Shockwave-Sound Blog and Articles
Choosing Music For Short Film Projects

Choosing Music For Short Film Projects

by Simon Power

Film making requires ingenuity in many different fields. One priority is matching the mood and atmosphere of your story with the right music. In this article, we speak to directors and short film makers about how to get the best music for your movie score without blowing the budget.

Part One – Big Budget vs No Budget

Music is a powerful tool in filmmaking. And choosing the right mood is an art in itself. Professional film directors work directly with composers to produce music & sound design that integrates perfectly with the imagery on the screen. They will often choose published songs to connect with the audience adding emphasis to certain scenes. But there’s a high price to pay. Top composers working with professional orchestras can ask for seven figure salaries. Perhaps more shocking is that the use of a single published work by a major artist can sometimes match or exceed that figure. Take for example the rights to use Led Zeppelin’s ‘Whole Lotta Love’ on the recent movie, ‘Lords Of Dogtown’ which cost the producers a cool $3 Million!

But typically the score for a major movie represents around 8 percent of the total budget.

With short films, this margin is greatly reduced. Often there will very little money or no budget at all. The filmmaker will need to think of all kinds of creative ideas to get the music he wants.

Stian Hafstad is a young Norwegian filmmaker. As a student he directed the much acclaimed award winning shorts, ‘Nemesis’ (2008) and ‘Liten Penis’ (2009).

“Getting the music right is everything. The right soundtrack can make or break your film. I have no idea how many hours I’ve spent in recent years listening through music samples. But it’s all worth it. The feeling you get when the music works with your scene is just amazing.”

So how does a student filmmaker go about choosing music for a scene?

“9 out of 10 times I have a clear idea beforehand what kind of music I want. I usually hear music inside my head when I read/write a script so I go out searching for something similar. However there are of course limitations, especially when you have a close to nothing budget. This doesn’t mean you can’t get good music, it just means you have to spend a lot of time searching.”

Are royalty payments and clearance issues a stumbling block for filmmakers when searching for music?

“A friend of mine recently made a documentary where there was a scene with some old people singing for about 20 seconds. She had to clear the rights for the song and pay to use it. That’s just insane. I just wish it was easier (and not expensive) to use small bands and artists. I can understand that you have to pay a lot if you want to use The Beatles, but I think many not so well know bands could benefit from letting filmmakers use their music for free.”

Can pieces of music ever offer the director ideas for storylines and edits?

“Yes! Absolutely. This happens to me all the time. I believe that some songs are just meant to be used in film. The first time you hear them you can see the outline of a scene or a montage in your head. For example. The first time I heard Coldplay’s ‘Life in Technicolor ii’, I could see the opening scene of a movie. But you could never get the clearance to use it.”

How did you go about choosing music for your film, ‘Nemesis’?

“In this film I decided to go with a well known classical work by Saint Saens for the opening scene (Aquarium from Carnival of the Animals). I love this song because it instantly creates a mood and takes you somewhere exiting. So we decided to have just a few seconds of the song before the image started, hoping to send the viewer to magical place before he saw the films first image. Also I love to play with expectations, and it was fun to play some really exciting music, and then cut to an ordinary man on a bus.”

What other advice can you offer about choosing music for short films?

“Don’t use a song just because you think it’s cool. Cool track + good scene does not always make a good film. Also, remember your first impression of a song. The music I like the most now is the music I had to work on liking. Music that I listened to over and over before it clicked. But if I use a song like this in a film people who hear it for the first time won’t necessarily feel the same way.”


Part Two – Money To Burn

To give things a little perspective, let’s look at the methods used by some of the great auteurs of filmmaking.

Francis Ford Coppola commissioned a variety of artists (including his Father) to compose & record entire scores for his 1979 epic, ‘Apocalypse Now’. Only in post production did he decide what was to be used for each scene from the hours and hours of recorded music.


Coppola: Finding the right music can be a headache

Despite taking place in WWII, Quentin Tarrentino’s latest film, ‘Inglorious’ features music from a variety of unexpected eras. Spaghetti Western soundtracks, psychedelic funk, heavy metal and even ‘Cat People’ by David Bowie.

