Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Licensing music for sitcoms -- get out your checkbook

Sometimes a reader’s question requires a whole post to answer. This one is from Charlotte.

M*A*S*H provided my first acquaintance with songs like "You're the Top" and "Stormy Weather". I've always heard how expensive it is to license music or even just a song's lyrics for use in a TV show. Were you & the other M*A*S*H writers ever constrained by the cost of music/lyrics? Did you ever put music uses in your 1st draft scripts that you were told to cut for cost? Was it a similar situation in the 80s on CHEERS? Did you & the other writers have to fight to get the music uses you wanted in your scripts approved?

It is expensive to license the use of a song, and sometimes impossible. However, in the ‘70s, there was a different contract for filmed shows and taped shows. It cost way more to license a song for a filmed show like MASH or CHEERS than a taped show like WKRP IN CINCINNATI. Unfortunately, that does not extend to DVD sales. That’s why WKRP had to eliminate songs from their video release.

In many cases you also need permission from the song’s rights owner. That’s why you rarely hear a Bruce Springsteen or Rolling Stones song on a sitcom. On MASH one time we wanted to use a Richard Rogers song. He was notorious for turning down requests. But we got Alan Alda to call him personally. Turns out Rogers was a big fan of the show and happily agreed to let us use his song.  So if you're a showrunner and you need a song that's hard to approve, call Alan Alda. 

Quick side note: Over the course of years so many MASH cast members sang songs in various episodes that one season they put together an album compilation of them and gave that to us as their Christmas present. The year before, we had all received cool engraved MASH watches. Our new story editor came on the next year and was really excited. He couldn’t wait to see what the cast was giving us. When he saw it was a cheesy vinyl album featuring the song stylings of Jamie Farr and Harry Morgan he was PISSED.

Each studio has a catalog of songs they own. And generally, when we need a song we’ll use one of those. I remember Paramount’s included “Moonlight in Vermont”. Kelsey Grammer must’ve sung that damn song five times on different CHEERS and FRASIER episodes.

There have been times that we’ve had to change a song title because the studio couldn’t get the rights or didn’t want to pay that much for the rights. The level of our protest depended upon just how important that particular song was to the story.

On CHEERS we had established that Rebecca’s favorite song was “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling”. When we needed her rich boyfriend to impress her (in the two-part episode “Finally”) we thought it would be great if he hired the Righteous Brothers to come into the bar and serenade her with that song. Bobby Hatfield was unavailable but we did get Bill Medley. In this case we really pressed Paramount for the rights to "Loving Feeling". Having Bill Medley enter the bar and sing “Moonlight in Vermont” just didn’t seem right.

And finally, if a song you write gets used as a theme song for a show you get royalties every time it airs. Paul Anka wrote this innocuous little tune for Annette Funicello in the early ‘60s. The record sold maybe eight copies, but Paul Anka will tell you it’s the greatest song he’s ever written. Why? See if you can recognize it.

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