Budgeting Film Music:
Preparing your Budget for Original and Copyrighted Music

Music, as we all know, is fundamental to most of cinema. I not only creates and reinforces emotional affect, but it can often bleed into the very identity of a film.

One can barely imagine In the Mood for Love, The Lord of The Rings, or The Graduate without their accompanying scores.

As such, it is important that filmmakers commit enough time and resources to the production of this sonic identity which, at the end of the day, comes down to setting aside a portion of the budget for music.

Let us unpick exactly how much this should be.

The general consensus is that 10-15% of a film’s budget is a good estimate.

However, of course, we need to consider the type and scope of music to be used for each particular production to get a more specific figure.

To define this we must ask two overarching questions; what is the overall budget?

And what type of music is being used—original scored music or licensed music (owned by a copyright holder).

The film’s overall budget, obviously, changes the percentages as well as the overall sum.

Huge special effect laden blockbusters have relatively small music budgets, around 2-3%, but that percentage only reflects their mass of spending elsewhere.

While indies that utilize many tracks of popular music may often spill over the 15% mark.

But, overall, the budget will effect how the filmmakers go about obtaining the score, in the sense that a limited budget will require a more frugal approach, hiring low-budget composers or using lesser-known/up-and-coming musicians to fill out their score.

With these fundamentals out of the way, let us dive into the two types of scoring, and their respective costs.

Original Score (OS)

Composers come in all styles and price-points.

Of course there are thousands of upcoming composers who would be willing to score your film for next to nothing, but that doesn’t mean that these should be the de facto option for your film.

Instead it is important to remember how much of an impact music can have on your film, and budget accordingly.

Original scores are often charged by the minute (of music produced), with decently experienced composers beginning around $150-250 and prices skyrocketing depending on their kudos.

That said, independent composers will all have different ways of quoting a price. Some may work on a per minute basis, while others could ask for a flat rate, a percentage of the overall budget or an hourly rate.

So make sure to talk to your composer about their preferable rate and method of charging, as freelancers are not a unified bunch.

It is important with original scores to also factor in the potential costs of recording and mixing the produced scores.

Often times, especially on lower budget scores produced digitally, these fees are non existent.

But for more extensive scores to be recorded by a symphonic orchestra recording session fees can range from $5,000 to $40,000, depending, again, on the experience and kudos of the orchestra.

Interestingly, this price also varies greatly depending on location, with many Eastern European orchestras charging considerably less than their British or American counterparts but this, of course, may impact the recording’s overall quality.

Furthermore mixing fees can range from daily rates of $1000 to $3500 to perfect a 5.1 mix, requiring 1-3 days of work.

Thus, overall, high-level recording and mixing can quickly create fees in the tens of thousands.

But, that said, for filmmakers working on a shoestring, these processes can often be delegated to tech-savvy one-man-army composers for a much smaller fee.

As such, the original score is a huge beast, ranging from individual composers to international teams of tens of musicians and technicians.

It is important to remember your budget when planning for this process, using the 10-15% total as a safety net as, at the end of the day, if you end up with money left in your pockets for other post-production you’re in luck, but if your budget runs dry before scoring, that is bad news.


The most common question with licensing is “how much will this song cost?” and this is, of course, almost impossible to answer.

To give a Hollywood-level answer, one might air the figure of $25,000 for master and synchronization rights for a relatively popular song however this number will vary for both your given song and budget.

Many copyright holders understand that films of different budgets will require different pricing, so it is important to understand your budget’s ballpark before going into negotiation—with $50,000, $100,000, $500,000 and $1 (etc) being good jump off points.

Ultimately, most rights holders won’t attempt to take too much of your pie, but for that reason it is important that communication is clear and transparent.

That said, your budget will often define the scope of licensed music you can include.

Many of us will often have particular songs in mind for particular scenes in a production, but it is worth considering how necessary a specific song is and, ultimately, if something else could provide that mood better.

Many number one hits can go for as much as $50,000, provided they are not used in the opening or closing sequences, meaning it is often more viable to shop around for lesser known musicians who would license their music for a fraction of the price.

Furthermore generic/background diegetic music, for example in clubs or restaurants, often doesn’t need to be catchy and recognizable, opening up countless avenues, again from lesser known musicians or music libraries, for a nominal fee.

If the song, however, is fundamental to your concept, it is important to understand exactly what rights you require.

Firstly do you need a worldwide or regional distribution deal? Although, when working in the US or Europe, with local music, these numbers often don’t differ too much.

Besides, clearing a regional license only to realize you later need a worldwide one will likely result in larger fees than obtaining a worldwide license outright.

Furthermore, it’s vital to understand the payment process which is often done through per side payments; whereby equal portions are paid to the record label (master rights) and the music publisher (publishing rights); meaning a $6,000 per side deal will total $12,000.

With this said, there is a slight workaround for many up-and-coming filmmakers, which is to purchase film festival rights, which only cost a fraction of the price, often around $500 per side.

These permit the music to be used within the film for a 1 to 2 year-long festival run at which point the license will expire.

Another workaround for these large fees can e obtaining the rights for re-recording, whereby you would only pay one side (the publisher), but would of course incur fee, and require skilled musicians, in the recreation of a given song.

With the complexities of this licensing process laid bare, for many filmmakers considering obtaining music rights, it can be the most cost effective option to hire an experienced music supervisor, who will understand not only how to obtain the correct rights, but also how to negotiate the price.

Especially as this is one thing filmmakers often forget, licensing prices are negotiable, given the right reasoning.

But, if that still doesn’t work for you, or if your budget is too tight for any music licensing there are a number of old pieces that have fallen out of copyright into the public domain.

But do make sure if you are to use any of these, that the audio is within the public domain, as it can throw you into hot water if it turns out otherwise.

Furthermore, as we are blessed with the Internet, a few days trawling sites from Soundcloud to Musicbed may turn up affordable alternatives to popular music.

Budget First, Negotiate Later

Regardless of the type of music you require for your film, it is important to consider and reserve a good portion of your budget for scoring.

The 10-15% rule provides a solid foundation to fall back on while also giving a definitive number to work with in negotiation.

That said, remember to never lock scenes to specific pieces of music before being certain that the track is clearable within the music budget, it may seem like common sense but many of us lose a little intuition when it comes to our passion projects.

However, given the correct budgeting, foresight and time, I am certain you will be able to find, or create, the perfect score for your film.