Speaking of which, Bowie recorded an entire soundtrack for the movie ‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’ which was rejected by director Nicolas Roeg in favour of old standards and a score by John Phillips. (Bowie’s score was subsequently never released).

Despite huge budgets, even these high end directors occasionally fall foul to the crippling cost of using published music.

Scorsese’s ‘Casino’ soundtrack album excludes many of the seminal tracks from the film due to clearance difficulties. And, although a pivotal track in David Lynch’s ‘Lost Highway’, This Mortal Coil’s ‘Song to The Siren’ does not appear on the soundtrack album.

But these are high end Hollywood directors with money to burn. Sam Raimi, for instance, put aside a pot of $4.5 million as the music budget for ‘Spiderman’. This including a brand-new song recorded exclusively for the movie by Chad Kroeger.


Spiderman: multi million dollar music budget

Although these directors are in a different league to short filmmakers, their methods and ideas can be highly inspirational. Our student director, Stian Hafstad has some personal favourite movie scores that have inspired his own work. “Gershwin in the opening of Allen’s ‘Manhattan’, Yann Tiersens work on Jeunet’s ‘Amelie’, Gary Jules’ piano version of ‘Mad World’ at the end of ‘Donnie Darko’. I could go on and on. There are just so many!”

Sure, you may not be able to afford the same luxuries on your own short film. But at least you can enjoy mimicking some of the techniques of these great directors when it comes to including music.

For instance, something common to all directors is diegetic music, That is, music that comes from an obvious source like a radio or television. Or a quartet playing in a café. Or a busker in a street scene. Or an entire orchestra in a concert hall. It’s a great way to intertwine the music and visual action when the two are in some way meshed together on screen. But who’s to say the music playing on the radio isn’t a soundalike royalty free track? Or that the quartet is merely miming to out of copyright royalty free classical recording? Or that the busker isn’t just improvising or jamming along with the action?

For an open minded director, there are always ways and means to navigate the minefield of music usage and come up with fresh ideas.

Part Three – In Production

Iain McGuiness is the Creative Director of TV and video Production Company, AND / OR Productions.

“Most film-makers who are just starting out, and small independent production companies, like my own, don’t have the sort of money that broadcasters such as the BBC and Channel 4 can spend on their blanket agreements, for published music, and original compositions. And for young filmmakers, the processes involved in using published music are far too complicated. I found it all very overwhelming and, dare I say, not very end user-friendly.”

“For that reason, I’m a great fan of royalty-free music, and would recommend it to any film-maker. My production company has several stock music libraries, which editors can browse in order to find compositions to use in their work. We also frequent several websites to search for individual stuff that we like, including our favourite,!”

We’re currently in post-production on a documentary called South Ifrica. It’s an 84-minute, three-part documentary mini-series about a charitable trip I made to South Africa around eighteen months ago. It has been made for the Community Channel, on Freeview, Sky and Virgin TV here in the UK. I chose a track from for this piece, as I have with some of my other documentaries. They have a fantastic range of composers with lots of very diverse styles. So the piece I chose worked out really nicely on the finished film.”

“When choosing music, you have to think very carefully about whether the track that you want to use, actually works well with your video. Although this is largely a subjective process, it’s wise to ask friends, family and colleagues for feedback. Most of the time, you will need to experiment, in order to see which piece best achieves your artistic vision.”

“My advise would be, don’t be afraid of being original. You don’t necessarily need to use the track that countless others have used in their videos. I call this the corporate video syndrome, where one track is being widely used for countless, vastly different companies. Of course, if a track is really good, it’ll be in high demand. But that can sometimes drive myself and other filmmakers to try and find a hidden gems elsewhere.”


Part Four – The Machine Stops

Adam & Nathan Freise (The Freise Brothers) co-directed the highly acclaimed Sci-Fi short film, ‘The Machine Stops’ in which music plays an essential part in building the mood.

“Since ‘The Machine Stops’ is such a short piece, finding the right music was crucial in providing a sort of background to the story. We knew that there were many elements of the original story that we simply didn’t have time to build up and that the success of the overall mood and emotional moments would rely heavily on the ability of the music to create a sense of time and history to this underground world.”

