Content Creation Filmmaking & Videography Music Licensing & Copyright

Music has myriad uses in advertising, from subtly setting the feel of a visual to outright stating the central message of a brand. The ideal music for an ad spot integrates seamlessly with the images, movement and tone of the brand, setting viewers’ emotional responses at the perfect pitch. For ad creators, however, finding the perfect music can pose hurdles. Sometimes, the perfect song is an extremely well-known piece: so well-known, in fact, that the costs of licensing it are astronomical. For instance, licensing the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows” for an episode of Mad Men reportedly cost the series $250,000, according to Investopedia. Licensing other Beatles songs and certain Rolling Stones tracks has been rumored to cost as much as $500,000.

Mad Men creator Matt Weiner felt a quarter million dollars wasn’t too high for “Tomorrow Never Knows,” says Investopedia, because no other song would do. But for ad creators who may not have six figures in the entire budget, $250,000 is simply out of reach no matter how perfectly the song fits.
If the song you want is out of your budget, don’t worry. Instead, check out these options.

Look For Other Songs in the Same Style

Throughout the creative process, you’ve had one song on repeat. Or maybe that one song kick-started the whole idea. You’re thinking in terms of that one song — and nothing else sounds quite right. What to do when an elusive song gets you stuck creatively?
Think about why you chose that song in the first place:

  • Do the melody, timbre or rhythm evoke a certain mood?
  • Do the tempo, rhythms or dynamics align with the ad’s pacing?
  • Do you connect the song with a certain time, place or phase of life?
  • Are the lyrics ideal for the ad’s message?

Good news: Any of these qualities can be recreated in another piece with a friendlier price tag.


Mood is perhaps the most important feature of ad-spot music. Fortunately it’s also the easiest to reproduce. Pay attention to the overall mood of your “perfect” song, and also any musical features that contribute to it—like the use of particular chords, timbre, voice-leading and rhythm. These details will help you find music that uses similar methods to achieve a similar effect.


Ideally editing will be done with the final music choice in mind to better match the ad’s pacing with its actual music. If your storyboard or scripting already sets certain pace limits, however, choosing a similar piece with a similar tempo and structure can help preserve these early moments of inspiration.

Time, Place, Phase of Life

If one song is your top choice for the memories it evokes, ask yourself: Who is the target audience for the ad, and are they likely to attach the same meaning to the song that your team does?
JC Penney’s 2000 remake of The Breakfast Club flopped in part because, as Rob Felber notes, it appears that no one thought to ask whether a teen film made in 1985 was relevant to — or even on the radar of — kids who were born in 1985.

If nostalgia is your goal, consider what music your target audience is likely to connect to similar times, places, scenes or events. Seek music with similar features.


Likewise, pieces from emerging artists, are available with similar lyrical themes. “The lyric themes most in demand for television and films express universal concepts and emotions such as some aspect of love,” Inside Songwriting author Jason Blume writes at BMI. “Other popular lyric topics include ‘let’s get started,’ ‘it’s a new beginning,’ ‘I’m gonna make it,’ ‘things are gonna be great,’ ‘feels so good,’ and ‘enjoying life.’” Jot down the primary theme of the lyrics, then look for songs that fall in the same category.

“Similar feel” music expands constantly thanks to musicians who dedicate their time to understanding popular tunes and re-creating their effects. “I consistently hear music supervisors and those who work at music libraries state that they look for songs that are similar to current hits—or classic songs—but without the high price tags these songs typically command,” Blume says. “It can be effective to evoke the mood and feeling of these songs—but without copying them—or being a sound-alike.”

Should You Go Royalty-Free?

The library of royalty-free music options continues to expand thanks to the quick-share abilities of the Internet, the steady expansion of the public domain and the generosity of creators willing to release their work under Creative Commons licenses.

However, that’s not to say royalty-free music is always a good option. Services like Public Domain 4U or Musopen are excellent sources for free music, but that’s not typically music with a contemporary sound. If you need music for an energy drink ad or a bumper on an NBA broadcast, early classical may not be he best fit.
And while some contemporary artists, like Moby, offer royalty-free music, those tracks might not necessarily be cleared for commercial use. In the case of Moby Gratis, the terms of use are limited to independent, non-profit films, videos, or shorts.

A paid, but budget-friendly alternative to royalty-free music is pre-cleared music catalogs. These are songs written and recorded specifically for use in media productions. Let’s say you’re putting together a 15-second pre-roll ad that calls for a big, anthemic sound. Imagine Dragons would be perfect, but their stuff is way beyond your budget. Fortunately, a robust catalog of pre-cleared music will have at least a few artists whose sounds are a close match. These tracks will be much more affordable, have transparent fees, and are pre-cleared for global licensing, meaning they will be available for use immediately upon purchase.

Work with an Emerging Artist or Composer

Can’t find what you want pre-made? Consider working with an emerging artist or composer who can help you.
While pairing a brand with a well-known song can work well, “the real sweet spot is when a brand finds a lesser-known talent or tune that elevates the advertising and intrigues the audience,” Jeff Beer at Fast Company argues.
What’s more, if a brand can associate itself with an artist just before they break into the mainstream, the brand will continue to reap long-term benefits by association.
To find the right emerging artist, Jerome Rossen recommends you:

  • Start early. The sooner you bring your composer into the process, the easier it will be to create and include the ideal sound for your ad’s message.
  • Tell them what you can. If you know that you love a particular well-known song for its rhythm, instrumentation or lyrics, let the artist know. If not, ask for help: Musicians are adept at analyzing musical works and can often help you find the words to capture the experience you want to convey.
  • Provide examples. Your ideal song tops this list, but shouldn’t be its only entry. Seek out two or three other songs that have a very similar sound and feel (even if they’re from the same artist). The context will help your composer or artist determine what essentials need to be preserved in the final piece.
  • Start local. It’s easier to meet in person with artists near you, and an in-person meeting can help you determine whether this musician clicks with the brand and message you’re trying to convey.

Finally, talk to music professionals with whom you’re already familiar. Many companies that specialize in ad music also work with professional artists and composers. It’s an easy way to get an introduction to the artist who will give you exactly the sound you want.

Don’t Sweat It

Even when ad creators have the dream budget to acquire the dream song, the results aren’t always rosy.
In 1987, for instance, the Beatles sued Nike for $15 million after Nike used the song “Revolution” in a television ad, according to Rolling Stone’s Nick Ripatrazone. Nike had paid $250,000 to the band and another $250,000 to Michael Jackson, who had acquired the song in 1985 — but even then company’s big budget didn’t prevent a protracted legal battle that ended in a closed-door settlement.

The moral? Even the “perfect” song isn’t always perfect. Fortunately, music’s creative flexibility offers a path to a cohesive feel for any brand.

images by: klug/©123RF Stock Photo, Valentino Funghi, arturkurjan/©123RF Stock Photo

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