A total no-no?

If you are writing a script about a giant robot and that is the
plot then you will need to sell the script to a studio that can
afford to make a giant robot movie.
I meant like a giant robot showing up for just five seconds--

A song is different. It is
not about the cost at all. Some songs just might not be available
for a movie. That is the right and privilege of the copyright
holder, and that is what I am talking about.
But yeah, THIS I see. That's very true. Could be that they don't want to be associated with the movie or the content, could be a few different things.
I am in no way suggesting this is a “no-no” - I never do. I am
pointing out the downside to a decision a writer may make. The
more knowledgeable a writer is about the business of film making
the better. A writer should write in the song or songs they want
into their script. Do so knowing the realities of the business.
Much clearer. For sure.
Lots of great advice and insight. Unless you are specifically working with a studio on a musical-themed movie (say about Elvis, Tina Turner, the Beatles, etc.), it is generally impossible to predict if the production will negotiate the legal rights to the musical piece. It is often easier to hire a composer for an original soundtrack.

However, a couple made valid points. There are a few ways of handling it in the script.
(1) "Hank turns on the radio and it plays a rock-a-billy number." (a generic reference)
(2) "Hank turns on the radio. A sultry piece like 'Smooth Operator' with its rich tones reminds him of his girlfriend." (A veiled hint that conveys to the reader more about the song)
(3) "Hank walks through the story with 'Deck the Halls' blaring over the intercom." (A specific mention--but here, the song is likely easily acquired)

It is not a totally forbidden act to include the name of a song, but it is usually only done by a director/producer filming their own script as Salva did with "Jeepers Creepers". That doesn't negate the legal issues but being writer and director has advantages of bypassing readers.

And the elaborate musicals of the 50s, 60s and 70s usually with dance numbers is a totally different beast. Scripting music into animation and movies requires collaboration that is often studio driven as with Disney features. It is rarely a solo effort.

A really good question. The question I would ask is "If I couldn't get the rights to the song, would my script fall apart?" If it is that dependent, then the script should be re-written. A really powerful suggestion from David Mamet is that your screenplay should make sense if it had no sound. It is a visual medium. The audio is a very powerful component which should complement the images.
Only make song recommendations if they are essential to the plot (and even then avoid where possible).

I'm trying to think of a good example but the best I can come up with is Mr Blonde slicing off the ear in Reservoir Dogs. On that occasion something like 'a jaunty tune' might suffice, but you might also think about recommending a specific song.
The only thing that I can think of as an example (that didn't make the cut) was the fight scene in Good Will Hunting - apparently they wanted Marvin Gaye's, "Let's Get It On" for the scene, which I can see it making sense for the plot.

Good call arrodiii.

I just looked this up because I was curious as to whether Tarantino went with 'jaunty tune' (as I would've) or named the specific song. Here's that section from Reservoir Dogs:


Mr. Blonde walks away from the cop.

Let's see what's on K-BILLY'S
"super sounds of the seventies"

He turns on the radio.

Stealer's Wheel's hit "Stuck in the Middle with You" PLAYS
over the speaker.

NOTE: This entire sequence is timed to the music.

Mr. Blonde slowly walks toward the cop.

He opens a large knife.

He grabs a chair, places it in front of the cop and sits
in it.

Mr. Blonde just stares into the cop's/our face, holding
the knife, singing along with the song.

Then, like a cobra, he LASHES out.

A SLASH across the face.

The cop/camera moves around wildly.

Mr. Blonde just stares into the cop's/our face, singing
along with the seventies hit.

Then he reaches out and CUTS OFF the cop's/our ear.

The cop/camera moves around wildly.

Mr. Blonde holds the ear up to the cop/us to see.

Mr. Blonde rises, kicking the chair he was sitting on out
of the way.
But Rik is right, I think it should be avoided wherever possible, especially for low budget stuff. But don't forget that even if you can't get the original recording it might well be possible to get an inexpensive cover version which serves the same purpose.


IndieTalk's Resident Guru
I just want to clarify:

I am not talking about budget at all. I am talking only about the
rights to put a song in a movie. And there are exceptions based on
the writer and the writers situation. A writer writing a spec
script should not mention specific songs. A writer who will be
producing and/or directing should mention specific songs regardless
of the budget.

I get the impression from NewSlang that this is his very first
screenplay and at this point his goal is to send it out to agents,
producers and directors. So my comments are limited to that,
specific situation. And even then, if the first time writer feels
a song is essential to the script; either to the plot or the
feeling of the scene - they should write it in.
Thank you all for sharing your opinions...I read all of the posts, and appreciate all of the different opinions. It's great to be able to lean on some people with more experience than me! To answer a few of the questions that were referenced:

1. Yes, this is my first attempt at screenwriting. (Though I've been a writer most of my life, mostly songwriter.)
2. In all honesty, I do not believe that the 2-3 songs I was going to recommend are essential to the storyline, I believe they fit and should be considered. (I am obviously a musician with a deep emotional attachment to the right song in the right place.)
3. To the point of the Mr. Blonde scene, and also the Good Will Hunting fight scene...these are both great examples as to why I wish I had some control over this...although I am willing to relent.
4. I firmly believe in soundtracks being absolutely pivotal in the overall success of a film...some that stand out to me: Garden State, Into the Wild, Vanilla Sky, Reservoir Dogs, Jackie Brown, etc.

It is my dream to work with film makers and help with the decision making process with choosing appropriate songs for scenes. I feel I have a knack for this, and eventually I hope I can earn the trust of some of you on here to get me started in the business in that regard.