Tuesday, July 29, 2003

Music and Independent Film

Submitted by Peter John Ross

The Problem

One of the things that can make or break a movie is the music. Can you imagine Jaws without the John Williams music? What about the techno music in The Matrix? As no-budget filmmakers, we often times forget that sound is fifty-percent of the experience of seeing a movie, whether it be a thirty second joke, or a four hour Lord of the Rings DVD. Thanks to technology, we can physically add any music we can get our hands on into our movies. Since we can take an audio CD from any musician, put it in a CD-ROM drive and quickly load that digitally mastered song into the timeline of our handy editing program, temptation has an all-new meaning. It's like having a piece of forbidden fruit on every tray at a buffet.

Let's talk about why you should not do this. First and foremost it's illegal, as in against federal law. Maybe you've heard the term copyright. Everyone already knows this, but dirt poor, no budget filmmakers think this law doesn't apply to them. Popular music costs a lot of money to use in your movies. That's probably why most people steal music and use it without permission.
Secondly, you have to consider another point of view other than our own selfish, “I'm the filmmaker” point of view. If you can take their music without paying for it, then why should anyone ever pay for any aspect of your movie? Music is intellectual property, just like your movie will be. If you can steal their music without paying, then someone at a television station or a website should have equal rights to steal your movie and never have to pay for it.

On a moral and ethical level it's wrong to use music without permission. I am quite sure if you saw someone selling copies of your movie without paying you, it'd be like restraining Chris Farley at an all you can eat lunch special. What is the difference between stealing your movie or stealing someone else's music? Nothing. What kind of arrogance makes us think we are more important than musicians?

I remember being on a filmmakers panel at a science-fiction convention in May of 2002 and an audience member asked us all what our opinion was on using copyrighted music. I said I was against it. Another no-budget company piped in with a speech about how it's okay to steal copyrighted music.

They even said, and I have to preserve the accuracy in quotes, “If someone catches you using copyrighted music in your movies that's a good thing. That means someone important saw your movie.”

That is another perspective, and they have the right to think that. Although I do think it's important to note that they recently lost over half of their hundred movies online for copyright violations.

Who am I to preach? Have I ever put copyrighted music into my projects? Of course. Virtually every first time filmmaker puts music that's copyrighted into their movies. I did it a lot when I first started. Since then I have made every effort to get original music into my projects or I make actual arrangements for obtaining the rights and pay the necessary royalties.

The Solution

There are struggling musicians and songwriters just as there are struggling independent filmmakers. Make a connection. Help each other out. You can get their music played in a venue previously unavailable to them, and you can have original music that doesn't make you nervous to play at every film festival. It's also much classier to have your own music. It differentiates your movie from the dozens of others using the same songs.

You can also get cheap loop programs like Fruity Loops or Sonic Foundry's ACID. You can quickly and cheaply create music from loops and customize the speed, tempo, and pitch to make the music fit your exact needs. It's better than a “cease and desist” letter from an attorney and it's legal to use once you buy the program. Illegally copying software is a whole other article.

Stock music libraries are another option. These cost money, but in the end it's much cheaper than popular music. Music ranges from the low end where you buy a CD of music for $250, then use it any time you want for free. This is also known as “royalty free” music because you buy it once and own the right to use it anytime. Then there is the top of the line, which is very expensive, but incredibly good. They charge a “per needle drop,” meaning you pay for each usage of the music. If you use it online there's one fee, and if you use it on television, there is a different price, etc.

If you are dead set on obtaining a popular song, secure the rights. Go to ASCAP or BMI and find out how to get the proper licensing. “Internet Only” rights are cheap, and they invented something for no-budget filmmakers with “Festival Only” rights to songs to make this more affordable to independent filmmakers like us. Try to do it legally, because if the RIAA is going after individual users that download a John Mayer song on Kazaa, then what do you think they'll do to a filmmaker trying to make money from using a song in their movie? It's not a slap on the wrist anymore. It's a lawsuit.

In Summary

Will you get caught? Probably not, but lately the risk is going up. I recently got a letter from an attorney for music I used in a movie I did in February 2000 that still lingered on a short film website. It wasn’t even a popular site. I have since removed the movie from the site and I’m re-editing the film to add original music.

And because I am a former musician myself, let me say that I am not unsympathetic to the plight of independent musicians. Resist the temptation to steal music. I am giving away nine songs for free to be used by any independent filmmaker completely free or charge with full rights. These aren't the best songs, but they're free. You can download them at www.sonnyboo.com/music/music.htm.

Some other completely free music resources available online for independent filmmakers are www.freeplaymusic.com and www.compositeur-arrangeur.com. I hope this helps.

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