Producing Tracks For Licensing – How To Raise Your Odds For Success [Part 2]

August 20, 2019

[Editor’s Note: This article was written by Gary Gray and is the second installment in a two-part series on what artists, engineers and producers should keep in mind when aiming to secure licensing for their new songs. Be sure to catch up on Part One here!]

A Quick Re-cap from Part One:

In Part One, we laid out the four priorities, in order, that if understood and followed will absolutely raise your odds of music licensing success. Guaranteed.

1. The Human Factor

2. Organization (DAW, Paperwork & Networking)

3. Contracts and Contract Knowledge

4. The Music

Part One covered Priority Number One in detail: The Human Factor. There we learned the golden rule:

 We now pick up from that point and move forward, onto the next priority:

2. Organization (DAW, Paperwork & Networking)

Here’s what I tend to hear at this point: “OK, I get it that The Human Factor is the Number One Priority. That makes sense. But how can the music be number four!?”

Here’s my answer: Having your DAW, your paperwork (including meta-data) and networking activities super-organized is more important than your music because of an important observation I’ve made over the last 30 years in the music industry.

In the long run, people want to work with certain people, not with certain music.

I invited music supervisors from my neighborhood who are also songwriters to record and collaborate on music projects in my studio, in exchange for an education about what music supervisors really do. I’ve watched music supervisors work for hours, sifting through hundreds of songs to find that one right track to submit for a film, or a tv show or a commercial or a video game. (We’re talking about lucrative deals.)

Click, click, click, click – the music supervisor, hand on his mouse, headphones on his head, listened to about 5 to 10 seconds of each song until one stood out. “Great track! Hmmm. Who is this? Let me see. . . hmmm. . . Facebook, twitter, Instagram, website. Nope, I remember this person. Typos in their emails, not organized not professional. Don’t want to work with them. Next.”

Click, click, click, click – “This is a good track. Hmmm. Who is this? Let me see. . . hmmm. . . Facebook, twitter, Instagram, website. I remember this person. Great emails. Concise, professional, very friendly. Very helpful. Has links to their stems and cues available to me from the get-go. They copyrighted their song correctly with the U.S. Copyright Office. They have a work-for-hire agreement with their singer. I’m working with this person. I’m submitting this song.”

And then I learned something I was never taught before. This music supervisor told me that since this track was being submitted for an end credit on a major motion picture and the person who submitted the track would be earning close to $20,000 for this track if it were accepted, that the legal department of the film production company would probably be vetting this person online.

“They’re not giving a $20,000 check to someone they don’t trust, to someone with red flags.”

“What kind of red flags do you mean?” I asked.

“Well, I’ll put it to you this way. This first person that I passed on didn’t even copyright the song. They have no work-for-hire agreement with their singer. Do you know how much liability that opens us up to if they didn’t actually write this song? If a lawsuit for copyright infringement goes down, there is a chain of people who are liable – it’s not just that songwriter. And I’m on that chain, so I’m going to be very picky about the character of the people I work with. It’s not just that their music has to be good. This is an industry made up of people and reputations and integrity. When you get to the big money licensing deals, you are dealing with a whole different level, it’s a different game.”

This was fascinating to me. And the most interesting thing about it was that no one had ever talked about this to me or taught me any of this. 

Moral of the story: I would look over your emails very carefully. Fix typos. Always be friendly. Be concise. Be organized to a fault. Include links to your stem files and cues in your emails. Copyright your songs. Clean up your social media posts if necessary. Be professional online, wherever you go. Be the person people want to work with. It’s much more than just your music.

Speaking of being organized to a fault, let’s look at how organizing your DAW correctly for licensing can make a huge difference on getting – or not getting – lucrative licensing deals.

I’ve tried many different workflow set-ups for creating stems and cues, and while there is no right way or wrong way (assuming the final stems and cues are pristine and fully aligned), I have found an approach that is highly workable, especially under the stress and pressure of deadlines.

Organizing Your Session for Music Licensing Cues

In the graphic illustration of how to organize your session for cues, you’ll first notice that at the top of the session there is something called the Marker Track. Now, every DAW has its own version of markers and a marker track. That’s not what I use for licensing. I create my own. And I’ll tell you why. Most DAW markers can move if you bump them. And even if you can lock them, they can be visually distracting and should be used for other purposes, such as denoting sections of a song; i.e.,  intro, 1st verse, 1st chorus, etc.

