Licensing Instrumental Music Vs Licensing Vocal Music

Posted by Aaron Davison on Thursday, October 5, 2017

For the most part I wrote vocal music.  Almost all of the music I’ve licensed has been vocal tracks.  The main reason I stick to vocal songs is because, that’s simply what I do.  I write songs with lyrics and I sing them.

Over the years however, I have licensed a few instrumental tracks, more or less on accident.  One instrumental track I’ve licensed a lot is an unfinished version of a rock song I wrote a few years ago that was never finished.  The producer I was working with at the time moved before I had a chance to do the vocals and so I ended up with an instrumental version of the song that I decided to send to my publisher anyway.  She accepted it as an instrumental and it’s been used probably 100 times since then in a variety of sport shows. 

I’ve had other instrumental versions of vocals songs picked up and used on shows simply because that’s what the supervisor or editor preferred.  Sometimes a scene simply works better with an instrumental.  If there’s too much happening vocally it competes with the dialogue and can be distracting.  This is why there’s actually a lot of demand for instrumental music in the context of licensing.

If you’re going to go the route of licensing instrumental music, there are a few caveats you should be aware of.

1)   Instrumental Placements Pay Less – The main reason I’ve stuck to vocal music, is that in the context of licensing it usually earns more in performance royalties, sometimes much more.   Performance royalties are based on factors like how prominent the song is used, how much of the song is used and so on.   Instrumental tracks tend to earn less than vocal tracks because they are mainly used in the background. 

I’ve earned as much as three grand per vocal track I’ve placed and usually earn at least several hundred dollars, depending on the placement.  But the instrumental tracks I’ve placed have earned much less.  Substantially less.  I’ve had placements of instrumental tracks that have earned as little as 15 or 20 dollars per usage.  Not a ton of money by any stretch of the imagination.

However, instrumental music is also much easier to create. If you’re doing vocal tracks, there are a lot of extra production and writing considerations that can take a lot more time.  For one, the vocals need to be amazing.  You can have a great song with great lyrics, but if the vocals are lacking in any way, it can hold you back when it comes to licensing. 

Also, the lyrics are a big consideration.  If the lyrics aren’t right for the scene, or if they are too busy or distracting in any way, it won’t work.  Instrumental music doesn’t have either of these variables to take into consideration.  For those of you who are “vocally challenged”, you might want to look into doing more instrumental tracks.

2)   Licensing Instrumental Music Requires A Volume Approach – Because instrumental placements pay so little in comparison to vocal tracks, most artists I know that specialize in this style of music create a lot of it.  And by a lot, I mean a ridiculous amount of music.  One artist I’ve worked closely with over the last few years who is doing very well, told me that he’s written over 1,000 instrumental cues this year alone.  He’s also working with other artists helping them place their music.

When you’re creating and licensing this much music, the numbers really add up. I know what you’re probably thinking.  That’s a ton of music! How is that possible?? This was my thought initially as well, but keep in mind that the types of instrumental cues I’m talking about are fairly easy to put together, especially when you get good at it.  If you’re a full time composer with your own studio, it wouldn’t be difficult to create several of these a day if you were working hard.  I’ll play a sample of what I’m talking about below.

Less Is More – Remember, the reason there is a demand for instrumental cues is because editors find it less distracting when there is dialogue and other things happening in the scene.  Even in the context of an instrumental track, it’s important that there isn’t too much going on.  If you’re song is too “busy” there’s a good chance it won’t work for licensing.  Be sure to stick to a more a minimalistic approach.  You can still have melody and lead instruments, but for most spots, less is more.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about.  When I was in LA last month I did two instrumental tracks with my producer, Gary Gray.  One we did just for fun on a whim that was a guitar oriented instrumental ala Pink Floyd meets Radiohead. We called it “Radio Floyd”.  We sent it to a few different contacts to see if anyone was interested.  Everyone liked it (or so they said), but said it was too busy to use for licensing purposes.

Check that one out here to see what I’m talking about.

1)   After we did that one, we decided to take a much more subtle approach and create a more ambient guitar piece that we knew would be needed and would work better for several different shows in particular we have contacts for.   This track, Rays Of Hope, was accepted right away for a TV show airing next year on A&E. 

I wrote the guitar and melody for this track in probably 30 minutes and then Gary spent several hours doing the production.  It came together very quickly.  It’s really simple, but it’s pretty and has the sort of minimalistic vibe that works for background music in TV.

Although it probably isn’t the sort of thing I would normally write, when left to my own devices, I still really like it and it was satisfying to create.

Check out Rays of Hope here:

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