A needle drop license is a somewhat outdated term in music, but the general principle still applies even in a non-vinyl medium. Essentially, a needle drop license—also spelled needle drop—allows someone to use part of a piece of music just one time.
Needle Drop Licenses in the Day of Vinyl Records
The term is associated with the days of vinyl when the arm of a record player dropped the needle to the outer edge of the record as it spun on a turntable. In the context of music licensing, the term "needle drop" poetically refers to that moment when music is synchronized with another work such as a TV show, a video, or a commercial.
Each time the "needle drops" on a record, a new license is required. The use must secure a new needle drop license each and every time the song or even a part of the song is played. This is the case even if it's the same song or song snippet used multiple times within the same project.
Here's an example: If you're making a commercial and you want to use 10 seconds of Song X to start the commercial, and if you want to use the same 10 seconds of the song to play out the commercial, they would both require needle drop licenses.
Think of it as renting just a snippet of a piece of music to be played in a commercial or other production rather than licensing the entire work.
Needle Drop License vs. Synchronization License
Licensing the entire work would require a synchronization license. A synchronization or "sync" license allows the license holder to sync music to a media output. Sync licenses are often used for TV shows and movies, but their scope is broader than that. They're necessary whenever any kind of visual is paired with the sound.
When you hold a sync license, you're permitted to re-record that song for use in your project. If you want to use a specific version of the song by a specific artist, you'll also have to get a master recording license. Typically, a sync license is obtained from a music publisher while a master recording license is obtained from the record label or the owner of the master. A sync license usually covers a specific period of time, and the license will stipulate in what manner the song can be used.
Needle Drop Licenses vs. Sampling
Needle drop segments are slightly different from sampling, which is the term that applies when you're reusing part of a song, such as a chorus, in a different way within another song. This practice is fairly common in rap and hip-hop music.
Needle Drop License Cost
The cost of a needle drop license varies depending on the work being sampled and the work in which it will be used. It can be negligible or quite expensive. The cost is set by the legal owner of the music.