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Music Isn’t Free

Why you can't use that song to go with your video - and how to find one you can.

By Chris and Trish Meyer | March 17, 2008

Both Trish and I come from the music industry originally; as a result, music greatly informs our animations - we strongly prefer to pick out the music before we start working on a job. We also are both deeply interested in intellectual property issues (indeed, I've served as an expert witness on several music sampling cases); as a result, we care a lot about where that music comes from. And the sad truth is, a lot of people are using music illegally in their videos. But you can cure that.

The issue boils down to what is known as synchronization rights (synch rights for short). This deals with the use of music "in connection with" or "in timed relation with" imagery. It is separate from performance or broadcast licenses - in other words, just because the place where you may be playing the video has the right to play music (it is common for convention halls, theatres, sports stadiums, and the such to have such a blanket license), or just because you paid for the right to play the music on your iPod, does not mean you have the right to edit your video to that music.

Synchronization licenses must be negotiated directly with the music's rights holders, and there is no set price - one band might be thrilled you used their music and will let you do it for free, while the Rolling Stones got $10 million from Microsoft for using their song "Start Me Up" in their Windows '95 campaign.

This even extends to your demo reel: If you're playing back video in sync with music, you need to obtain synch rights from the song's creator(s). (To be legal. Damages are another thing altogether. But we figure, why tell a potential client this is how little you care about copyrights, as you try to seduce them to let you work with their copyrighted assets?) And no, your demo reel isn't "fair use" just because you're not charging for it; get a good book on copyrights to make sure you understand what you can and can't do.

Okay; that's the bad news. What are your alternatives? Several, as it turns out:

Buy the rights.

Track down the person who created the song and negotiate a payment. There are numerous "music rights clearance" firms (just Google that phrase) that you can pay to do this for you. Just to move things along, we'll assume you don't have the time or budget for that right now.

Hire your own musician.

Composers who work regularly with film and video may not be cheap, but they'll give you a custom soundtrack tailored to your specific application. You can even dictate to them how long each section needs to be, at what pace, and even what it should sound like - especially handy if a client has a specific song in mind.

If your budget won't stretch to that, then instead link up with a local band or aspiring composer, trading the rights to use their music in exchange for handing them back a tape they can market themselves with. This is particularly good for demo reels, for those of you starting out. We did such an exchange early in our careers with Kurt Wortman. Kurt went on to become a successful soundtrack composer (not that he needed us - he's an awesome musician), and we later hired him to work on real jobs as we became more successful ourselves.

Buy stock music.

There are two kinds: "buy out" and "rights managed." Buy out - also known as "royalty free" - means you pay once for it, and then can use it whenever and wherever you want (within limits - you can't use it to release your own stock music library, and many have no-porn clauses). In our early days we invested a few hundred dollars to have a several discs of music on our shelves to use with low-budget clients. Before you buy, first collect free demo discs and see who resonates with you; we particularly liked Fresh Music in this category.

Rights managed music means you have to pay a royalty based on how many times you reproduce the final product, or how wide your audience is. Obviously, this is structured to charge the most for national television spots or mass-produced DVDs; this pricing structure works greatly in your favor when you're only producing a few demo reels or a single master to play on-site at a trade show. We've bought rights-managed music for these very purposes on several occasions, with the bill averaging $100 or less. Our favorites here include Video Helper for hip clients, and Omnimusic for more meek clients.

(Tip: Point the client at stock music web sites and have them search for that perfect track. You won't believe how big of a time soak searching through music libraries - and getting client sign-off - can be.)

Compose your own.

These days, thanks to programs such as Apple's Soundtrack Pro or GarageBand, Adobe's Audition, Sony's Acid, and Ableton's Live (my personal weapon of choice), you can become your own composer/musician. Seek out add-on "construction kit" sample libraries for these programs that give you all the components you need to construct songs in particular genres. I still remember the NAB show where Sony's booth music was a song (9 Millimeter) from one of these libraries (LA Riot 3) - the sample library cost just $99; who knows what the musician charged them. (By the way, if this is a subject that interests you, I have an article on composition tips I can add to our Keyframes archives - let me know in the Comments below.)

Have some software help you.

If you don't have the budget to hire a soundtrack composer, are afraid that stock music might be too generic, but are intimidated by the idea of composing your own music, then a good compromise might be using one of the new breed of customizable stock music libraries where you can work with the company's software to create your own custom arrangements and mix of a particular song. I'm particularly fond of SmartSound's Sonicfire Pro. I even worked with them to create a tutorial video on how we use After Effects and Sonicfire Pro together to create a tightly-synchronized show open; you can use the same concepts with your NLE of choice.

The bottom line is: People who create cool content have rights; respect them - because you're one of them too. With music, it may be tempting to just "borrow" any old song, but as it so happens music has a complex set of copyrights that restricts how you can use it - so use one of the legal alternatives above instead.

The content contained in our books, videos, blogs, and articles for other sites are all copyright Crish Design, except where otherwise attributed.

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Chad Ellenburg: | March, 17, 2008

Please go ahead and post your article on composition.  I would love to see it.  Thanks.

Scott Gentry: | March, 17, 2008

In the past, I had created an automotive how-to video for a client.  We hired a local band who was able to pull off everything for a very reasonable price.  Turns out, they were actually trying to break into the “scoring” business and we were part of their demo reel.  Nice find, and we ended up with fantastic music.

Excellent advice Chris!

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