How To License A Famous Song? (Step-by-step instructions)

A time will come in your film-making or content-creating career when you want to use a famous song in your videos.

Sometimes, there is one piece of music that you know will take your videos or content from good to extraordinary, but how can you licence famous music?

To use a piece of music in your content, you must have full permission from all the music rights holders. You must clear the sync rights, also known as the publishing rights, and the master rights, before using the music. To do this, you must get in contact with the correct copyright holders.

Music licensing is a complex process and I always recommend that you seek the guidance of a music licensing professional if your budget allows.

In this article, I am going to go through the process of how to license a famous song based on my own experience, including:

  • How much does it cost to license a famous song?
  • What permission do I need to use a famous song?
  • How to license a famous song? (Step-by-step instructions)
  • What happens if I can’t find the copyright holders for a song?
  • Where can I find popular music that is simple to license & free?
license famous music

How Much Does It Cost To License A Famous Song? 

The cost of licensing a famous song will vary, depending on a variety of factors, including your planned usage of the song and the size of your audience.

As a general rule, when it comes to cost, for independent artists, you can license a song from $0 up to around $200. For more popular artists or artists signed to multiple publishing and record labels, expect to pay in the region of $1000-$5000 or more. 

Finally, at the top end of the spectrum, we have the extremely famous classic songs that have been licensed in Hollywood movies for at least 5-figure sums, for example, “Thunderstruck” by AC/DC, which cost in the region of $500,000 when featured in the feature film, “Varsity Blues” in 1999. 

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As you can see, the price varies significantly. You won’t know exactly how much it costs to license a popular song for your content until you ask the music rights holder. 

Negotiations are typically on a song-by-song basis, with each individual user, and based on their budget and planned music usage.

What Permission Do I Need To Use A Famous Song?

To license a famous song for your content, you will need to get two forms of permission:

  1. Permission from the composer who wrote the song, known as the sync rights.
  2. Permission from the owner of the recording, known as the master rights.

Sync Rights – Also known as the publishing rights, these are the rights to the written song, typically owned by the composer or songwriter. 

Master Rights – These are the rights to use the particular recording of the song. 

How To License A Famous Song? (Step-by-step instructions)

It is really daunting when you first start on the journey of licensing popular songs from major record labels. 

The process of licensing a popular song will change depending on the song you choose, so it is really difficult to pin down a set process or road map to getting your song licensed. 

To help, or at least give you some sort of idea of how I navigate this world, I am going to take an example of a popular song and show you how I would go about licensing it with step-by-step instructions.

As I said, the process will change depending on the song, but hopefully, the following example will:

  1. Show you how the world of music licensing operates.
  2. Show you where to start. 

1. Pick Your Song

This is an easy step: pick the song you want to use and find out the name of the artist.

For this example, I have logged into Spotify and looked at the biggest tunes of 2020.

At the top of the playlist is “Yummy” by Justin Bieber. Let’s work out how to license it! 

how to license a famous song

2. Find Out Who Owns The Copyright

Once we have picked our track, we need to find out who controls the copyright.

Click on the “show credits” on Spotify and this will bring up who owns the copyright on the song. 

If you have a CD recording of the music, just look inside the CD cover sleeve to see who owns the copyright. 

Show composer credits in Spotify

The image below shows the official Spotify credits for this song.

In this case, we can see that the song is performed by Justin Bieber and the individuals who wrote this song are listed. 

Five people wrote this song! 

a list of composers in spotify

I am looking at the credits to find clues about who owns the music rights.

We can see that next to “Source”, we have RBMG / DefJam

I know these are the record labels responsible for the songs, so they are a good place to learn more about licensing these songs. 

Under these song credits, you will find either music publishers or record labels associated with the song.

It is time to do a little detective work and look up these companies online to see if they have any song licensing information listed on their sites. 

3. Time For Detective Work – Who Manages The Copyright?

We have our song and we have a record label, so now let’s check out the record label to see if there is any information about licensing music on the record label website.

A quick google of “DefJam“, tells me that this record label is part of the Universal Music Group. 

universal music group

This is a big win as the Universal Music Group is well established and a major music publisher with explicit instructions on how to go about licensing their music.

A quick look on their website, under their contact us page, tells me how to go about licensing their music. Or at least where to start!

The following is a quote taken directly from the Universal Music Group Website telling you how to license music for a project. 

I am interested in licensing music for a project. How do I go about doing this?

Licensing requests should be directed to your local Universal Music Group office. To find details of the office in your country please click here. If you are in the US and would like to license the master recording of a Universal Music Group artist please contact the copyright and licensing division at 310-865-0770 for further information.

If you would like to obtain rights to use a song or lyrics from a song that is administered or published by Universal Music Publishing Group you should contact UMPG’s Film & TV Licensing department via the UMPG website by selecting “license request” at the bottom of the page. If you are unsure whether UMPG is the proper contact for your request, information on a song’s publishing company is usually found on the album’s packaging.

Universal Music Group

Remember, we must obtain the “Sync Rights” and the “Master Rights”. “Sync Rights” are typically controlled by a music publisher and are the rights to use the written song and lyrics. 

