Welcome! If you’ve landed here that means you’ve checked out our “Music in Film” blog series and likely just finished our post on composers. This post is designed as an addendum to the latter and walks you through some critical aspects of the deal you’ll ink with your composer. 

The composer agreement is substantively different from the deals other department heads sign because of the music rights involved. In addition to contracting for services like other key crew deal memos, the composer agreement also serves as a licensing agreement and/or transfer of ownership for the music the composer creates.

 

Pro Tip: When negotiating a production legal package with your attorney, be sure that package includes a composer agreement – it’s sometimes not included since it can be a complex deal and a lengthy negotiation.

This post isn’t a substitute for legal advice (of course!) but here are some critical elements to be aware of:

 

Services

The composer should be required to create the original score and the corresponding master recordings (the “masters”). This means they not only write the score but are responsible for recording it. Read the fine print to make sure you’re clear on who’s responsible for covering recording costs (more on that in a moment)

Be specific about what music you need. This can either be in paragraph or exhibit form, but you’ll want to say something akin to: “must supply original main and end title music, underscore, incidental music (e.g., lead-ins, lead-outs, bumpers, cues, interstitial bridge music, and/or other kinds of transitional music which company may require), and source cues.” The last point is a key one. Your source cues might be numerous (think background music in a bar or on a car radio) and a good composer can knock out a lot of these quickly under a single license. 

This section will also specify the Final Delivery Materials, which will likely be detailed via an exhibit. These materials will obviously include fully mixed master sound recordings of all the music created for the film, but you should also require stems (individual components or submixes that allow you flexibility in your final mix and M&E), as well as Music Cue Sheets. The latter are critical documents that list every single piece of music in the film (your distributor will require these as part of your deliverables, so be sure to require your composer creates them). 

 

Compensation 

What you pay your composer will usually consist of a fixed fee as well as some form of contingent compensation (box office/download bonus, net profits, etc,). This section should also note what specific costs the composer may incur that the Producer is not obligated to pay. A few specifics:

FIXED COMPENSATION: A guaranteed flat fee that is usually paid in installments as the composer’s work progresses. 

Example: Three equal installments to be paid up on (1) contract execution, (2) initial delivery of masters, (3) delivery of final materials. 

Pro Tip: To ensure receipt of all required deliverables, it is highly recommended you tie final payment to the receipt and QC of these items.

CONTINGENT COMPENSATION: Depending on the flat fee, this generally falls in line with what other key creatives and lead cast receive.

Example: Assuming all obligations are fulfilled by the composer, they shall be entitled to two (2) producer’s net profit points.

Excluded Costs: Included but not limited to music editor/equipment rental, lyricists, vocalists, rescoring.

Note: If the composer fee was not going to cover any aspect of the recording of the score, it would be noted here.

Credit 

The composer customarily gets a single card in the main credits along with your other key creatives and main lead cast. 

 

Rights & Ownership 

These are the most critical parts of the composer agreement. We summarize these two sections immediately below, and – if you’re just geeking out on this stuff – scroll all the way down for excerpts of these sections from a sample composer agreement. 

RIGHTS refer to what the agreement permits the producer to do with the music created by the composer. It should grant the producer a very broad license to use the music however they want. Similar to licensing a song, the agreement will grant the producer/production company a sync license and a master license for all the music created.

Terms like “throughout the universe,” “perpetuity,” and in “all media now known or hereafter devised” appear in this section to emphasize the permanent nature of this license. Why push for this? The score is a permanent part of the film. No one ever wants to have to go back and remix a film because of an expired music license! You should also push for exclusivity, otherwise music composed for your film could end up being reused on other projects without your permission.

Note that the above language is specifically about licensing. If the producer is licensing the music from the composer, that implies that the composer owns it. But in other work-for-hire arrangements (such as a standard screenwriter deal) the producer commissioning the work retains ownership. So who actually owns the music? Well, that depends…

OWNERSHIP OF THE WORK: As we noted in our earlier posts on terminology and licensing, ownership of music can get complicated. There are the actual recordings (“masters”) and the sheet music those recordings are based on (“compositions”). Those compositions are created by writers who in turn have publishers. In many respects, the compositions and the associated publishing rights are much more valuable. Why? At least two reasons. 

1. The masters the composer creates for your film can never be used outside the above specified licensing terms unless the corresponding publishing rights holder agrees to the same use. On the other hand, the publishing rights holder can always go out and re-record new masters if they so desire. Look no further than Taylor Swift for a big example of how this works.  

2. More importantly, publishing rights – unlike master rights – also trigger passive payments every time the film is played on television or streamed on a major platform worldwide. This is because it’s considered a public performance of the music in the film and therefore triggers performance royalties that are collected by the likes of BMI and ASCAP. Should the film secure significant distribution and, in the case of streaming, significant popularity, the music publishing performance royalties (aka “mailbox money”) can start to add up. Perhaps you’ve read about those massive deals that famous songwriters like Bob Dylan, Stevie Nicks, Bruce Springsteen, and (the estate of) David Bowie have made for their publishing catalogs… 

Note: If you’re wondering why masters don’t generate royalties when a film plays, it’s because they generate something called “mechanical royalties” that are based on reproductions of the masters rather than replays. With the explosion of music streaming services over the last decade, US copyright laws have expanded these royalties to include mechanical interactive streaming royalties generated by eligible Digital Service Providers (DSPs) including Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon Music, Tidal, and others. So you might be eligible to collect some mechanical royalties if someone streams the score on Spotify, but not if the film is playing on Netflix.   

In most basic composer deals, the producer owns the masters and the composer retains ownership of the publishing – largely because the producer never even knows to ask about publishing rights to the score they are paying for. But since the score is being financed and created based on the producer or production company’s film, they could be entitled to at least a portion of the score’s future earning potential. At a minimum it’s worth asking for the score’s publishing rights in negotiations. At the very least it might get you get a better overall deal on the score, and at best you might find yourself looking forward to some quarterly mailbox money!

 

Soundtrack Album/Phonorecord Royalties

You may also wish to put out a soundtrack album via a streaming service, and that’s pretty easy to do via companies such as CD Baby. Again, as the producer you are paying for the score, so make sure you secure the right to release and monetize a soundtrack album. Whether you create a physical or, more likely, digital album, this section of the deal will specify a percentage royalty the composer will get on sales. A typical royalty is 7-10% of net sales. 

We could go on, but these are the most important points of the Composer Deal.

Got questions? Leave your comments below, and we’ll see if we can lend any insight!