How Music Licensing for Television Has Changed in the Last 20 Years
Updated: Apr 8
Music licensing has long been a major part of producing television shows. In years past, popular music was commonly played in popular television shows, but since both the music and television industries have completely transformed in the past 20 years, this is no longer the case.
In order for a song to be played on a television show, the producers of the show need to obtain a license. With this license comes money for the composer, but with the incredible changes of both the music and television industries, song licensing has become quite expensive, creating a domino effect in the business. Let’s take a closer look at how music licensing for television has changed in the last 20 years:
How Music on Television Looked in the Early 2000s
The early 2000s were an interesting time for television. At the time, there wasn’t much of note aside from some of the most iconic shows in history being at their peak, like Friends, Sex and the City, and The Sopranos, just to name a few.
In retrospect, though, the early 2000s marked the beginning of the end for traditional television viewership. Shows were released in predictable seasons and formats, and streaming services had yet to take over the film and television industry. Music looked a little bit different on television, too. Shows were still using popular music in increments longer than snippets.
How Television Has Changed
Television as we know it has completely changed. In 2007, when Netflix began streaming television shows, the industry transformed. Viewers were no longer beholden to the confines of network scheduling and could watch their favorite television shows on demand (if they were available to stream, that is).
Because of this change, music on television shows also changed. Not only did music supervision begin shying away from the use of popular music in their programs, they changed the scores of shows from years past. Fans noticed that the soundtracks to shows like Dawson's Creek, Scrubs, and Bones have all been changed for streaming.
The Music Industry Changed, Too
The television industry isn’t the only industry that’s changed. The music industry has completely flipped on its side thanks to streaming services like Spotify, as well as the rise in social media websites and apps like YouTube, SoundCloud, and TikTok.
Now listeners have nearly any song ever recorded available within seconds. And because of the availability of recording equipment for at home use, as well as access to these music-sharing platforms, musicians from around the world have the capability to post their original music at a volume unlike ever before.
This Poses a Problem for Music Licensing
So, what does this have to do with music licensing? Well, a lot.
For starters, musicians aren’t receiving the compensation that they once were, and it’s largely because of streaming services. With streaming comes posterity, and for a musician, with posterity comes royalties - typically.
Musicians who license their songs for use in television shows expect royalties, but for shows on streaming services, the price of royalties can often exceed the music budget of a streaming service. This is why fans have noticed the changes in soundtracks and scores to some of their favorite shows from the pre-streaming era.
Producers had no idea their shows would live indefinitely on streaming services, and when choosing songs, they only purchased licenses to play the songs for the time the show was expected to remain on air, as well as for the sales from DVD box sets, and possibly syndication - not for streaming.
Creative Problem Solving
Now, streaming services purchase the rights to the television shows, and with that comes the onus of paying for song licenses. Streaming juggernauts like Netflix are working to solve this problem to avoid paying high fees, especially because the majority of their budgets are allocated to producing original content with some of the most expensive creators in the business, as well as paying their acting talent.
One of their solutions is buying out composers at the onset. This gives streaming services ownership of the music, and composers are paid a lump sum for their work instead of continually receiving revenue as long as the television show their composition is featured on is still streamed.
Another solution streaming services have attempted is changing the way they incorporate music into television shows. Popular songs are often played in snippets rather than over an entire scene since the longer a song is played, the more expensive it is.
Some shows are attempting even more creative solutions, hiring composers to write an entire score and soundtrack with completely original music. Shows like Euphoria and Bridgerton are using original compositions and orchestral covers of popular songs, respectively. For shows as popular as these, this is a more budget-friendly option, and one that increases views for the streaming service due to fodder around the music in the show.
Good News for Those Wanting to Break Into the Industry
So, what does this mean for anyone hoping to have their music featured on a television show? Well, music supervisors are looking for cost-effective options. Musicians, composers, producers and songwriters with lots of talent but little credentials can find work by offering their compositions for low prices.
And with greater opportunity to showcase your talent on a music-sharing platform, it’s easier than ever to get discovered. If you’re looking to break into the music industry, licensing music for a television show is a viable path.
Bad News for Those Wanting to Break Into the Industry
On the flipside, these changes have made it very difficult to break into the industry. Because there’s availability to showcase your work, there’s that same availability for billions of other people to showcase their work, too.
And because of these platforms, there is always another talented musician offering their compositions for cheaper than what you’re offering. Changes in the music industry have simultaneously made it easier than ever and harder than ever to break in.
The Bottom Line
Music licensing for television is a completely different world than it was 20 years ago. It’s costly and is changing the art of television. However, song licensing is still necessary for television producers, as music is a crucial part of television shows. Even though it looks different than it did a couple decades ago, it’s still an active industry that’s booming with opportunity for hopeful musicians.
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