Think about your favourite TV show, film or podcast and how music plays a vital role. You might not have even really considered it before.

That chilling piano tinkling pre-empting a gory scene in a horror film, a jolly guitar-heavy intro to a talk show podcast or a sad montage in the season finale of a TV drama. Take all that music away and try to imagine the same scenes without any music. You’ll soon understand how crucial music is to setting a tone for any production.

As important as music is to you as a listener, watcher and general consumer, it’s doubly important to the production companies creating content – the entities who license this music from the original writers, composers and performers. Music doesn’t just happen and it doesn’t just land in your favourite productions, sometimes it’s an incredible struggle to even be able to feature a piece of music.

There’s lots of rules and regulations stipulating how music is licensed for re-use and the idea of direct license has got everyone in a twist.

Direct License has been a contentious topic in the music industry. From big brands adopting it in earnest early on to creators being long-time vocal opposers. It’s been the subject of blog posts, podcasts and even panel discussions at the likes of SXSW and other music industry conferences.

Here’s the idea behind it: It’s like a season ticket for your local cinema or a yearly pass to a gym – you pay up-front (or monthly towards the next month) to get all the benefits of use, no strings attached. Direct license is pretty much the same principle, the license to use the content is smoothed out and agreed before any content is streamed, embedded or used in any way and covers pretty much all uses.

Seems fair, right? But to truly understand the idea of direct license, you need to know about what came beforehand. Licenses for music distribution began post-World War II as television began to transform the media landscape to become one of the most valuable mediums in the world. With more and more productions, more and more music was needed and publishers in the music industry designed a system for this, though largely to maximise profits by charging per use. Music licenses for television were issued by publishers on a territorial basis and a network of collecting societies were given the responsibility of policing and collecting remuneration for music use broadcasted on television networks.

Now, this worked for a time as it was a linear system and somewhat straightforward. Composers submitted music into a publisher’s library and received royalties once their work was broadcast, to explain in very basic layman’s terms. But now in the streaming, hyper-fast media consumption digital era, the internet is challenging and transforming the media landscape – much like TV once did.

The internet opened up new, sleek, fast distribution highways. Content became far cheaper to create and upload for the masses. Mobile ensured content on-the-go is a reality, 24/7 and accessible by hundreds of millions of people right from their pockets. Traditional television viewing wained with the rise of YouTube, Netflix and Amazon. On just YouTube alone right now, 300 hours of video is uploaded to the platform every minute of the day and in one day alone YouTube receives 30 million visitors who watch roughly 5 billion pieces of content.

The music industry has struggled with this seemingly fast adaptation to a digital age where everything is global, not necessarily local or territorial meaning rights and licenses need to be totally different today to what they once were. In relative terms of highly-used global platforms, Google came on the scene just before the Millennium, YouTube is only 14 years old and though Netflix has been streaming since about the same time it’s only been producing original content since 2013.

It’s an ongoing challenge for the music industry to monitor music use and to identify from whom to collect royalties and whom to give to. Not to mention some of the biggest social media platforms claiming ‘safe harbour’ and declining to pay royalties back to the music industry, but let’s not further open up that can of worms.

So, back to today – what’s the issue? Composers are confused, with no idea when their music is being used online, and angry as very little remuneration is coming their way. Meanwhile, the digital broadcasters are equally frustrated as they’re swimming in a sea of uncertainty over licenses and demands from the music industry. Whilst the publishers and collecting societies are still trying to cling on to old methods for some semblance of structure. It’s become a bit of a stalemate, but in the digital age you have to keep up or lose out.

What Benefits Does Direct License Offer?
Royalty-Free Music Vs. Direct License Music