In 2012, veteran hip hop act Public Enemy had an unexpected, late-career hit in the U.K. with a track called “Harder Than You Think.” What made this commercial breakthrough possible was the licensing of that particular song for a television spot promoting the Paralympic Games, a potentially credibility-damaging move the group had resisted for years. Beastie Boys’ late Adam Yauch also made a point of keeping the group’s music out of ads, even stipulating as much in his will. But at a time when music has all but ceased to be a salable commodity on its own, the temptation to allow one’s songs to be used in movies, TV shows, and advertisements is incredibly powerful and tempting. Now, Cuepoint’s Mike “DJ” Pizzo has weighed the benefits and hazards of music licensing in an informative, bluntly-titled article called “The Art Of Selling Out.” Largely setting aside the issue of artistic integrity, Pizzo writes about what artists can realistically expect to earn from licensing their songs and what potential risks they are taking by doing so.
Here is the bad news first: The licensing market is oversaturated at the moment, and that’s bringing prices down. “It’s very much feast or famine,” says RJD2, whose music was heard in the opening credits of AMC’s Mad Men. And, naturally, the kind of money an artist can expect from licensing a song depends on that artist’s previous level of fame. The greatest fees are demanded by artists like Jay Z and Eminem, who do not actually need the exposure that comes from music licensing. Unknown artists can potentially charge anything they want, but that does not mean they will get it. And then there are the additional headaches that come with using uncleared samples in your music. More exposure means more legal scrutiny, as rapper Pharoahe Monch learned the hard way when the Godzilla-sampling “Simon Says” wound up in the Charlie’s Angels movie. But, still, there are happy stories to come from the world of music licensing. Without “Boom Clap” appearing in The Fault In Our Stars, for instance, Charli XCX might still be stuck penning hits for Iggy Azalea. Tread lightly, musicians of the world.