Using a hit song to promote the release of a video game or feature film works well, often really well. However, there may be legal, creative or financial obstacles to using an original recording. In this article we go on record about the basic ‘need-to-knows’ of licensing and creating a cover trailer song.
Trends in Trailer Music
Over the past ten years, it has become common for film- and video game trailers to be accompanied by a dramatic (or trailerized) version of a popular song. Remember the trailer for ‘The Social Network’ in 2010? That unsettling version of Radiohead’s ‘Creep’ by a Belgian girls choir was the big one that kicked it all off. Since then, the business of trailerizing songs for entertainment marketing has taken off. The past ten years has seen some great adaptations like Cat Stevens’ ‘Wild World’ for Mad Max: Fury Road and Pink Floyd’s ‘Eclipse’ in last year’s trailer for Dune. And in the past three months alone we have seen versions of ‘Heart of Glass’ (House of Gucci), ‘Starman’ (Lightyear), ‘Kickstart My Heart’ (Battlefield 2042), ‘God Only Knows’ (Lamb) and ‘Perfect Day’ (Spencer), just to name a few.
For trailer companies and music supervisors, licensing a cover version of a popular track can seem like a complicated and expensive process. While it may indeed become costly depending on the song choice, it doesn’t necessarily have to be all that complicated if you know what intellectual property rights you’re dealing with. So let’s break it down;
Master vs. Publishing
There are two main rights that you have to take into consideration when licensing (a version of) a popular track for a trailer or commercial; the master recording rights and the composition/publishing rights. In most cases these are controlled by different parties. The master recording refers to the actual recorded version of a song and is often owned by the record label of the performing artist. The copyright of the composition belongs to the songwriters and their publishers and refers to what makes the song unique, like melody, harmony, structure and lyrics.
Not All Songs Are Created Equal
When dealing with these two sides of sync licensing and the rates involved in both, a term you may have heard about is Most Favored Nations. MFN is an agreement that ensures parity/equal pay between the publishing and recording parties when negotiating a sync license. Equal fees for master and publishing rights are pretty common, but there are exceptions. There are circumstances when it isn’t really logical to handle the same rates for publishing and masters. Think about it, if my band covers a Beatles-tune, the license for the composition by the Beatles will be much higher than my master recording. But if Paul and Ringo decide to cover one of my band’s tunes, their recording will be worth much more than my original composition. In most cases though, when it comes to licensing a cover version of a song, the master recording is easier to clear than the publishing rights.
I Will Survive, and how to get the best sync license terms
Let’s illustrate this with an example; say you’re working on a trailer for a fighting game and you want to use ‘I Will Survive’ by Gloria Gaynor as the soundtrack, but there is no budget to license the original version by the artist. While browsing the internet, you may stumble upon a cover version that you really like that will also fit the tone of the piece you’re cutting.
To get a fair deal and optimal terms, it is helpful to have a party on board that knows the ins-and-outs of the sync market and music licensing (like Clear Music). We have existing and long-standing relationships with publishers and record labels and are able to negotiate a fair price for the sync and master use license. The final license fee will depend on a number of things, like the duration of the trailer and how many seconds of the music cue is used, the content of the trailer (synopsis), the prominence of the cue, and of course the popularity/familiarity of the song.