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The Difficulties in Licensing Jimi Hendrix Music
Close your eyes and try to think of the 1960s without thinking of Jimi Hendrix. It’s virtually impossible. In a few short years of recording, he became known as a guitar god who helped usher in such mainstays as righteous guitar burning, heavy metal, and playing with your teeth in lieu of picks, among others.
In the half-century since Hendrix’s untimely passing at the age of just 27, a lot has changed. For better or worse, psychedelic headbands, afros, and pedal distortion gave way to jeggings, skinny jeans, and harmonizers—and the music business became less music and more business. While Hendrix himself seemed largely unconcerned with licensing and ownership (once signing a contract that entitled him to just $1 and 1% of royalties), his passing led to decades of legal battles for the rights to his lyrics and recordings.
Ultimately, his family-run estate, operating as Experience Hendrix LLC, gained complete control in 1995—and all was well for a few brief moments. Until they imposed a decision not to license his music for any projects ever so slightly related to the themes of alcohol, drug use, violence, sex, or vulgarity. Essentially, if there was any resemblance to Hendrix’s lifestyle embedded in a project—even the smallest “marijuana cigarette” in the background of a film set—his recordings were not welcome.
Hendrix, of course, did die from drug-induced complications, so it’s easy to sympathize with his family’s desire not to glorify the demons that led to his demise; however, such a sweeping embargo also came at the expense of historical accuracy and the preservation of his own legacy. Animated children’s movies, for example, could feature music written by Hendrix, but biopics like 2013’s Jimi: All Is by My Side could not.
With his likeness and name locked by up the same standards, as far as his estate was concerned, there was no such thing as the Jimi Hendrix who wrote about free love and having “[his] own life to live.” If you wanted the real Jimi Hendrix experience, you had to look toward media produced prior to 1995.
Fortunately, that might soon change, with his estate reportedly on board to cooperate with producer Thomas Tull (The Dark Knight, Watchmen), tentative director Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Ultimatum, Captain Phillips), and writer Scott Silver (8 Mile, The Fighter) after years of false starts and negotiations. The project has been called off several times before only to be revived and called off again, but it has never had the backing of his estate, which stands to make this time different.
There’s plenty that could go wrong between now and a theatrical release, of course, but any step toward the open licensing of Jimi Hendrix’s music is a step in the right direction.
“When I die, I want people to play my music, go wild and freak out and do anything they want to do.” –Jimi Hendrix