The Machine (and the buck) Stops here

What musical choices did you make for ‘The Machine Stops’?

“It’s important to be open to different styles, sometimes you can say a lot with irony or contrast in music, which may mean choosing something that is the opposite of the mood you initially had in mind. I often use a temp track, a piece of music I’m already familiar with that fits the tone I have in mind. Then I search to move past the temp track, looking for ways to make it more custom for the scene, fit the pace, editing style etc. There is always the danger of becoming too attached to the temp track…but it seems to have worked well for Kubrick when he used The Blue Danube as a temp track in 2001!”

Do you ever consider using free stock music or buy out tracks provided by your film school?

“Anything readily available to students for free – including music & sound effects tends to become quickly overused. You don’t want to commit on a piece that works really well with your film & find out 2 days before you’re done that a fellow student is using the same piece!”

What about using well known songs or published music in your films?

“We tend to avoid published music for the sake of originality. A film utilizing a well known track, not always, but can tend to feel gimmicky or cheap.”

How do you rate the quality of online royalty free outlets for usable music?

“I like to be optimistic and think that the online libraries are getting better in terms of how they market their composers/music. I’ve been fortunate to actually meet some great composers through online libraries. If I really like a piece I’ll contact that composer directly and see if they’re willing to tweak or further customize their piece to my film. I’ve had pretty good luck with that and am grateful to those composers.”

What advice would you offer young filmmakers about scoring their short films?

“I think the most important thing is to start thinking about it from the very beginning of the process. It’s always obvious when the music/score to a piece is an afterthought. If you’re thinking about how sound is going to be integrated within your piece from the start, it’s only going to make the piece stronger.”

How about film scores that have influenced you as directors?

“I’ve always thought the score to ‘Blade Runner’ was near perfect. The music not only complements the story but actually seems to progress it along. That combination of rich natural instruments with the plastic synth sounds is a dynamic contrast that reflects the human/android theme of the film. Another soundtrack that has left an impression on me is Jim Jarmusch’s ‘Dead Man’. Neil Young’s scratching, whining guitar creates such a haunting atmosphere for that film.”


Part Five – Infinity And Beyond

So what does the future hold for young filmmaker Stian Hafstad?

“I’ve just made an short info film for my University where I they gave me a lot of freedom to do what I wanted (within reason of course) so that was pretty fun. It has dinosaurs, a man eating flames, murder and lots of other fun stuff!”

Meantime, The Freise Brothers are currently storyboarding new ideas that they hope to get funding for.

“We are also refining the script of ‘The Machine Stops’ as a feature length version.”

And for Iain McGuiness’s AND/OR Productions?

“I’m currently in the very late stages of production for a mini-documentary about the urban sports, parkour and free-running, entitled Off The Wall, which I hope to soon turn into a full-length documentary. The film is basically about a group of young guys, here in Glasgow, Scotland, who practise parkour and free-running as their hobby. Actually, I’d say it’s more of a lifestyle for them. Of course, not everybody is happy with them back-flipping down the city streets, climbing up lamp-posts, and jumping between rooftops, and so the film also explores the conflicts between them and the authorities!”

So short filmmaking can lead to all sorts of diverse projects and careers. And as a genre, they have taken on a whole new lease of life over recent years. Directors are turning out highly sophisticated work and high quality music is seen more and more as an integral part of the process.

But as many restrictions are imposed on music usage in feature length films, the most important thing is to enjoy the freedom that making short film presentations can offer.

And then who knows, with many of the major films starting out as low budget shorts, there’s every chance that your movie could become a full length feature one day. Or even an academy award winning blockbuster. Well it could happen… Couldn’t it?

Watch the Freise Brothers work on their website.

Stian Hafstad’s short films can be viewed on

And you can watch his latest infomercial on the University’s YouTube page.

Iain McGuiness can be found at
Or on YouTube at

Simon Power (AKA Elliot Simons) produces music, sound design, IPTV programming, Podcasts, virals and other web stuff at offers original and dynamic music in a wide spectrum of genres. As much of the music here has been produced by experienced film composers it’s a great place to start searching for royalty free music.


