Sometimes a client is interested in including a song by a popular artist in their project. Knowing how to figure out who owns the rights to a given track and how to go about requesting a license for that track seems like a good skill to have. 

That said, here’s an as-straightforward-as-it-gets explanation on how the process works: 

Music publishing and ownership can get extra-confusing (as is evidenced by the fact that composers are constantly asking each other emergency questions about how to handle different situations). Suffice it to say that you’re looking to track down whoever owns or might own the publishing share of the rights—as opposed to the writer’s share (for some general information on how ownership of publishing is divided up, check out the “How Royalties are Divided” section of this page). 

For our purposes here, I’ll use the song “Chains” as an example. 

1. Figure out who wrote the song. Perhaps you grew up listening to the above Beatles version, you want to include it in your film or commercial, and you just want to be sure that they were definitely the ones who wrote it before you go searching for their legal representative to inquire about a license. So, you head on over to Wikipedia to get a bird’s eye view and—WHAMMO! They didn’t write it. It turns out that, like all of the other music in the world, it was written by Carole King (and Gerry Goffin).

2. Figure out which performance rights organization (PRO) the song’s publishing is affiliated with. The three big PROs are ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC and they each have a utility on their site called [something like] “repertoire search” or “repertory search.”

Check to see if any of them list the song. 

ASCAP’s Repertory Search

BMI’s Repertoire Search 

SESAC’s Repertory Search

Easy peasy. The song is affiliated with BMI

3. Figure out the actual name of the publishing company that controls the song. So, I can see from my BMI repertoire search that the publishing for the song “Chains,” composed by Carole King and Gerry Goffin, is controlled by an entity called: SCREEN GEMS-EMI MUSIC INC. 

4. Track the publishing company down on line. The larger joints usually have a “How to license our music” section on their site. Here‘s EMI’s (now Sony’s) thing about licensing/synching. 

5. Organize all of the information you’ll need to contact the publishing company. Before contacting the publishing company, write down everything anyone could possibly want to know about your situation—as if you’re getting ready to defend a doctoral thesis. 

Things including, but not limited to: 

  • Exactly what track you want to license
  • How the track will be used
  • How much of the track will be used
  • What your project is 
  • What your budget is
  • What markets the track will be used in
  • What mediums the track will be used in

6. Contact the publishing company with your inquiry.  Contact the company however they prefer to be contacted according to the thing on their site. 

Helpful Tips Section. These larger companies get guh-jillions of inquiries every day. For the larger entities, unless you don’t have money in a very, very, very unique way, writing to them and saying something like, “I’ve got a show with no budget and a lot of heart!” probably isn’t going to get you anywhere. Also, as with every other area of our world, and despite the official-ness of all of these sites, it wouldn’t hurt to reach out to a relative or friend in the music business, before making your initial contact, to see if they might know someone—or know someone who knows someone who knows someone—at one of these companies. Apart from maybe increasing your chances by allowing you to state your full case, it might give you a direct line to a person who will actually pick up a phone when you call with questions, which you’ll absolutely have because music publishing is so baroque and confusing.