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.


Clark said...

Wow! Even though I guessed what the Anka song was going to be, the original version is almost unrecognizable from it's later incarnation on the Tonight Show.

bmfc1 said...

It's "The Tonight Show" theme.

Steve Bryant said...

Toot Sweet is The Tonight Show Theme? I never knew that. Very nice, thank you Ken.

I worked for QVC for 15 years. We were turned down for music clearances hundreds of times, even when we were selling the music. Guess it was the stigma of televided shopping. Hell, BB King's management wouldn't let him appear because they thought it wasn't right for his image.

Great infoormation. Thank you for sharing it.

DonBoy said...

Then there's the legendary fact that Merv Griffin, as well as producing Jeopardy, was the author of the Final Jeopardy music, so he got an extra royalty every day.

Todd Alan said...

So who chose "Toot Sweet" for The Tonight Show" theme? How in the world did it get from Funicello to Severinson?

Howard Hoffman said...

WKRP's DVD release really shows how important the hits were to the storylines. Les Nessman prepring for his date with Jennifer just isn't the same without Foreigner's "Hot Blooded."

On the flip side (pun unintentional), how cool it must have been to work at Termite Terrace when you had the entire Warner Bros. music catalog at your disposal for Looney Tunes? (Along with those phenomenal Raymond Scott pieces?)

John said...

Sent that same YouTube video out to a friend last night as a Valentine's Day trivia fact about well-known love songs (which in this case, isn't well known as a love song).

I know the craptacastic AOL-Time Warner merger and break-up caused Warners to sell off its music library eight years ago (except, I believe, for "As Time Goes By" and "Merrily We Roll Along", since Bogey and Bugs need their themes). And I think Paramount did the same 2-3 years ago with their Famous Music library. Unless they put a DVD/home video grandfather clause in, that means clearing music rights on shows in the future may get even more difficult.

Gary said...

I've heard that whoever owns the rights to The Wonder Years is unable to release DVDs because of music licensing problems. Know anything about that?

Picked up this bit of trivia on Wikipedia:
"Paul Anka wrote the theme song ("Johnny's Theme"), a reworking of his "Toot Sweet", given lyrics, renamed "It's Really Love," and recorded by Annette Funicello in 1959. Before taking over the Tonight Show, Carson wrote lyrics for the song and thus claimed 50 per cent of the song's performance royalties (even though the lyrics were never used).

Anonymous said...

The name of the song is "It's Really Love", probably written around 1960. It'd be a great song to perform if you're ever invited on "Conan"

iain said...


In a similar move, Gene Roddenberry added his own (hideous) lyrics to the Star Trek theme:
The rim of the star-light
My love
Is wand'ring in star-flight
I know
He'll find in star-clustered reaches
Strange love a star woman teaches.
I know
His journey ends never
His star trek
Will go on forever.
But tell him
While he wanders his starry sea
Remember, remember me

Understandably, composer Alexander Courage never forgave him.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

So, let me get this straight... even for a character just sing a verse from a song (I distinctly remember part of "Stormy Weather" being sung twice on M*A*S*H), you STILL have to pay for it's use, even if it's not an actual recording of the actual song?

So, like, if I were to have a character of mine, say, find a top hat, and a cane, and he suddenly starts "If you're blue, and you don't know where to go to, why don't you go where fashion sits...", I would still have to pay for that?

roger said...


Merv also did the same with Wheel of Fortune, dumping all of Alan Thicke's themes and cues and substituting his own. Many game show fans prefer Thicke's music, but Merv made millions on the deal (see note under "Reruns"):


Max Clarke said...

Thanks Ken, for explaining why Frasier sang Moonlight In Vermont so much.

There's an episode when Norm and Cliff play a joke on Frasier. Minutes later, the credit card company tells Sam he has to cut up Frasier's gold card.

In a later scene at home, Frasier is trying to forget the pain of watching Sam cut his gold card in half. He sits at the piano and plays the introduction to a song.

As Frasier sings Moonlight In Vermont, Liluth starts the duet with him, singing Autumn In New York.

Anonymous said...


David Lee here. I could be mistaken, but I don't remember "Moonlight in Vermont" in the Paramount Catalog (called the "Famous Catalog" for some reason). I do remember "Isn't it Romantic" though. Between Cheers, Wings and Frasier I think we must have used it twenty times. And "Buttons and Bows"in one of my favorite Frasier bits (actually based on an infamous Leslie Uggams performance.) One would think the number of choices of songs from Paramount Movies would be enormous. But for some reason they sold off the music rights to songs in their movies made after a certain date. I think early fifties was the cutoff. That's why the two I mentioned were still usable--they were from earlier films.

