Docs That Rock

Copywrong 101

This month’s Real Screen has a basic boilerplate article on why its expensive, complicated and agonizing to get music rights for docs. In short, its the many levels of permission needed before a filmmaker can pay a fortune to various parties (record labels, artists, publishers and songwriters) for use of a tune. And every rate is negotiable (unlike a radio station, which pays a government-set flat royalty rate) which means months (years) of haggling. It has a great quote from a music supervisor: “If you’ve heard the song before, you’re going to have problems.” The piece claims most music docs will spend at least 60 percent of their budget on licensing, which seems slightly low to me.

Weirdly, the article puts a positive, democratic spin on the common “most favored nation” clause by which every rightsholder demand that their fee automatically adjusts to the highest rate paid out by the filmmaker; in other words, no label/publisher/entity can get a bigger royalty rate by anyone else. This will be the subject of a future post but it screams anti-free market (and possibly anti-trust) to me, as a producer who has tried to make a tight music budget go far only to get thwarted by one high price for a must-have song, which makes the entire music budget explode (as the other rates rachet up to the highest we paid out).

But the piece does aptly summarize the main dilemma of this current system:

All the barriers and hurdles in the way to getting music licenses make a filmmaker wonder, is it even possible to make a critical movie about music when you will need to get the permissions of the musicians and their labels – just to begin with – in order to use the music in question? / It’s for this reason that a lot of programming now comes in the form of ‘commissioned’ or ‘official’ programs, because the only way to get them done is in cooperation with the musicians.

Seeing whether today’s music docs are able to succeed in delivering narrative truths without being compromised is going to take up a lot of this blog’s copy.

P.S. Forgive my feeble first attempt at graphic design – the G Clef in jail!

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April 29, 2008 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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