7-mistakes-film-tvI’ve had the opportunity to attend many panels with the people who choose music for film and t.v. and have been fortunate enough to meet and speak with many of these people one-on-one. Here’s the thing I’ve learned about music supervisors: they have specific needs, and aren’t afraid to tell you what they like and what turns them off when being approached by music creators and publishers.

If you write and pitch songs for film and t.v., or if you’re looking to start, here are some things to avoid.

These are the 7 horrible mistakes you’re making with music for film and television:

MISTAKE #1: NOT doing your research.

Music for film and television is extremely varied. It can range from hip-hop to classical and any or everything in between.

Music supervisors are very busy people. The deadlines they are up against with every show are ridiculous, so they’re almost always in a time crunch.

If you contact a supervisor knowing nothing about their current productions – that’s not going to win you any favors. Do some research. Google them. Check industry websites. Find out which shows they are working on. Watch those shows and listen for the kind of material they are using. Actually watch the episodes. DVR them. Analyze what and why they use what they use. Be strategic and thoughtful.

Then go to your library and pull songs that match the style, genre, theme, etc of what you now know they’re using. Or write new songs based on what you’ve discovered.

MISTAKE #2: NOT clearing your songs.

O.K., so let’s assume you get a song through to a supervisor and they are interested in putting it in “X show”. On that occasion, they will call or e-mail you and ask you whether or not that song has been cleared.

By “cleared” they mean:

– all the writers have signed off on you pitching the song for use in film and t.v.
– you have “work for hire” agreements for all the musicians used on the track
– the song is not tied up with a publisher or another exclusive agreement

If you haven’t done your clearance homework beforehand, you’ll be scrambling at the ninth hour. Time might run out and you’ll get left behind as the supervisor moves on to one of the many other songs available to them. And the worst part is, you probably won’t get a second chance. Do yourself a favor and clear songs before you pitch them.

MISTAKE #3: NOT making instrumental mixes of your songs.

While this is a common – and sometimes very costly – mistake, it is easily avoided.

You pay good money to get studio time, do all the work involved to record the songs, and at the end, you forget to ask for a TRKs-only version of the final product from the recording studio.

Why would you need a version of your track without the vocals? When syncing a song to a scene with dialog, there are occasions where the vocals get in the way. The solution is to “duck” the vocals until the dialog is over or weave around it. If you don’t provide an instrumental version and the music supervisor’s team is having too many problems with your vocal interfering, they’ll move on to the next song. And you’ll lose the sync.

Most studio engineers expect to provide an instrumental version, but make a point of asking for it, otherwise you probably won’t receive it. Do it at the same time you get the “work for hire” agreements signed off and kill two birds with one stone.

And, here’s the best part. By getting an instrumental version of your track, without much effort, you’ve just created a second song for pitching! If you take the instrumental bed and add a melody with an instrument or even some additional textures, you now have two songs in your arsenal instead of one. At the end of a year, with little additional effort, you’ll have doubled the size of your catalog and your earning potential.

MISTAKE #4: NOT writing universal lyrics.

This can be a difficult one to grasp. If you live in Nashville for instance, where specific details and imagery are expected and encouraged in the country genre, it’s hard not to slip into that direction. But specific details, which work beautifully for country radio, might not work so well for film and t.v.

Here’s an example: if you write lyrics that mention “San Francisco”, but the scene is being filmed in New York City, your song will get thrown out without a second thought.

In the film and t.v. business, the scene (visual and dialog) is king and the songs are slave. While writing with imagery is still important, it’s best to avoid using names, brands, cities, towns, etc. Otherwise, you’re significantly narrowing your chances of success.

MISTAKE #5: NOT respecting a music supervisor’s time.

If you are pitching directly to music supervisors, don’t expect to hear back from them unless they want to use your song. Don’t keep calling and leaving messages asking whether or not they listened; that’s a sure fire way to make sure you never hear from them again. Yes, keep them on some kind of tickler, but be professional and courteous. If they do decide to take your call, make it short and to the point and keep it about them and what they need, not about you and your songs.

MISTAKE #6: NOT registering your work with your PRO’s.

Lucky you. You got a song placed! So now all the checks just start rolling in, right?


There are two ways to get paid when your song has been used in a t.v. show or film. One is payment for the actual master recording (the sync license). This is negotiated and paid up front and will appear in your mailbox.

The second way you get paid is as a royalty collected by a P.R.O. every time the episode airs. There are 3 P.R.O.s (Performing Rights Organizations) in the U.S: ASCAP, BMI, & SESAC. Other countries have one or more of their own. Just Google “performing rights organizations” and go from there. Choose one in your respective country and register with them. If you don’t, you won’t see any “backend” (royalties) money.

MISTAKE #7: NOT staying organized.

Writing for film and t.v. is a numbers game. It’s a nickel and dime business; it’s not like getting the payday of having a single on a superstar’s new album. You have to write a lot of songs that are paying out sync fees and royalties in order to make any money. So your catalog needs to be big.

But that means having a lot of songs and information to keep track of.

Set up systems for yourself to keep your workflow and files organized. Title your projects and keep them in one place. And always make back-ups of your work! Don’t be lazy and throw them all over your virtual desktop. Arrange them so that you can quickly get what you’re looking for. Create a system to stay on top of your pitches. Use Excel or Numbers, or whatever you have in your arsenal so that there is a good flow. It will pay off later, when the checks start coming in!

So, these are the 7 Horrible Mistakes You’re Making with Music for Film and Television. And, by the way, I’ve made them too, at some point or another. But hopefully reading this will save you some time, money and frustration.

Go get it!


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