Michael said...

"Suicide is painless/It brings on many changes ...." The MASH theme isn't sung too often.

Warner Bros. had this issue in its cartoons. Early animation was designed mostly to promote songs, so the earliest Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies featured songs from the company's catalog. Later, at the height of the genius of guys like Chuck Jones and Friz Freleng, Carl Stalling and Milt Franklyn used as much from the catalog as they could.

RockGolf said...

@Joseph Scarborough: Yup. Technically, you've infringed on Irving Berlin's copyright by quoting "Putting On the Ritz" and his estate is notorious for its vigilance.

Seriously, a biography of Berlin was not permitted to use even a single quotation from any of his lyrics. He once sued Mad Magazine because a printed parody of one of his songs has the cadence as the original. (The judge dismissed the case, noting not even Irving Berlin could hold a copyright on iambic pentameter.)

Tod Hunter said...

Sammy Cahn used to call the intrusion of a non-composer "the Cut-in." He said that Col. Tom Parker described it this way: "You can have half of something, or all of nothing."

I used to work for Dick Clark, who got a royalty on that ka-zing sound that accompanied the dick clark productions logo. And I have my doubts that Grant Geissman needed the help of Chuck Lorre and Lee Aronsohn to write "Men men men men manly men, Ooh ooo ooo ooo ooo ooo oooooooo."

And oh by the way Merv Griffin -- that song was originally called "Time for Tony." Merv composed it for his son. When they decided to use it for the "Jeopardy!" think music they played the song in its entirety, then modulated to a major key and played it again, and then added a boom boom on the tympani to fill out the 30 seconds.

Which means that the amount of time Merv had for his son was 14 seconds.


Joe said...


Phillip B said...

Think songs are tough? Try licensing a contemporary poem. Probably not an immediate concern for the average sitcom, but poets (and their estates) have been known to deny rights to their own authorized biographers...

In any case, surprised William Shatner has not found an appropriate venue to belt out the lyrics to Star Trek. Perhaps they can work into his sitcom -- if they can clear the rights!

Question Mark said...

Warner Bros. had this issue in its cartoons. Early animation was designed mostly to promote songs, so the earliest Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies featured songs from the company's catalog. Later, at the height of the genius of guys like Chuck Jones and Friz Freleng, Carl Stalling and Milt Franklyn used as much from the catalog as they could.

And decades later, that "Hello my baby, hello my honey..." is still famous solely because of the dancing frog.

BigTed said...

"So, let me get this straight... even for a character just sing a verse from a song, you STILL have to pay for its use, even if it's not an actual recording of the actual song?"

Yes, you do. Which is also why so many shows avoid having characters sing "Happy Birthday to You," which is still under copyright.

Jim Russell said...

It's called the "Famous Catalog" because Paramount was originally a startup distribution company for Zukor's "Famous Players".

Paramount used the Famous brand-name often (like when they bought Max Fleischer's cartoon operations, they renamed it "Famous Studios").

Michael said...

I saw an iCarly episode recently that made fun of this. The kids at a birthday party were about to start singing "Happy Birthday to You" when one of the characters stopped them and said they needed to sing a Public Domain song instead, so they sung "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow".

VP81955 said...

As Frasier sings "Moonlight In Vermont," Lilith starts the duet with him, singing "Autumn In New York."

Both characters must have owned a copy of Frank Sinatra's "Come Fly With Me" album.

(Incidentally, some years ago the recording of a 1957 Sinatra concert in Seattle was issued on CD. Who wrote the liner notes? Kelsey Grammer. I've always wondered if Mary Tyler Moore would've been requested to write said notes had the concert been done in Minneapolis.)

Joseph Scarbrough said...

What about product placement? I see on Everybody Loves Raymond actual brandname products sitting in their kitchen, like Jell-O. I've heard similar stories of having to pay to use products like that in movies and on TV.

D. McEwan said...

Like everone our age, I love Annette, but man, she was a mediocre singer.

I have noticed over the years how very many times ISN'T IT ROMANTIC shows up in Paramount movies and TV shows.

VP81955 said...

