Music for TV Shows

A film camera being operated in a night-club style room with pink lighting

These days, with the rise of original film and TV programming for the likes of Netflix, Hulu and Amazon, there’s more music needed for TV than ever before. But how can you get into music licensing for TV, games, YouTube videos or commercials? We take a look at the skills you’ll need to break into the world of production music, what music libraries are looking for, and the pros and cons of exclusive and non-exclusive publishing deals.

Production music for TV

Production music is also known as stock music or library music. It’s specifically written – and licensed for - synchronisation or dubbing in television, advertising, films, websites and viral marketing campaigns.

Production music is produced, owned and licensed by production music libraries, who own all the copyright of their music; popular and classical music publishers typically own less than 50% of the copyright in a composition.

Whilst most often used as background music in film, television and radio, production music can also be bought in as the theme music for TV shows. Some of the most famous are for ‘Mastermind’ (‘Approaching Menace’ by Neil Richardson), ‘Grange Hill’ (‘Chicken Man’ by Alan Hawkshaw) and Arthur Wood’s ‘Barwick Green’, which was written in 1924, and is familiar to Radio 4 fans as The Archers’ theme tune.

Production music is a convenient resource for music supervisors, as most libraries offer a broad range of musical styles and genres.

If you’re looking for production music for TV, here’s our top 5 picks:

Clear Morning by Alex Arcoleo – for a summery groove

Like a Winner by Jeff Dale & Tim Reilly – inspirational ambient indie pop

Line of Beauty by Joe Henson, Alexis Smith & Michael Georgiades - Laid-back acoustic guitar

Moonlight Garden by Michael Tedstone – uplifting and nostalgic

Parigi by Cyril Giroux, Campbell E Browning, Pablo Love & David Bossan - A Parisian jazz waltz with plenty of swing

Music licensing for TV and film

What are the creative and financial advantages of being a composer of library music?

‘There’s a lot of creative freedom in writing library music – as pretty much all markets are catered for, I can concentrate on the kind of music I enjoy making. It’s a great opportunity to experiment with genres and styles and with every project I work on, I always learn something new so to keep on creating is to keep improving and expanding my knowledge. Aside from the creativity, there are good financial benefits too. Once the work is done, it can potentially keep earning you royalties for years. Finally, if I’m doing my own album, there is a reasonably flexible schedule, so I can fit it around my other TV and film projects’ (Composer, Justine Barker)

How do I become a production music writer?

A successful production music writer creates tracks which can be placed in TV shows, commercials, films, video games, sales videos and more. If you’re looking to get into licensing your music, then usually you’ll need a home or professional studio to create your music.

Experience and skills

Many of Audio Network’s roster of composers and artists have studied at dedicated music colleges and universities. This will give you a good foundation, including developing crucial recording and mixing skills and will potentially cover specific skill sets. For example, the Royal College of Music’s ‘Composition for Screen’ course, aims to, according to Vasco Hexel, the Area Leader in Composition for Screen, ‘provide practical, collaborative and industry-facing training, giving graduates the knowledge and skills required in the evolving field of music for multimedia.’

The good news is, however, there’s no prior experience needed for a career in production music. You just need to know how to write, record and mix your music. If you want to be successful and grow your career, though, you’ll need to always be on the lookout for ways to use new recording tech and to keep an eye on the changing landscape of the film, TV, advertising and games industries. Remind yourself to always be a student – listen to a wide variety of musical genres and styles – and watch programmes that aren’t necessarily what you’d usually choose, to expand your references - so that no matter what the brief, you can nail it.

The advice from industry insiders is always to capitalise on your strengths – if you’re a great guitarist, for example, then produce the best rock music you can. However, it never hurts to learn and experiment with other instruments – or join forces with an expert whose skills complement your own.

You’re most likely to start off by developing music for general use; however, as you gain experience, you’ll find opportunities to enter more specific or niche markets – this can then get you a foot in the door to be commissioned directly as a composer.

For example, Audio Network’s Maximum Impact collection is composed and produced to be licensed for blockbuster trailers. New Zealander Mark Petrie’s Maximum Impact tracks have been licensed for huge box office successes from ‘Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol’ to ‘Guardians of the Galaxy, and ‘Avengers: Endgame’, whose trailer featuring Mark’s track ‘Torsion’ has clocked up nearly 26 million views.

In terms of non-music skills, as with most industries, the most valuable one is probably the ability to network.

