How to Get Music for your Project on a Budget


Paying for music has become a complicated and confusing process for the average consumer. It’s hard for people to catch up in a quickly evolving industry that still hasn’t completely caught up with this evolution. Plus, it’s difficult to have someone who doesn’t understand the work and equipment it takes to make music. I believe it was Confucius that said “education breeds confidence”. When you know the inner workings of something, you can utilize it to its fullest potential.

A lot of my clients come into our initial consultation fully believing that they can’t afford the music they want. About half the time….they’re right! It’s difficult to license a Michael Jackson track like “Thriller” for a short film that has an overall production budget of $5,000 when a license fee for that track could be in the hundreds of thousands depending on the usage of the song.  Or, say you need a chamber orchestra with up to 40 musicians and you only have $10,000 to do it, you will definitely not have a large enough budget to make this happen.

Dealing with clients from various industries that utilize visual media to create, promote, and share projects, I have a few pointers to share on how you can get great music on a budget.

1. Start Researching Price Points Early

A question I get quite frequently is when someone should start thinking about music for their project. Most of the time it’s beneficial to start thinking about music in pre-production, and during script development or right after the final draft is approved. This will help you start planning a music strategy and budget. This will also help in case you have something in the script like an elaborate on-camera scene that’s crucial to the plot of the story. You want to make sure you’re going to be able to afford it before you even start shooting, just in case that scene will have to be taken out or re-written. Same thing in commercials or advertising! A lot of time the music is used to affect the viewer’s emotional response to the advertisement, targeting of the desired audience, the structure and continuity of the advertisement / commercial itself. So the sooner you know how much everything is going to cost, the easier it will be to keep your project on track.

2. Manage Your Expectations

This is a pretty big one and a point that I always stress to my clients who have tight budgets. Listen, I know what it’s like to have a song that has been a major part of your life and that it has been a dream to use it in a project of yours. I have a few of them myself, well a list actually. A pretty long list if I’m going to be honest (Lianne La Havas, if you’re reading this, please know that I have made it my life’s mission to find the perfect production for your entire Blood album). But as I stated earlier, it’s hard to get approvals for music from major artists on a small budget or even have them take you seriously as a viable project.

Some clients I have worked with will fight tooth and nail to try and get the music they want even though they could only afford one or two songs off of their wish list. We in the biz call this “being married to your temp track”. Although I’m sure it starts out as a torrid love affair fulfilling all of your short-term needs, in the long run this relationship is not sustainable. If you have a small budget, don’t expect to be able to license popular tracks. Plus, there are a lot of talented indie artists who have the means and the will to work with you when you’re budget it tight. Also, think about what it takes to license a track. If you are going to picture lock in 4 days or you’re trying to meet a deadline, and you choose a song that has 6 publishers and a record label that you are trying to get an approvals from, unless you have a miracle worker on your side (most often pronounced as Music Supervisor, and even then with that tight of a deadline you’d be hard pressed to make that happen without a healthy budget) you are only going to waste time and money trying to get those approvals.

3. Get Help from The Experts

I’m not just talking about Music Supervisors here. There’s a whole world out there of musicians, composers, music publishing companies, record labels, and other industry personnel that know how to navigate this process as effectively as possible. They want to work with you as much as you want to work with them. So, start making friends in the music industry, and more importantly, start a dialogue with them so you know how it works and how you can create mutually beneficial relationships with music experts.