I create my marker track by opening up a new audio track, then setting my left and right locators exactly where I want them on my main version mix (the version to the left in the illustration). In Cubase you can simply double click on the audio track between the left and right locators, and an empty audio clip will appear, lined up exactly with my left and right locators. I then follow this same procedure for my various cues (:60, :30, :15 and :07 stinger) to the right of my main version (as you can see in the illustration).  

Once I have my marker track set for the full version and all the smaller cues, I LOCK that Marker Track. What that does is this: If I should ever bump the marker track, it will immediately lock back into its original position.

What this does for me is every time I export versions of my track, cues and stem files, each batch is perfect, aligned exactly to the left and the right. This professionalism is definitely noticed, especially by one of the key players in the music licensing game – the music editor.

I learned how important the music editor role is during my outing to CBS Studios, watching the post-production team work together on an episode of NCIS. I found out that the power I thought a music supervisor possessed, was as much in the hands, if not more in the hands of, the music editor.

A question I am often asked when it comes to creating various versions of your track is this:

How long should my full version be? Is there a standard length?

Though there is no standard length, the average length of a full track for licensing as of this writing is 2:30. You may be asked for a specific length of your full version, but if not asked, I would suggest creating your full version to be two minutes and 30 seconds long.

When setting your left and right locators for your Marker Track, keep in mind that if you do all of your editing in the mix, and no editing during the mastering stage, you will be adequately organized to be earning big money through licensing deals. If you are still making fade in and fade out adjustments, starting and ending point adjustments, and any other type of editing moves while mastering, you will be creating potential problems for yourself if asked for deliverables such as pristine stem files and cues. 

This is also covered in detail in The Lucrative Home Studio Online Masterclass.

Notice in the previous illustration that I am set up for creating stem files OF MY CUES. This is one way I have acquired big clients with big budgets – I go above and beyond in organizing my DAW so that I can create deliverables that speak to the level of professionalism I am seeking to achieve. I actually don’t know of anyone else that I work with who includes an additional link to the stem files OF THE CUES in their emails when shopping tracks, along with the links to the various versions and cues themselves. 

Also make note that when asked for stem files, these should be files from your mix, not your master. The purpose of stem files is to give the music editor elements to mix and master. Turning in mastered stems would defeat the job the music editor is trying to do, as he or she would be forced to master a mastered set of files. This will not sound very good, and you probably wouldn’t be seeing any work from that company in the future. 

And finally, when you create your cues, if you want to close lucrative deals, these should each be edited meticulously so that you have a musical intro, body and outro of each cue – even the seven second stinger. It’s an art to create an intro, body and outro for a seven second piece of music!

Those producers who throw together their cues and just cut and fade in and fade out their cues, won’t be seeing much money flowing back their way.

I mentioned earlier that beat makers and beat licensing is a separate category unto itself with its own vocabulary and business models. With stem files it’s no different. For beat makers, the term ‘Trackouts’, or ‘Tracked-Out’ means stem files have been created. They may also use the following terms:

  • Trackouts
  • Tracked-Out WAVs or Tracked-Out Files
  • WAV Separation or Track Separation
  • Stem Files
  • Individual WAVs
  • Separated Tracks or Separated WAVs

Tracked-Out for beat makers usually means that every single track has been exported, as opposed to the traditional definition of stem files, which are not individual tracks, but group tracks – such as all the vocals, all the guitars, all the drums, etc.

A beat maker will “trackout” a beat by exporting the kick, the snare, the hi hat, tom 1, tom 2, bass 1, bass 2, lead vocal 1, lead vocal 2, BG vocal 1, BG vocal 2, BG voc 3, guitar 1, guitar 2, etc. Note: Beat makers do use the term ‘Stem Files’, but for them, it normally refers to individual tracks and not grouped tracks.

Each library, publisher, music supervisor, ad agency and middle man in the licensing industry normally has their own spec sheet letting you know exactly how they want their files delivered and what those files should be exactly. Keep an organized spreadsheet of all of those spec sheets, and refer to them often while you work, to ensure you are creating deliverables for each company that will be accepted first time in.