Tips on getting started

  • Do a search on Audio Network or a similar library for the style and genre of music you write
  • Listen to tracks that are similar to yours
  • How do your songs compare? Are your mixes up to scratch? If not, what would you need to do to improve the quality of your music? Identify your strengths and weaknesses – be honest with yourself on both fronts!
  • Study how the tracks are structured and how long they are. Audio Network has a huge array of different mixes and edits for each track in our catalogue
  • Prep your best three songs or tracks – and ensure that you’ve got the best possible mix – you never get a second chance at making a first impression

Want to find out more about how to create a successful production music track? Check out this video from vlogger Christian Henson, who breaks down the ideal ‘five act’ structure and discusses the importance of edits and providing ‘stems’ where appropriate (‘stereo masters’ – a piano-only version, a pad-only version and the full mastered mix), together with alt-versions.

Sophie Urquhart from Tin Drum, a full service music consultancy, has this advice with regard to finding a music library to submit your music to: ‘I would advise composers to do their research on the libraries that will most suit their style of music. And listen to their advice, they are specialists in what broadcasters and sync people are looking for and can help mould their style accordingly to give it the best shot of being used, hopefully numerous times!

Also, I’d encourage them to focus on where their strengths lie; better to be an expert in their field rather than a jack of all trades. There’s more competition than ever before, so it’s crucial that they have an identity which sets them apart from the rest.’

Exclusive vs non-exclusive publishing deals

There are pros and cons to signing an exclusive publishing deal, or keeping your options open by sticking with a non-exclusive one. Here’s a comparison, so you can decide which could potentially work best for you.

Exclusive Publishing

  • It’s a time-saver – you’re only dealing with one publisher
  • The library will often pay for the production of the tracks
  • There’s a potential for higher pay – often you’re offered a better commission when a library is signing your music exclusively
  • Libraries often promote exclusive music over the non-exclusive
  • There are no inconsistencies in licensing fees
  • Many publishers and libraries only accept exclusive music

The Cons

  • All your eggs are in one basket – if the publisher or library fails, so does your music
  • There’s a potential loss of opportunities to license your music elsewhere
  • Some deals don’t have reversion clauses

Non-exclusive Publishing

  • You can cast a wider net with your publishing
  • If a music library fails, you can make your music available elsewhere
  • If your music doesn’t earn enough, you can try another library
  • You have more control over the music

Cons

  • You’ll typically receive less commission
  • Some music supervisors won’t purchase non-exclusive music
  • It can be time-consuming in terms of taking longer to upload, describe and keyword

The best option is probably to do a little of both – and remember not to sign any contract ‘in perpetuity’. Ensure that there’s a reversion clause so that you can look at entering into a different type of deal if the one you have isn’t working for you.

TV production music

Once you’re established, what kind of briefs might you be working to? You could be commissioned by a music library producer to create an entire album, or tracks to be included on a compilation album. These tracks could be as short as a minute long, but are mostly between two and four minutes. You’ll also be required to produce shorter versions lasting 30 seconds, 20 seconds and 10 seconds, as well as short ‘stings’ – it’s easier for the producer to generate these at the mixing stage, rather than trying to create them from a stereo master later.

Specific briefs can range from the very precise to the pretty vague! Composer Pete Thomas gives some examples:

  • Writing something that fits a very specific commercial demand, such as lifestyle programmes or quiz shows, or to fit popular search phrases such as ‘sex in the city’, ‘money’, ‘countdown’ or ‘stop press’
  • Taking inspiration from an existing track, composer or style, being very careful not to infringe any copyright or to ‘pass off’ as something copyrighted
  • Taking inspiration purely from a generic film scene, such as a car chase, slapstick comedy sketch or sex scene
  • Creating a dramatic feel or emotional atmosphere

Earnings

In general, a music library will pay you a portion of the ‘sync fee’. This is the fee an agency will pay the library to use the music. Most libraries will pay you 50% of this fee. Others will pay their artists commission.

The other way of earning money from your music is to be a member of a Performing Rights Organisation (PRO) – these are the bodies who track when your music has aired publicly, for example on TV, and pay you accordingly.

Something to be aware of is the fact that, even if your music is licensed, you won’t get paid immediately. If you’re signed by a library, it could be 18 months before any money starts coming in. If your track is being used for TV, for example, there may be a significant lag between it being licensed and the programme airing; you can then expect your PRO to pay for that airing around nine months later – it’ll take longer if it’s showing in another country.

Associations and Unions

As part of your networking plan, it can be useful to become a member of industry groups and associations. The main players are the Production Music Association, Broadcast Music Inc (BMI), The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) and the Society of European Stage Authors and Composers (SESAC).

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This page was first published 21/08/2015 and updated on 11/02/2019

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