How to License a Song for your Indie Game Trailer

So i thought it would be really cool to license a known pop song for the trailer for our upcoming game Spellirium. i realized there would be a cost involved, of course, but since i’m trying to run a legit bidness, i didn’t just want to snake the song and throw the trailer up on YouTube. That’s not cool. Pop stars, between the cocaine buffets and the week-long orgies with underage groupies, work just as hard as you and me. They deserve royalties … or whatever.

Glam Rock Band

Please, people: dig deep, and give.

i say “whatever” because until last week, i didn’t really know what this all entailed. Now, my friends, i have seen the beast face-to-face, and i’m here to report on what you’ve actually got to do to nab a pop song for your project.

First, let’s be clear that there’s a difference between using a song to advertise your product, and using a song IN your product. Most bands, i assume, are much more comfortable with having their song paired with meaningful visuals as the art unfolds on the screen, than they are with people crassly leveraging their celebrity to shill a service or product. Check that – it all comes down to who the artist is, how active (read: young) the artist is, and how much integrity the artist has. People scoffed when Bob Dylan licensed his (presumed) protest song “The Times, They Are a-Changing” for use in a commercial for a bank.

Bob Dylan DRM Sucks

But come on … you can’t take it with you. If i could get fat kicking back and cashing in on my own library of tunes without having to endure the stress of touring, i’d let Lockheed Martin print my lyrics on the side of a missile aimed at a third world orphanage.

Let’s also be clear about my own intended use for the song. i’m not exactly selling hemorrhoid cream here. We’re making a fun, exciting game where you spell words and defeat monsters. We weren’t proposing to change the lyrics to sell the product, a la DriveShaft’s “You All EveryBummies“.

Drive Shaft

Yes, i do think a band deserves piles of money for doing something like this.

There are three different license types at play here:

  1. Mechanical License
  2. Sychronization License
  3. Public Performance

Let’s handle those one by one:

1. Mechanical License

You need to buy one of these licenses from the copyright holder of the composition (realize that the song’s composition is an entirely separate thing from the recorded performance). If you want to manipulate the composition, or put it anywhere – stamp it on a CD, print sheet music, use it in a music box or greeting card – you need a mechanical license. A band who does a cover version of a song needs a mechanical license. You may require a mechanical license if you want to use the song in a game, and especially if the character needs to play the song on an in-game instrument … think Rock Band, for example. Most mechanical licenses can be purchased through the Harry Fox Agency.

2. Synchronization License

Purchase a synchronization license to slap a song on your commercial, game trailer, motivational video, etc. You see this a lot on YouTube, where young teens splice together their favourite anime scenes and set them to some song of choice. i have a sneaking suspicion they haven’t purchased a synchronization license to do that. If you want to use a song in a game trailer like i did, you actually need two licenses: one to synchronize the composition, and one to cover off your use of a given recording. So if i wanted to synchronize Joey Joe and the Jimbobs’s cover of Bob Dylan’s “Idiot Wind”, i would need to buy a synchronization license for Dylan’s composition, and then a separate license for the Joey Joe and the Jimbobs’s recording. In order to obtain a synchronization license, you usually have to track down the song’s publisher.

3. Public Performance

i always wondered if any money changed hands when i went to a concert and, say, they Barenaked Ladies did a cover of the title theme from Jesus Christ Superstar. Apparently so. There exists a public performance license that you need to purchase to do just that. i’m not sure if this particular license extends to things like musical theatre. It’s likely.

Detective Work


Just one more question, Ma’am … how on Earth do i pay you money for your product?

Here’s the breadcrumb trail i followed to ask after a synchronization license for the song i wanted to use:

  1. i started at the BMI site. i found the band and the song listed in their database. The BMI site had a toll-free number to call to inquire about licenses. The guy on the phone was very helpful. He explained the three types of licenses i just described to you, and told me that BMI usually only handles public performance licenses – the publishers usually took care of synchronization licenses. So i needed to find the publisher.
  2. i googled the publisher’s name. Unfortunately, it was very similar to that of a popular teevee show for pre-schoolers, so my search was swamped with irrelevant hits. Dead end.
  3. i went to the band’s official page. There was no contact information on the site, so i tried tweeting their Twitter account. No response.
  4. i went back to Google and searched for the actual song title. The song was credited to something called UniChappell Music in a number of places. Aha! A solid lead.
  5. There were no results for UniChappell Music on Wikipedia, but Wikipedia asked me if i meant Chappell music. Sounded close enough, so i hit that page.
  6. According to Wikipedia, Chappell had apparently merged with Warner to form Warner/Chappell music. i visited the Warner/Chappell site and used the contact page there to reach one of their people in charge of synchronization licenses for advertising and video games.
  7. The Warner/Chappell contact confirmed i’d found the correct agency, and we went from there.