And here’s a secret of how to make sure your clients come back over and over and over again to use you: After exporting your various versions and cues and stems, create a new project and upload those files you exported to the brand new project, as if you are the client on the other end receiving your files. Test those files meticulously before sending them off. Quality control is the path that leads to success if you want lucrative licensing deals.

Organizing your paperwork will keep your mind free to create your music.

Organizing your networking will help you avoid totally forgetting a key contact that could help create a big break for you. It can also help you remember birthdays, anniversaries and details about a client or potential client that can make a huge difference in your income and overall success.

3. Contracts and Contract Knowledge

Priority number three if you want to get lucrative licensing deals, is ‘Contracts and Contract Knowledge’ (and yes, this is more important than the music [assuming your music is well written, recorded and mixed]). 

Any time you can plant yourself in front of a good music attorney and have them explain all the contracts used in music licensing, including work-for-hire contracts and split sheets, I strongly encourage you to do so!

Write to publishers, ad agencies, music supervisors, libraries and ask for a copy of their contracts. Studying all of these contracts and getting advice from a good attorney will help you become well educated. Once you are well educated, those companies that deal with big budgets will be more apt to work with you than someone who has not done their homework and not gained the knowledge you now have.

People can smell and see true confidence a mile away – and they want to work with people who have true confidence – not fake, pretended confidence.

Beat Maker Contracts

Another reason we separate out beat makers as their own category is that the clients beat makers normally sell to are lyricists and singer/rappers. This is different from other forms of music licensing where the clients are companies, not artists. The beat maker’s (producer’s) relationship with artists (lyricists, singers and rappers) form agreements and follow copyright laws which are very different from other forms of music licensing. These contracts touch upon copyright laws which fall under the category of derivatives.

If you do a lot of beat making, it would behoove you to study up and understand all you can about derivative copyrights and how tracks get properly cleared. To get something cleared means getting permission from the original owner of a copyright to use a sample, song or composition. 

4. The Music

In Part One of this series, the question was asked:

Do I need to know/do something different when producing tracks for licensing opportunities?

And my answer was:

Yes (and No).

It seems that when it comes to rules about producing music for licensing, for every rule you show me, I’ll show you at least one exception. Much of music licensing is subjective – in fact MOST of music licensing is subjective. Who’s to say which one of two somewhat equally written and produced tracks would be better for a particular scene in a television show, for instance? It’s SUBJECTIVE! Knowing that, it’s important to not get discouraged as you make your way forward on the path of music licensing.

Here are a few “rules” I’ve heard, followed by the exceptions I’ve seen:

Rule: Follow a certain form when you are writing and arranging your track. Make sure it builds up and goes somewhere, make sure different elements are entering and that you are holding the attention of the listener with changes in your music.

Exception: Ever see those newsreel videos, where a certain news story or a number of news stories are communicated in writing, in large text on a video, which is showing slides in the background. These videos last anywhere from 30 seconds to two minutes. The music soundtrack? 99% of these newsreels use music, which is basically a loop, going nowhere, not building, not developing at all. The music is used to set a mood and keep it there so that the listener isn’t distracted while reading the text of the news story(ies).

Rule: Change something in your music every four bars or you won’t get your track licensed.

Exception: About 1,000 tracks I’ve heard on commercials, television, movies and video games do not change something every four bars.

Rule: Don’t try to license music in different genres. Stick to what you are good at.

Exception: About 20 top composer/songwriters I know who are making at least a six-figure income at licensing, and all of them produce tracks in at least five different genres. Creating tracks in different genres opens up your networking in a huge way, not to mention your horizons as an artist and your appreciation as a music fan. 

Rule: You can’t just write and record a song for your album and then try to shop it for licensing, you’ve got to follow certain accepted practices, such as no long intros, only highly produced now-sounding productions, nothing dated.

Exception: Two of my students had old recordings of bands they were in 20 years ago. No stems available, no session file available, just a stereo mp3 master from the original. I suggested they try to shop those tracks, and both students are now making decent income from those “old, useless” recordings! It turns out that many film and television productions look for authentic sounding recordings from certain eras and time periods, in order to enhance the reality of their productions.

