The Legal Beat: Music on TV in the Age of Streaming

If you watch some classic TV shows (The X-Files, Scrubs, or Bones) on streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime or Hulu, you may notice that the original music used in these network or cable shows has been replaced. The obvious question is, why?

When a show airs, the producers have to pay a license fee to use pre-existing songs on the soundtrack. If you wanted to use a famous song, for instance, by the Rolling Stones, it would be very expensive. So many producers, prior to the advent of streaming, would choose, for instance,  a very limited license only for broadcast TV for 3-5 years. This would lower the cost of the license and allow the producer to license more popular songs. Now, these old limited license deals have to be re-negotiated in the age of streaming.

Back 20 or so years ago, many TV producers thought 3-5 years would be sufficient for licensing a song. After those limited licenses expired some of these popular TV shows ended up on streaming services but often the music had to be replaced. However, some songs are quite hard to be easily replaced based on the way they are used in the TV episode. And one of the reasons a show may have gained popularity is because of the music.

When a song is placed in a TV show, the producer must “clear” it with the song’s composers and publishers and pay a license fee. Costs for popular songs can be quite expensive: in the range of $25,000-$50,000. Such a cost would not fit into a typical network or cable TV budget. This is why producers sometime use music from artists who are not signed to a record label or publisher. The producer can license the song quicker (less parties to deal with) and for less money. Of course, this presents an opportunity for unsigned artists to get exposure, even if the license fee may be minimal.

The cost of licensing a song will depend on such things as the use of the song, how long it is used, and the popularity of the artist and song. You may have noticed in some TV commercials and shows you hear a very popular song, but it sounds slightly different. The reason may be that, in order to save money, the producer has had the song re-recorded so that the original master recording does not have to be licensed.

Nowadays, because of these problems in the past, producers will insist on an “in-perpetuity” license which, as the name implies, rights are given up forever. This is not considered good news for composers because these deals require them to relinquish their right to any future royalties in exchange for a one-time payment. Netflix has done huge major deals with producers and showrunners (Martin Scorsese (The Irishman) Shonda Rhimes (Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal) for sums reported to be up to $300 million. Unfortunately, it seems streamers like Netflix have not shared their wealth when licensing music.