Northern Exposure Music Rights: It’s Not the One Listed on Your Episode Guide

Questions like “What happened to [song title] on the DVD?” and “What song is that on it’s not the one listed on your episode guide” are among the most frequently asked of me.

The music featured in each episode of Northern Exposure was practically another cast member. It featured a wide variety of songs, much like those Chris-in-the-Morning would spin on KBHR (and frequently did!). Joshua Brand, one of the show’s creators, was keen on including musical elements like those featured in the play.

Together with his fellow producer Martin Bruestle, he scoured their personal music libraries, local clubs, radio stations’ basements, and other sources for the best songs possible.

In order to utilize these songs on television, the producers had to obtain the necessary permissions and pay the necessary royalties to ASCAP.

Two years later, a new form of visual media called DVD was developed. Because DVD did not yet exist, and because the original rights did not include “future media,”

it was necessary to re-secure the rights to the music. It’s a lengthy and pricey process. Furthermore, several of the songs were unavailable because they were too costly, the rights to use them would have taken too long, or both.

As seen at the end of Heroes season 4 episode 4, the ownership of Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale” was unclear. [Here you may learn more about the lawsuit.]

Step forward, “royalty-free” music. The original score for the first season of Northern Exposure is now available. Because it was the pilot and the show had been produced on a shoestring budget to begin with, the rights to use the music were quite easy to obtain again. When getting ready for Season 2,

Universal realized they needed to switch out a lot of the songs for ones that didn’t require royalties. The fans were outraged at the terrible “Casio keyboard/elevator music” they had chosen. These problems were not exclusive to Northern Exposure; they were experienced by other series when they were transferred to DVD as well.

After that, Universal developed or compiled its own “Royalty-free” music library. Here, studio musicians and songwriters work on original music that doesn’t belong to anyone in particular.

There would be no licensing fees or royalties to pay while using music from such a collection. That leaves us with no title (other than an ID number) and no artists to credit.

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