Producing Tracks for Singles/EPs/Albums vs. Film & Television Soundtracks

Unlike the Motion Picture Audio Post-Production Industry, and the Industry of Audio Post-Production for Television, codified specs and industry standards for producers and engineers involved in audio post-production for singles, EPs and albums is pretty much nonexistent.

You could play back 100 soundtracks created for Major Motion Pictures, one soundtrack at a time, through your LUFS, RMS and VU meters, with the volume turned off, and just watch the meters — and you are not going to see any wild differences in average volume levels and dynamic range from one soundtrack to the next. In recent years, the same has become true for television soundtracks.

If you try this experiment with 100 Singles or EPs or albums, and play back those singles, EPs, or albums, one at a time, through your LUFS, RMS and VU meters, well, welcome to the wild, wild west. There will be a wide range of differences in what you see and hear.

Historically, codified specs and industry standards for average volume per television episode and per commercial is a more recent development. Major motion picture specifications have been in existence for many years. One main reason is that the playback environment (theatres) has always been very consistent, theatre to theatre, and people are paying good money to sit in those seats. And if they stay in those seats and tell their friends about it, the movie industry will survive. 

So, post production audio standards for major motion pictures organically grew out of this consistent and challenging environment.

Television network executives received many complaints from viewers over the years – with viewers constantly having to adjust their television volume knobs between shows, and during commercials.

The volume levels were all over the place, with commercials infamously being way too loud. The philosophy of ad agencies, and their producers and engineers, had been to follow the viewer into the kitchen, by cranking up the volume during commercial breaks — while the viewer got something to eat.

These same wildly variable volume complaints started stacking up when streaming services came into existence. The largest bulk of content on streaming services happens to be singles, EPs and albums.

However, instead of imposing standards on producers and engineers of Singles, EPs and Albums, like the Movie Industry and Television Industry had done, the streaming services made adjustments themselves, and have adopted a system to average out the volume levels of all the music they stream – as they stream it. This is known as Normalization.

You can read all about the intended and unintended consequence of Streaming Normalization, as well as how to master your music for Streaming services in an in-depth two-part series I authored for TuneCore here (Part 1) and here (Part 2).

Does any of this affect how you will master your tracks for licensing?

Yes. If you follow the proven simple stupid solution in the two-part series above, you will have no trouble when it comes to mastering your tracks for licensing.

In case you want to know right now how to master your tracks for licensing, I’ll tell you.

1. Go to the loudest portion of your track.

2. Loop it while watching your RMS meter (average loudness), no need to use an LUFS meter.

3. Set your final limiter gain so that your track is averaging between -10 and -14 RMS (during the loudest part of your track) – with the assumption that your MIX sounds great.

The trick is to get your MIX to sound great to your EAR. As I tell my students over and over, use your EAR, not your GEAR as a priority when you mix.

The more you close your eyes when you mix, the less you’ll have to tweak and fix.

If you get your mix to sound great to your ear, mastering is a painless and relatively quick process. I use a very precise workflow for getting broadcast quality mixes and masters for licensing every single time – all based around a technique called ‘Checkerboard A/B’ing’, which is also at the core of ten revolutionary music production ear training exercises I developed for The Lucrative Home Studio Masterclass.

And all of the technical actions we take while mixing and mastering, we do to serve The Music.

How do you know when your track is done and complete and ready to submit for licensing?

Two Answers:

1. Technically, you’ll know your track is done if you are A/B’ing with reference tracks that have been successfully licensed and/or broadcast. Compare your mix and master to references and you will be good to go.

2. Artistically, you’ll know your track is done if you adhere to a definition I developed over the years when I was dealing with clients who could never finish a track. When I showed them this definition, the “never-ending mix disease” was cured!

Definition of a Finished Track: “No emotional weak links for the listener, from the very first note, to the last moment of silence.”

And speaking of the last moment of silence, you can turn your phone back on and get back to your home studio!

Good luck!

Gary Gray is a voting member of the Grammy Recording Academy; a two-time Telly Award- Winning Producer, Arranger, Mixing and Mastering Engineer; the author of The Home Studio Bible, and creator of the online Masterclass The Lucrative Home Studio. 

Tags: daw engineering featuring licensing mastering normalization production sync licensing