues or transmit it to the public through mediums such as radio broadcast, television broadcast, or the internet. Typically obtained by entities like TV networks, radio stations, movie theaters, restaurants, retail businesses, and event venues, these licenses involve an annual fee paid to Performance Rights Societies (PROs). These organizations manage the rights to publicly perform music and distribute royalties to composers and publishers. Licensees provide cue sheets listing the songs played during TV programs, movies, commercials, or live band performances, which the PROs use to allocate royalties. It's important to note that while show producers, DJs, and band managers usually prepare cue sheets, royalties for Public Performance are directed solely to the music publisher and composer, not the performing artist or recording owner.


Mechanical/Compulsory License: A Mechanical License provides the legal authorization to reproduce and distribute a previously recorded and publicly released sound recording. This license is primarily utilized for cover songs and is applicable to audio-only formats such as digital downloads, interactive streams, or Compact Discs. Typically acquired by artists after recording their cover song but before distribution, obtaining a mechanical license is essential. Popular methods for securing a mechanical license for a cover song include utilizing services like The Harry Fox Agency's Songfile or distribution platforms such as TuneCore and Distrokid.


Print License: A print license provides the legal consent to reproduce printed lyrics and music. Print music is often disseminated through formats like folios, sheet music, and guitar tabs, while print lyrics find use in publications such as books, advertisements, and merchandise. It's important to note that platforms displaying guitar tabs or lyrics, such as Genius, must obtain a print license to legally exhibit and print the underlying compositions of specific songs.

Securing a music license should be approached with the same level of importance as obtaining a basic business license. It's advisable to initiate the application process before opening the venue where you intend to use music for performance. By proactively filing the necessary paperwork, you ensure compliance with legal requirements and set the stage for a smooth operation. In Nigeria, music licenses can be acquired by filing a license request form from MCSN (Music Copyright Society of Nigeria).