A salient Douglas Adams quote comes to mind:

“But Mr Dent, the plans have been available in the local planning office for the last nine months.”

“Oh yes, well as soon as I heard I went straight round to see them, yesterday afternoon. You hadn’t exactly gone out of your way to call attention to them, had you? I mean, like actually telling anybody or anything.”

“But the plans were on display …”

“On display? I eventually had to go down to the cellar to find them.”

“That’s the display department.”

“With a flashlight.”

“Ah, well the lights had probably gone.”

“So had the stairs.”

“But look, you found the notice didn’t you?”

“Yes,” said Arthur, “yes I did. It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the Leopard’.”

The Money

i explained to the Warner/Chappell contact how small we were – told her all about our project, and the details of how we wanted to use the song (in a video that we’d put up on YouTube and other video sharing sites). She contacted the band, and came back with a price tag of $65 000 for a 1-year synchronization license. (Keep in mind this is one of two licenses i’d need to purchase – i have no idea what a license for a given performance would have run me). She explained that the band is still pretty active, and that the song i wanted was an important one for them. To counter, i pointed out that the song had barely cracked the top 100 in the charts when it debuted twenty-three years ago. No matter.

Our conversation was pretty much dead in the water at that point. What was i supposed to do? Haggle? i can’t imagine talking someone down from sixty-five grand to the more manageable $29.95 (plus tax) that suited my budget.

If you want a song you can afford, there are a few routes you can take:

  1. Write and perform a song yourself.
  2. Blackmail a musician who is living in your country illegally.
  3. Hire someone to produce a sound-alike version. Then watch as Ryan embarks on a murderous rampage through the city streets, because sound-alike songs enrage him.
  4. Use the song without the license. Wait for YouTube to nix it, and run the extremely low risk of being sued.

So … what have we learned?

  1. If you have to ask, you can’t afford it.

…. aaaaand … that’s about it. i guess the only other conclusion i can possibly draw is that unless you know the band, or are the band, you likely can’t afford to license an even remotely well-known song for your indie game trailer.

My contingency plan involves a computer microphone, my 2-year-old daughter, and an assortment of pots and spoons. Clamorous!

Baby djembe


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21 thoughts on “How to License a Song for your Indie Game Trailer

  1. Troy Gilbert

    I’ve not done it myself, but YouTube offers the option to play a song along with your video. You can’t do any *real* synchronization, but it may work depending on what you need. Of course, it causes an ad for the song to pop-up, so it’s less than ideal, but it’s an option.

    1. Ryan

      Troy – thanks for the tip! i wonder if they harbour any stipulations about what you can or can’t synch the music to?

  2. Bwakathaboom

    It doesn’t even matter if the band is popular or active, a license can still cost in the tens of thousands for unknown / dead bands that have been out of existence for decades.

    In a way I understand it, you’re paying to engage the legal department of a monstrous bureaucracy. It’s going to cost them thousands of dollars just to draw up the documents. Yes, in theory it’s a simple “cookie cutter” contract that a secretary will probably fill out and the actual lawyers will only spend about five minutes on…but if we let that be an excuse then then entire legal profession would collapse.

    Have you followed the story of the Flash animated film “Sita Sings the Blues”? Very similar tale, it was going to cost the filmmaker over $200,000 to license recordings from the 1920s(!). The movie is now available under Creative Commons license instead.

  3. Andreas Renberg

    I’m not sure if this applies in this instance, but from what I have read, parodies of songs cannot be sued for copyright infringement. However, that may only be the words to the music, and may not apply to the actual melody.

    But if you pick a song you like, and remix some of the words to fit your game, (and then, of course, record and sing it yourself) you might be able to pull it off, theoretically.

    Ever play Shift (I think it was the third game)? When you finish it, the theme song for “Shaft” plays, but with parody lyrics for “Shift” instead. Quite clever, really… That MIGHT have been what they were doing, but I’m still quite shaky on copyright law.