NEMESIS by Stian Hafstad
Featuring royalty-free music from

About the author: Simon Power has made
over 50 short films and documentaries for the music technology website Sonic
State. He has also removed & replaced copyrighted music on a number
of commercial BBC releases. In these articles he offers advice and tips
about using music in your low budget film and audio/visual projects. You
can learn more about Simon and his projects at his website,


YouTube Safe Music, how to use and properly credit composer and publishers on YouTube

YouTube Safe Music, how to use and properly credit composer and publishers on YouTube

A discussion on legal use of music on YouTube, how to properly credit
composers and publishers of music used in YouTube videos, and how performance
royalties apply to YouTube, Google Video and Metacafe hosted videos.

Obtaining YouTube music from a stock music library

Many people looking for music that they can legally use in their YouTube videos, Google Videos and Metacafe video productions, will visit a library of stock music such as this one.

Through these stock music libraries, music composers and publishers sell their music tracks for a one-off simple license fee, and when purchased, their music can be safely and legally used in videos that are posted online – whether it’s on your own site, your blog, or on YouTube.

These fully legal music licenses are often sold for a low price, and typically a percentage of that direct sale price will be paid to the composer. This direct payment to the composer is usually not a whole lot, so the composer will rely on an additional payment from YouTube when his music is used in a YouTube video.

The way money makes its way from YouTube to music composers

Most composers are members of so called “performance rights societies” such as ASCAP, BMI, SESAC, PRS or others. The task of these societies is to oversee where, how, and how much their members’ music is being broadcast and played in public. Based on how much their music has been used in public, the performance rights society pays the composer and publisher a certain amount of “performance royalties”.

The performance rights societies in turn collect money from broadcasters of music. That includes TV stations, radio stations and most recenty also YouTube. YouTube is a “broadcaster” of video just as much as a TV station.

YouTube, in turn, collects money from their advertisers.

So, in a rather complex and convoluted way, you may say that money travels like this: Advertiser -> YouTube -> Performance rights society -> Music Composer.

I would like to stress that you, as a video producer and video uploader, do not pay any of these performance royalties. It does not cost you anything beyond the normal one-time stock music license fee, to use royalty-free music on YouTube. The money that YouTube pays to the performance rights societies originate from YouTube’s advertisers – not from video uploaders.

In an ideal world, this is how it’s supposed to work. The challenge however – and this is where the system is not yet good enough – is that YouTube have no idea exactly what music is playing in each of their millions of videos. They have no idea who wrote and who published how many minutes and seconds of music used in how many YouTube videos. There simply is no record of this.

Reality check

In the real world though, what happens most of the time is that YouTube just sends money to the performance rights organizations without any detailed lists of who this money is meant for. They simply don’t know who composed the music in all their videos, and how this money should be divided amongst composers and publishers.

The performance rights society, in turn, receives a sum of money from YouTube and, frankly, they really don’t know who to give this money to. So what they do is to “guess” the best they can, how much music, by which composer and publisher, has been used “most” in YouTube videos. They literally then divide up this money, on a percentage scale, among the composers who are already making the most royalties from traditional TV and radio broadcasts. They simply assume that the percentages will be likewise — i.e. if Britney Spears has so-and-so much music played on the radio, then she probably also has a similar amount of music played at YouTube.

This is how YouTube’s music royalties are divided as per today. Sadly, if you’re a composer and you’ve had your music used in a YouTube video, it’s unlikely that you’ll ever see any performance royalties for that, unless you also happen to be on high rotation on MTV and the radio stations.

Going forward…

I have reason to believe, though, that YouTube and the performance rights organizations are trying to find a way to distribute the money better and more accurately.

Frankly, nobody will ever have the time to sit and listen through every YouTube video and find out who composed the music that’s playing in that video. But what they can do is start asking video uploaders to put proper music credits in the video information when they upload it to YouTube. There is a text field where video uploaders can enter “more text” about their video, and this is a good place to include good and proper music credits.

