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Adventures in Music Licensing: A Case Study

So, there’s this upcoming independent project that I’ve been tracking pretty closely. It’s called Moonface (stylized as MOONFACE), it’s a six-part fiction podcast by a team led by KPCC alum James Kim, and it’s set to be a bilingual production, carrying out its story in both English and Korean.

Also, it’s going to feature a good deal of licensed music (including tracks from Clairo, Big Thief, and Peggy Gou), which is something I’ve long wanted to see used more widely in podcast production. Getting the rights to use music is a pretty costly transaction, though, often prohibitively so for independent productions made on a shoestring budget. So I thought I’d check in and talk with Kim about his (admittedly atypical) experience getting labels on-board with this project. The chat ended up touching on a broader series of topics around the idea of music and podcasting. A lot of it will could be useful to you.

I decided to run this as an “as told by” piece, for readibility’s sake. Here’s Kim:

Music is one of the most underutilized aspects of podcasting. It can affect the mood, the pacing, the emotion of a scene or story. But it’s also not as simple as slapping a music bed with some marimbas and calling it a day — there’s an art to it. There are also a ton of decisions involved that can either make the music work or not: when you should bring a score or a song, how long it should play, if certain musical moments hit in a scene, how does the music complement the moment and the story, etc.

Andrew Eapen is the composer on MOONFACE. We started discussing how we would use music the show about eight or nine months ago. I created a music bible, and broke down every instrument I wanted to use with specific examples from film scores and bands. We even made a mood board of how we wanted the music to feel. There’s not much happening sonically in the show, so the music was going to carry the bulk of the emotional weight.

I knew I wanted to use a good amount of pop and indie music in MOONFACE. We have original scoring in the podcast by Andrew, but I wanted to experiment with using pop music to find out how that could bring new layers to the experience. And of course, I wanted to make sure that I was cleared to use them, because the last thing I want to do is pull an episode, find a replacement track that I’m free to use, and then reupload it.

But I knew I didn’t have enough money to pay for the licensing. On the low end, it could cost around $500 to get the rights to use a song, and upwards to thousands of dollars depending on the artist and how popular that song is. The process could get quite complicated. You gotta get both the publishing/sync license, which usually belongs to the record label who distributed the song, and the mastering license, which usually belongs to the record label or artist who made the song. Both come with separate prices.

The price can also be affected by how the song is being used: if it’s in the background or front and center, how long the song is being played, if your podcast is available in certain areas or if it’s available worldwide, if you want to use the song for just a year or forever, and so on. It was a lot, going through the process six or seven times for each song I wanted, but it was definitely eye opening. Especially because I feel like it’s a new territory for podcasters to be thinking about.

So, I didn’t have a ton of money to throw at this podcast. I had a total budget of $10,000. But I figured I would reach out and ask if there were any way I could use the songs I had in mind… for free. It was a big ask, but when we got to negotiations, I made it clear that I wasn’t making this podcast for a profit. I wouldn’t sell any ads or have any paywall or set up a Kickstarter. This was all self-funded — I even took out a personal loan just to cover the costs for the project — and I’m just making this podcast simply because I wanted to make something I’m passionate about. Something that would make people feel something, and hopefully expand what a podcast can sound like.

More podcast outlets are taking music licensing seriously, I think. For instance, Gimlet (where I now work full-time) hired the amazing Liz Fulton a few months ago as a music supervisor to oversee things such as music licensing and a ton of other stuff. But getting permission to use pop music is generally a newer idea in podcasting. Even when I was going over the music licensing contracts for MOONFACE, there were sometimes no check boxes to mark that the show was a podcast. Sometimes I had to explain what a podcast was, and how it was different than other mediums. So, both the music and podcast industry have a long way to go.

MOONFACE will drop in its entirety on October 9.