I fondly remember a Popeye cartoon where a pompous radio singer is performing "Out Of Nowhere." Popeye, listening, doesn't like it, hits the radio, and it goes through the ether, up to the singer's microphone, and punches him in the face. "Out Of Nowhere," one of Bing Crosby's early hits (I'm sure the audience of the time got the gag!), was evidently a Paramount property, as the studio distributed Popeye cartoons in the 1930s.

David said...

Which is also why so many shows avoid having characters sing "Happy Birthday to You," which is still under copyright.

Sports Night also had fun with this. Dan got a visit from "the intellectual property cops" (in the person of Yeardley Smith) because he sang "Happy Birthday" to Casey on the air:

Isaac [his boss]: Someone holds the copyright to "Happy Birthday"?
Dan: The representatives of Patty and Mildred Hill.
Isaac: Took two people to write that song?
Dan: Go figure.

Dan, of course, is not to be defeated:

Dan: I've put together a short list of songs in the public domain and I'm letting everyone pick the song they'd like to have sung to them on their birthday.
Isaac: Why are you talking to me right now?
Dan: For you, I've boiled it down to "Les Trois Capitanes" by Giuseppe Verdi or
"Yo-Ho-Ho and a Bottle of Rum."
Isaac: Are you on any medication right now?
Dan: I'm gonna go with the Verdi.

analee said...

60's to 80's music's will never fade because of its harmony. sweet and singable.

I love to listen it, most specially if I'm sleepy.


emily said...

Don't forget the haunting tune penned by: Grant Geissman, Lee Aronsohn, and Chuck Lorre:

"Men men men men, manly men men men!"
"Men men men men, manly men men men!"
"Men men men men, manly men, oo hoo hoo, hoo hoo, oo."

(Loved Lorre's vanity card on the last episode.)

Roger Owen Green said...

A lot of those Warner Brothers cartoons also used music that was in the public domain, which happened in a heck of a lot shorter time than it does now.

Lou H. said...

The lyrics to the MASH theme were written by Robert Altman's teenage son. The story goes that the son made much more on the song's royalties than Altman made directing the film.

te said...

I won't mention any names, but someone hasn't been reading previous entries before making fun of Chuck Lorre.

Separate licenses are required for the song and the recording. So, if you're going to use Bing Crosby's "Moonlight in Vermont," different money goes to the song publisher and whomever owns the Crosby master.

If someone in you show sings a song, as in Glee, you only have to license the song -- though whomever sings it in the show may get extra money, royalties on the DVD/record or whatever. Or maybe it's a complete buyout.

benson said...

The mention of "Sports Night" (one of the finest series ever) reminds me that one Aaron Sorkin (a friend of this blog) will appear on "30 Rock".

Larry said...

The Altman story shows you the power of ASCAP and BMI, collecting money long after everyone else has stopped getting paid.

When Robert Altman directed MASH, he was not a major name, and 20th Century Fox put the screws to him, paying him little and giving him no points. As anyone who's seen the movie knows, one scene has the characters pretending to help the dentist (the "Painless Pole") commit suicide. Altman figured there should be a really stupid, crappy song about suicide to accompany the bit. He tried to write it but it wasn't bad enough, so he had his 14-year-old son Mike, who was into Dylan and the like, write it. The kid wrote a ton of verses, it was shaved down, professional composer Johnny Mandel got drunk and helped put on the finishing touches, and it was placed in the movie. Someone figured it fit the strange mood of the comedy so it became the theme played over the titles. Thus, it was also used for the TV show theme a couple years later. So for years and years Mike would get a five-figure royalty check every few months (which he proceeded to blow, not knowing how to handle money).

By the way, it's spelled Richard Rodgers.

cadavra said...

When I made the "period" trailer for THE LOST SKELETON OF CADAVRA (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pe9Fs10IIk0), I wanted to score it with the familiar Skinner/Salter themes from Universal's 1940s horror movies. Not only did I have to pay the studio twice (for both performance and publishing rights), but they no longer had the masters, so we had to pull every single second of music from DVDs and tapes of the actual films themselves, which meant finding scenes with no dialogue or sound effects. If you listen very closely, you can hear all the tiny edits we had to make so it would sound seamless.

D. McEwan said...

Cadavra, loved your film Have the DVD of it. Very funny and so well-observed. Really fun picture.

Mike said...

In any case, surprised William Shatner has not found an appropriate venue to belt out the lyrics to Star Trek. Perhaps they can work into his sitcom -- if they can clear the rights!