Therefore, in the second part of their information, they direct us to the Universal Music Publishing website where we can also make an enquiry regarding the “Sync Rights”.

I found the following information very clearly on the Universal Music Publishing Website, which tells me exactly how to license a song from them.

1. If the song is a Universal Music Publishing copyright then you will need to contact our licensing team via, letting us know what song you are looking to use and a brief description of your project.

2. We will then be able to confirm our share of the publishing and send through the appropriate synchronisation form.

3. Based on the information that is provided, we will then send through a ballpark quote for the use which would be strictly subject to final writer approval.

4. If you would like to proceed to clearance based on the terms of our quote we will then send out for the relevant writer approvals.

5. If the request is approved we would then issue our formal approval along with a request for contracting and invoicing details. All approvals are subject to final contract so the use should only proceed once all paperwork is completed.

6. Please note, we cannot guarantee your request will be approved by our writers.

Universal Music Group

We now have a point of contact to ask about licensing this song, “Yummy” by Justin Bieber. 

I will contact both UMPG & UMG to get as much information as possible. 

With this example, we got lucky; the song is licensed with Universal Music, so we found someone to contact quickly. They are a major music publisher so have very clear instructions and systems regarding licensing their music. 

What Happens If I Can’t Find The Copyright Holders Of A Song?

In the above example, the chosen song is managed by Universal Music Group (UMG) which has a very clear system for licensing their managed music. 

But what happens when you can’t easily find the music publisher and/or record label?  

In this instance, the best practice to follow is to find the contact details of publishers through PROs – Performance Rights Organisations. 

Most professional composers belong to one of these organisations. 

Here are the contact details for some of the world’s largest Performance Rights Organisations. Just click on the link in the following table:

Your country will have their own PRO body if you can’t see it on here. 

United StatesASCAP  |  BMI  |  SESAC
United KingdomPRS  |  PPL
Latin AmericaACEMLA

As mentioned earlier, you need to clear two types of copyright when licensing a song – the sync rights and the master rights.

The above organisations may help you with the sync rights, but you may also need to contact a record label separately to clear the master rights.

This is when music licensing becomes hellish!

4. Request Your Song From The Publisher

Once you have discovered who to contact regarding your chosen song, you will need to formally request to license it. 

The publisher or record label will need the following information, which you should include in your first contact email:

  • Your name
  • Your company name, if applicable
  • The song you want to use, including the full song title and full artist name.
  • How you plan to use the song, for example, on radio, TV, YouTube, etc. 
  • The number of expected views, for example, national TV broadcast or YouTube audience size.
  • The financial intent of your content, for example, is your use for commercial gains, such as product advertising or a non-profit cause, such as a charity event. 
  • In some instances, a synopsis may be required to give the music publisher a better understanding of how the music will be used.

Based on the above information, the publisher will issue you a quotation.

It is really important to point out how you plan to use the music and if it is for a non-profit or low-profit production, as you could negotiate more favourable rates. 

5. Wait For A Quotation

Once you have found the music publisher and record label for your chosen song or contacted one of the PROs to get this information, the next step is to wait. 

From my personal experience, it can take ages to get the rights cleared on a song. You may need to chase this if you are in a hurry. 

For example, last year I sent a request to license a famous 1980s song in September, hoping to get it in time for Christmas.

It is now January 4th (four months later!) and I still have heard nothing back from the PRO. 

Thankfully, I could cover the need with my own compositions, but still…. that was a long and frustrating wait!

Allow plenty of time when licensing popular music and don’t leave it until the last minute.

It can help to hire the services of a professional music clearance organisation as they will contact the right people, perhaps get a quotation in a faster time frame and possibly negotiate a lower music license fee as they know what they are doing.

Music licensing is a complex and delicate process and can be devastating to a production if it goes wrong, as an entire production can be placed on hold because of a few seconds of un-cleared music. Always seek professional legal advice where you can.

Where Can I Find Popular Music That Is Simple License & Free?

From my experience of working in the music industry, licensing popular, or famous music is not much fun and is best done only if you have a high budget.

It is even better if you can hire a professional body that specialises in clearing music rights for content. 

There are alternatives, however, if you wish to get great “radio chart sounding music” but without the high license fees and long wait times.

Below is some of pop music from the Coya Music catalogue which you can download and license for free, with lots more commercial music being released in 2022.

Final Thoughts

Licensing a famous song can be a complex and frustrating process, but with the right information and planning, it can be done.

When it comes to licensing very famous music, it can be best to use a professional music clearance organisation that will contact the right people on your behalf and may be able to negotiate a lower music license fee. This is important if you are new to music licensing.

If you are looking for great “radio chart-sounding music” without having to pay high license fees, check out our catalogue of pop songs that are available for free download.

Content Disclaimer: This blog is intended as a guide only for educational and informational purposes. It is not legal advice. The content contained in this article is not legal advice or a legal opinion on any specific matter or matters.

Coya Music

Coya Music is a website where you can find free music to use in your content. We also share information about how to make your content sound better and how to make music yourself.

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