    And too bad regarding the costs… :( I was hoping for something “reasonable”, at least no more than $100.

  4. tfernando

    Thanks for this article. I tried to get a performance licence for some Bach arrangements to use in the game I’m working on. The company selling the the sheet music was interested enough when I originally contacted them and there was some back and forth with no numbers, so I spent the time to produce .mod files… and then after I offered a price in the low three figures they stopped talking to me. I have no idea what they were expecting, but if it was in the multiple thousands I was wasting everyone’s time. How I was supposed to know what a performance license goes for without asking is beyond me.

  5. dendritejungle

    Much as I’m dying to hear what you and your daughters come up with, I do have an alternate suggestion. Have you considered a composer, maybe fresh out of school so their rates are more in the kind of price range you had in mind? I’m thinking of this particularly because I know the World Wide Short Film Festival is next week and in addition to the bazillion screenings (wheee!) there is also an industry side that I believe offers meet-and-greets in addition to symposia. I also know that composers are involved, and in past years there have been demo CDs circulating with samples from different composers along with their contact information. Just a thought.

    1. Ryan

      dendritejungle – i’m looking at a few people for music. One is a graduate of music composition. It’s weird talking to any musician about this stuff, because not having had any experience, i simply don’t know how to call a fair price for music. i really don’t know how to properly budget for this stuff. Ditto voice acting.

  6. Bret Moretti

    Ryan I can play some Earth shattering Heavy Metal guitar….might sound good with your kid’s pots and pans. Let me know if you need any guitar sounds. I work for street Kred which essentially means free:)

    1. Ryan

      Bret – thank you! i think that, with some number-crunching and creative accounting, we’d be able to afford free. Let me pursue the other options i’ve got lined up. i may track you down.

  7. Bret Moretti

    No problem…not sure what you are looking for but exactly but I can just about make any kind of guitar sound imaginable from metal to blues to clean classical sounding. I can play to any existing background track too. As a matter of fact I have some game ideas you might be interested in…feel free to contact me when you have time:)

  8. Kurt Griffith

    I came across this doing research for one of my web design clients, who’s tryng to take a product international. She wants to do a vid with at the very least a well known pop tune. Of course the greater visibility, the closer circle the lawyers. It’s as bad as I suspected.

    1. Ryan Henson Creighton

      Yeah – lawyers. They’re like some kind of … ocean predator, with lots of teeth … a fitting metaphor escapes me. (Leopard seals?)

  9. Kenn Hoekstra

    Great article. Ironic, too, since I arrived at your website because I am trying to license a W.A.S.P. song for a movie. I thought it was hilarious that the first image in this blog is a picture of W.A.S.P.! I hope they’re not the ones who were asking for $65,000 for a one year license… ;)

    1. Ryan Henson Creighton

      Weird! i didn’t even know who W.A.S.P. was … i just Googled for an image of “rock stars”, and they seemed perfect.

      The band i was after is far more famous than W.A.S.P., but they’ve definitely had their day in the sun, and can’t command $65k as far as i’m concerned.

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  12. Vi

    Darrrrn, that is a lot of money! If it were closer to $29.99, my free little indie horror game might actually be able to have music in it. (I can’t just record my own, although it might be fun to learn how, because I intentionally wanted to use recognizable songs for foreshadowing and characterization purposes. The straight-laced therapist sheepishly laughing off his car CD player’s outburst of, “HEY YEAH, I’M YOUR SUPERBEAST!” would be a lot funnier, and more thought-provoking to plot-minded players, than if they heard my own shrill voice squeak, “Doop de doo, I’m secretly a genocidal tentacle monster from spaaaaace, la la la!” No matter how well my homebrew music turned out, I’d be afraid of it making the whole project feel tacky and self-indulgent.)

  13. Nathan Broadbent

    Thanks, this was really helpful. I managed found the band’s recording label and sent them an email. They have this on their contact page:

    > We are huge fans of film and television, and have been lucky enough to have our music featured in more films, television, and commercials than we can count – everything from major motion pictures to no-budget high school student films.

    So that’s encouraging! Hopefully I might be able to use the song without paying tens of thousands of dollars.

  14. Rocco

    Extremely well written. I was certain you were a britt and turns out I was right. Or a Canidiot ;) same thing. But seriously I now know that I will be raped for $65k (us plus tax) for a half crappy song. Well done neighbor to the north!
    Detroit, rock city


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