"Shit My Dad Sings" -- that sounds about right.

If Shatner ever does another album, that should be the title.

Aaliyah said...

I learned something new. Thanks for the post Ken.

Brian Smith said...

I'm sure "Isn't it Romantic" pops up a lot, but the most memorable time for me was Lowell getting the last lines of an episode of "Wings." He sang the line "Isn't it romantic," and then said, "I really love this song...I just wish I knew what it was called."

Joseph Scarbrough said...

So, you still have to pay just for a character to sing PART of a song's lyrics...

BUT, there's a difference in shows shot on film, and shows shot on video tape... is that why Fred Sanford always got away with "And would I be sure that this is love beyond compaaaaaare, if I didn't care for yoooooou", and other random songs.

charlotte said...

Wow! A whole blog post to answer my little ol' (ie. long and rambling) question?? (:D

AND a comment from David Lee???
(Hi, David. Big fan!)

That's interesting to hear that there used to be a difference in fees for music uses in filmed vs. taped shows. I never knew that. When did it change? (I assume taped shows had their music fees increased to match filmed's.)

I had heard about WKRP swapping out their music uses for soundalikes or other on the DVDs. And I remember John Sacret Young saying that the reason China Beach would never ever be released on DVD was entirely because of the cost of all the period Motown music integral to the place and time of the series.

Should I infer from what you (and David) said about song uses in Cheers and Frasier that the tunes used in M*A*S*H like "Sentimental Journey" were in 20th Century Fox's library at the time?

Bruce Miller said...

Hi ken...Please excuse me for this one, but I spent most every day for 3 years with P.A. as his musical director and I must say, honestly, I've never heard that song. Was it used as a theme for something???

Jim Russell said...

Bruce -- here's a version of the song that may be easier to place:


Boswell said...

The Cheers DVDs heavily edited from original broadcasts. Certain scenes are gone(a scene where Cliff gives the synopsis of a Henry Fonda movie is completely removed)& there are many music edits. Songs that are integral parts of episodes are replaced entirely . . . 'Monster Mash' & 'I Fought The Law' replaced with awkward Paramount-original compositions & even the episode you mentioned Ken, where Sam finds out Rebecca's fav song is 'You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin' has Sam later attempting to seduce her with . . . 'Unchained Melody!!' & with a studio musician replacing the Righteous Bros. version. There are many more actually, the whole Cheers DVD collection was a pretty half-assed affair.

cadavra said...

I seem to recall Carol Burnett once did a sketch based on the premise that you could use less than five seconds of a song before you had to pay. Can anyone confirm that this is a legit rule and not just something they invented to set up the bit?

Tod Hunter said...

That reminds me -- in a documentary about Billy Wilder he said he used "Isn't it Romantic?" so much because Paramount owned it and he could use it free.


charlotte said...

@cadavra: I'm curious about the validity of that urban legend too, only the way I'd always heard it was 7 notes or less. Ken?

Pamela Jaye said...

It's been months since anyone has played here but I'm reminded:

I'm told that all but one of the titles of Grey's Anatomy are song titles (it's been so long since I listened to the radio that Idon't recognize most of them but...)

In a triumph of obliviousness (propelled by my desire to avoid spoilers to the point of avoiding not just the TV Guide synopsis but even the episode title) I managed to live several days before noticing that the Grey's ep where Owen Hunt has a severe attack of PTSD caused by falling asleep to the sound of a ceiling fan his subconscious turns into an "INcoming!" chopper was titled Suicide Is Painless.
Yup. I should have caught that one.
When I was a teenager not yet watching MASH, my bus driver asked if I knew the lyrics to (or maybe where one could buy) the MASH theme and I didn't know as it wasn't top 40 after sept. 1974 (thank you Casey Kasem)
I think of that bus driver now and then (sadly i've forgotten her last name) mostly every single time I hear Turn Turn Turn - a song of which I mentioned the lyrics didn't even rhyme and she yelled at me that it was from the bible.

Brian said...

Another episode of Cheers that replaces the music is S10E04 “The Norm Who Came to Dinner”. Classic scene with everyone singing “Those Were the Days” replaced with nondescript singing. They even cut the end of the scene when Frasier starts to sing the song again after Lilith leaves the house, clearly because the replacement music would not match the movement of his mouth. It’s really a damn shame as these episodes are just not as funny without the original music.