You can try to negotiate. I’ve never had much luck. The publishers know they have a product that you want, and think you have no leverage.
The music quote sounds somewhat accurate, though probably a touch high. Generally the more popular it is the harder it is.
I would try like hell to make the scene work with different music. Perhaps start by trying some lyrics out for an original song, that would still tie the dialog together (like reverse-engineering it).
There is one trick you could try: music rights in films are actually two sets of rights, usually licensed together:
- The SYNCHRONIZATION rights - this is the right to use the underlying composition (the sheet music if you will) in your film
- The MASTER RECORDING rights - the right to use a PARTICULAR recording of a piece of music in your film
Obviously, these are usually licensed together - you can’t license the master without the sync, unless the underyling composition is in the public domain (so if you want Bach in your film, you’re only paying for a particular performance of a Bach piece).
However, you can try to license the sync rights and then hire a musician to play a version of the song (you’d then have to pay the musician). And of course the “cover tune” would not necessarily sound like anything from the film.
I don’t honestly know if at the end of the day it would save you a ton of money, since you’d still have to pay a musician to recreate the score, and sometimes the publisher will refuse anyway. Who owns the rights to these things can get confusing also (typically the record company owns the master rights, the publisher owns the sync rights. Really rich musicians try to buy their masters and sync rights back - like Prince; most can’t afford to. When a record company goes bankrupt, sometimes their master rights are auctioned off to other companies, or to another entity altogether).