How to get hold of the perfect music score, legally

Written by John McCabe

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Music copyright can be a legal nightmare, even for the simplest of videos. John McCabe shines a guiding light on the best ways to get a quality musical score, legally, even if you don't have a lot to spend.

“Sound is 50% of the movie!” How many times have you heard that? Well, if you’ve been through film school or have been in the business a while, the answer is “too many.” Why does everyone keep saying it? Simple: because it’s true. Terrible sound can make an otherwise good project unwatchable and a really amazing soundtrack can make a good project great or a great project amazing. Primarily, there are three aspects to sound when it comes to making movies: dialogue, sound effects and music. We can discuss dialogue and sound effects at a different time because today we’re discussing music for filmmaking.

A musical score is a very important aspect of a film, as it really sets the tone for the video. The right instrumental piece will turn a sad scene into a tear-jerker. Victorious music will have fans of the film celebrating along with the protagonist. The intensity of a scary scene will be increased tenfold with the appropriate music... Music sets the tone of the movie every bit as much as lighting! What does that mean to you? Get your music right!


When attempting to score your movie, the first thing that you need to know is that copyrights play a huge part in music. Whether you know it or not, the rightful owner of any copyrighted sounds used on any video must be paid for their work if you use it. This includes any incidental music that appears in the background of any Facebook or YouTube video that you share. If you have music playing in the background of a video on your social media channel (and particularly if it’s brief), you’re not going to jail, but if you don’t pay for the rights to someone’s work, you are definitely not going to be making any money from it.

YouTube is pretty good at making sure that the copyright owners of music get their share of revenue. They explain that any video using music owned by someone other than the content uploader will still generate income, but it will be paid to the rightful owner of the music (the songwriter). One more thing before we begin – and I only bring it up because I’ve actually heard it asked – if you purchase a song on the Apple Store, Google Play, or anywhere else, it does not give you the right to use it in your videos; you are only paying for the right to listen to it offline. Read on to learn just how you can acquire the rights to use an artist’s music in your videos.

When creating a soundtrack for a video, you can go in two directions. First, you can buy previously recorded music (sometimes referred to as stock music) or you can have it scored specifically for your film. While that may sound like the more expensive route to go, either method can be designed to fit into any budget, but remember, like most things in life: you generally get what you pay for. Unless you don’t pay anything – and if you do that, you could get slapped with a lawsuit.

Free-to-use or Royalty Free?

Unless the music that you use specifically states that it is royalty-free, you must remunerate the artist for their work. However, if you’re creating a no-budget or extremely low-budget movie, all is not lost. There are places to get free recorded music; one such website is Incompetech where you can search through numerous compositions by Kevin MacLeod, a competent musician who only requests that you credit him for his work. Here are two more places: Bensound and Freemusicarchive. Or you can get real lucky and hire an up-and-coming music group to do the soundtrack for free. Who knows? They could be the next Earth Wind and Fire, for all you know. Or you could be a talented musician yourself, which means that you will be – in true indie filmmaker fashion – doing your own film score and you aren’t even bothering to read this article.

Don’t forget music and sound while budgeting

Music, like marketing, is one of those areas of filmmaking that often get overlooked by novice filmmakers. I know a producer/director who had a budget of USD $1,000,000 and never thought about spending any of that money on music. While this would be problematic for any type of movie, it was particularly bad in that the movie was a biopic about Elvis Presley. Yeah, it was every bit as bad as you’re thinking right now. After three years, the producer/director moved on to other failed projects, but his investor, knowing that he’d poured a lot of money into a movie that can’t even be released, eventually broke down and paid Elvis Presley’s estate a lot more money to acquire some music royalties for the movie. Since he didn’t want to spend much more money, he ended up purchasing the rights to just one hit song and one “deep cut.” The producer’s brother ended up composing most of the Elvis-esque music for the film.

In Part II, we will explore ways to get music scored for your movie, purchase stock music, and who you should hire if you don’t think that you’re the right person to be making the music decisions.

Image: Shutterstock - 18percentgrey

Tags: Production


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