Is Purchasing Music Licensing Worth It?

By Grace Campbell

The Power of Music 

In 2000, the Virginia Tech Hokies athletic department was given three songs to choose from as their walkout song – “Enter Sandman,” by Metallica, “Welcome to the Jungle” by Guns N’ Roses and “Sirius”  by the Alan Parsons Project. They chose the popular nineties song by Metallica. As “Enter Sandman,” played for the first time when the Hokies came out in 2000, a new age began for college football. Much later, in 2021 against ACC rival North Carolina, noise levels were so loud from Lane Stadium during the walkout that a nearby seismograph registered noise – needless to say, the reaction from the fans was astounding! Although the song is relatively new by ‘tradition’ standards (only being used by the Hokies for twenty-two years), it has become arguably the best and most renowned entrance in all of college football. Now, when someone hears “Enter Sandman, they think of the noise of the game, of the experience. They think about their time in college, or of a game-watching party. But above all else, they think of the Virginia Tech Hokies. This connection between the Hokies and their fans was made by utilizing a popular song and has forever made both one aspect of college football and “Enter Sandman,” relevant far beyond their years. How can we accomplish this same thing in our, or our client’s brand? 

Enter Sandman at Lane Stadium

By purchasing popular music and utilizing it in a way that works together with a brand identity, a company can create similar levels of engagement and brand awareness without having to do anything more than use the music purchased when promoting its brand. Additionally, by incorporating the ‘right’ music choice into a campaign, a brand can create an even more powerful identity or theme in the messaging of an advertisement. If just the song “Enter Sandman,” can strike fear into the hearts of Virginia Tech’s opponents, what could the right music selection do for an advertisement? 

How to Acquire the Rights To A Song

In order to use any music created by an artist, a company must first acquire rights to use that music in campaigns, advertisements, on social media, or generally for any other purpose than just listening to it. You can do it by answering these four questions: 

  1. Is the song copyrighted or in public domain?
    • If a song is copyrighted (which popular songs almost always are) then there are several hoops to jump through before you can legally use it commercially.
    • If a song is in the public domain, then you can legally use that song commercially.
      1. Public domain is when a song can be used by the public for free, with no need to request permission for any reason 
  1. Have you reached out to the creator?
    • For popular music, there are generally multiple people involved when creating a song. It is important to reach out to all of them!
  2. How much are you willing to pay?
    • There is no set price for a copyrighted song. The price can vary depending on the agreement. Do you want all rights to the song, or only the ability to use it for specific things?
    • You get to negotiate how much you’re willing to pay an artist. 
  1. Have you both signed the paperwork?
    • Once the negotiation is completed and both parties are satisfied with the agreement, contact a lawyer to make things official. 
    • Once the lawyer approves, payment can proceed and a contract can be signed. 
    • You’ve got the rights to commercially use a song! 

The Cost 

Although the cost of purchasing the rights to a song can drastically vary, it generally depends on two factors. 

  1. How popular the artist is you’re working with? 
  2. How much potential does that song has to make money?

For example, Bruce Springsteen made a deal with Sony Music and Sony Music Publishing to sell several master recordings of unreleased work and his publishing catalog for $500 million in December 2021. Another example would be when Hipgnosis (a song investment company out of the UK) paid an estimated $150 million for fifty percent of over 1,000 songs written by Neil Young in January 2021. 

When looking at purchasing the licensing of one song, that too can vary. Generally, you can purchase the rights to use a song commercially from an unknown or smaller artist for anywhere between hundreds to thousands of dollars. In bigger deals, a company can choose to either buy rights to the music outright and pay a lump sum, or develop a contract where the artist gets a set percentage of the revenue generated by the advertisement in which their music is featured. 

Additional things to consider when walking through the cost of using any piece of music in longevity. How long will you use this music? How many times will it be played? Across how many platforms? These questions come into play when writing up contracts and are things for both parties to consider before writing up a contract and agreeing on payment. 

The Pros, Cons and Example 

Now that you understand how music licensing works and how a brand can acquire the rights to commercially use music, let’s determine if the “juice is worth the squeeze,” or if all of this work is worth it. In this example, we’re going to choose Harry Styles’s song “Music For A Sushi Restaurant” and determine the pros and cons of using his song in an advertisement. 

Harry Styles


  • Harry Styles has over 101 million social media followers on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter combined.
  • His song “As It Was” remained in the Billboard top hundred for 15 weeks. He is the second longest-reigning artist to hold a space for that long.
  • “Music For A Sushi Restaurant” was eighth on Billboard Top one hundred for 13 weeks.
  • International recognition of advertisement due to relation with an internationally recognized artist and song.
  • Opportunity to positively promote the brand with a celebrity who is generally loved and held with respect and admiration in the public eye. Less concern with scandals or PR emergencies. 


  • Purchasing rights to his music would be a complicated and expensive process.
  • Depending on the content of the advertisement or brand, fans might be hesitant to support it regardless of music and celebrity association. Example: the infamous Pepsi commercial with Kendall Jenner, or their “Brown Sugar” commercial.
  • The production of the advertisement can leave the brand in the red if the campaign does not succeed.
  • The song may not connect with the messaging goal or overarching brand idea for the advertisement or campaign. 

It is important to keep the brand and idea in mind when selecting music. Even the most famous song that does not conceptually connect to the brand and the idea could end up being a complete waste of money. An example of this can be found in the 1990 Pepsi TV commercial “Brown Sugar” which featured the song “Brown Sugar” by The Rolling Stones. This commercial features a fly singing “Brown Sugar” after drinking Pepsi in a very high-pitched voice. Many comments call the advertisement “disturbing” or “confusing.” The selection of this song might have been the correct choice for the specified target audience, but the way in which it was connected back to the brand or conveyed to the audience was not successful. 

There are, however,  several benefits to aligning your brand or campaign with a piece of music. Ultimately much of a brand’s association with the music will depend on how it is used, in what setting and how often it is played. Apple does a great job of using many different types of popular music in their advertisements, such as using Payday’s “Big Boy” in the iPhone 14 reveal – a song that a Gen Z target audience would know and enjoy. 

If the goal of any brand is to stay relevant, then using music that connects with its target audience is crucial. By having a brand associated with a song, the two become one and the same and the audience will come to enjoy the brand just as much as they enjoy the music. In knowing this, we can come to the conclusion that purchasing rights and working with popular musicians is beneficial for growing and developing a brand identity and staying relevant in the eyes of the brand’s target audience. There are millions of songs to choose from, and more are being made every day. If a brand can create the same excitement that Lane Stadium gets for the Hokies, then it will stay relevant for decades to come. 


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