A master license is an agreement between a music user and the owner of a copyrighted sound recording, that grants permission to use the recording. This permission is also called a master lease or master rights.
Do I need a master license?
Whenever you use an existing recording that someone else made, even if it's just a small sample, you need a master license. For example, if you sample a portion of a David Bowie song, even if it's a simple bass line, you need a master license. If you record yourself singing over a karaoke track or your choir signing over backing tracks, you need a master license. You might want to use an entire popular original recording, such as for a commercial or corporate video. If so, you need a master license. Other common uses of sound recordings include mash-ups, derivative works, interpolations, advertising campaigns, television, film, stage productions, and retail products. All these uses require a master license.
How do I get a master license?
Master licenses are custom-negotiated directly with the copyright holder upfront and can be quite complex. For help with this process, check out our Custom Licensing services or contact us. Alternatively, you can attempt to locate the copyright owners yourself and request permission.
Challenges of obtaining master licenses
Note that master licensing can be challenging because, by law, master rights holders maintain total control of their works. This means they can set any price, take all the time they want, or reject the license altogether. Many factors affect the response, including budget, use, and even the current workload of the copyright holder’s processing department. For this reason, it is important to temper expectations when requesting a master license.
Affordable alternatives to the original master recording
Often, it's not practical or possible to obtain a license for the original master recording (an original Michael Jackson recording, for example), since the owner can set any price and reject the license altogether. For this reason, many licensees prefer to use "sound-alikes"—new recordings made to sound like the original recording. Several companies have perfected the art of creating sound-alikes, enlisting Grammy-awarded talent and the same musicians that tour with very popular acts for a top-shelf sound. Although this might not be an option for every licensee, sound-alike backing tracks provide a creative alternative when the original master recording is not an option. To obtain sound-alike backing tracks for any use, check out our Backing Tracks service or contact us.
Who gets paid?
A master license pays a royalty to the copyright holder (owner) of the audio recording being requested. This is typically the artist that made the recording or their record label. However, sometimes master rights change hands, such as when they are sold. In this case, a recording might have a new owner, other than the original artist or label. For this reason, it is important to locate the current copyright holders before making a master request. When you hire us for Custom Licensing, we research and discover the current copyright holders for you.
It is important to note that underlying what most people think of as a "song" is actually two components: the composition (music notes and lyrics that make up a song, created by the composers) and the original recorded audio (recording of musicians playing the song, created by the artists). Often the composers and artists are the same people, but not always. These song components can be owned separately by different entities. For this reason, there are two types of licenses to protect the two types of creations: 1) a mechanical license (audio-only) or synchronization license (video) for the composer to protect the composition, and 2) a master license for the recording artist to protect the original recording. It's important to understand both components, and both types of licenses when obtaining permission for a "song:"
1) Musical Composition (mechanical or synchronization rights)
The composition is the music notes and lyrics that define a song. The rights to the composition are usually owned by the composer or their publisher. Permission is obtained through a mechanical license (audio-only) or synchronization license (video).
2) Sound Recording (master rights)
The recording is a recorded performance of the composition (song). The rights to the recording are usually owned by the artist or their record label. Permission is obtained through a master license.
You will also need the following:
Mechanical License (for audio-only projects)
Every time that you need a master license for an audio-only product (CDs, Digital Downloads, Interactive Audio Streams), you also need a mechanical license. The master license pays only the artist for the right to use their recording; the mechanical license pays the composer for the right to use their song.
OR Synchronization License (for video projects)
Every time that you need a master license for a video or other visual product (YouTube, slideshow), you also need a synchronization license. The master license pays only the artist for the right to use their recording; the synchronization license pays the composer for the right to use their song.
When should I have my master licensing in place?Master licenses must be secured before distribution. However, because they are hard to get, we suggest making your request many months before your anticipated release date. It is also smart to have at least one backup plan in place, in case you are unable to get the master rights you want. We offer strategic planning as part of our Custom Licensing services. Discover efficient solutions and avoid costly detours by leveraging our experience and expertise.
When happens if I don't get a license?
We are not in the business of enforcement. However there are publishers, labels, and third parties out there who are. The result can be permanent strikes on your account, a take-down of the material, and in some cases, legal action. Will you get caught? Maybe. Maybe not. But there are many more reasons to do things right than just the fear of getting caught. Check out all our reasons to get a license.