This is why we at now, if our music is used in a YouTube video, requires that our music be properly credited in the “more text” field. Here’s an example of somebody who has done it correctly:

Notice these lines appearing in the “more info” text area about the video:

Track title: Away From Her
Composer: Alexander Khaskin (SOCAN – CAE#: 231945867)
Publisher: Lynne Publishing (PRS – CAE#: 541626758)

Track title: My Life
Composer: Alexander Khaskin (SOCAN – CAE#: 231945867)
Publisher: Lynne Publishing (PRS – CAE#: 541626758)

Being ready for future improvements

To be honest, even if music credits are included here, it does not mean that the composer and publisher will automatically get their fair and correct performance royalties. I believe that, as of today, nobody is checking these text areas for music credits and applying a share of the performance royalties to the correct composer.

But we have to start somewhere. We at strongly believe that this is a step in the right direction and that eventually, YouTube and the performance rights organizations are going to find a way to “spider” the text areas for music credits and, with time, get better and better, more and more accurate distribution of the performance royalties that should rightfully be with the actual composers who made the music in the videos – rather than already high-earning pop artists who get all the YouTube money because they happen to have their music played on radio and MTV a lot.

When we ask you to credit our music as accurately and completely as possible when you upload a video that contains our music – it’s really about future proofing. Soon, there will definitely be a system in place to find these music credits and then properly distribute the performance royalties. And when that happens, we would like to be ready for it, with all of our composers’ music already properly credited.

So – thanks for reading and thanks for always including music composer and publisher info, whenever you use our music in a YouTube video.

Cue the Music, Part 3: Royalty Free Music Under the Microscope

Cue the Music, Part 3: Royalty Free Music Under the Microscope

by Simon Power

 Cue The Music is a three part series examining the options available to amateur and semi-pro audio/visual producers who wish to incorporate music in their productions. In Part One, we examined the process of clearing copyrighted music. In Part Two, we offered some alternatives to using copyrighted music. And in this Part Three, we will be examining the process of using royalty free music.

In part two, royalty free music scored high on convenience, expense and usability when searching for a music resource. But what exactly is royalty free music and what does the process of buying and using royalty free music really entail?

Royalty Free Music under the microscope

Let’s start with a definition. royalty free music describes a composition that you may use as many times as you like and for whatever purpose after paying just a one time license fee. So, you could simply purchase a suitable piece of music for a one-off payment and include it in our small budget, short run audio/visual project with no further costs incurred to you, the producer.

Within that definition there are a number of stipulations. You can’t just buy a load of royalty free music and release it on a CD, and you can’t alter the composition by for instance, adding lyrics or a rap and releasing it as your own. But other than that you’re pretty free to do with it what you want.

Our catwalk footage features some published music

One other point. As with any music, performance details would be noted if your project were to be ever broadcasted by a third party. But this is the responsibility of the broadcaster and not the producer, whose commitment to the project would have been fulfilled prior to broadcast. To the producer, the music remains entirely free from royalty payments.

How To Access Royalty Free Music

That’s a brief outline or definition. So how does the process work?

Let’s go back to our original brief in ‘Cue The Music – Part One’. We were toying with the idea of seeking permission to use the track ‘Still D.R.E.’ by Dr. Dre, the original background music on our fashion show footage.

Let’s suppose that there were too many obstacles and expenses and the process of clearing the track for copyright became counter productive as a result.

We decide instead to remove the audio track from the original footage and replace it with a sound alike track (we can always add some crowd atmosphere and applause to give the event a live feel and make it sound realistic).

So what we need is a sound alike piece of music to replace the original music bed, ‘Still D.R.E.’ by Dr. Dre.

First of all it’s useful to know the tempo, key and genre of the track. Far from being random elements, they could hold the key to finding a suitable sound-alike. So our track, ‘Still D.R.E.’ comes in at 93bpm in A minor and is rooted in the category of Hip-Hop.

Armed with this info we approach a royalty free music website.

Visiting A Royalty Free Music Site

Many of the sites have a variety of ways we could now precede. We could check out their ready-made collections. These are normally available as either download or physical CD’s. Many of them will be categorised by predetermined moods. You may get a CD called ‘Chilled’ or one called ‘Uptempo Dance’ or ‘Rock Radio’. Normally their titles are pretty self explanatory.

The better sites have preview facilities so that you are able to listen to each track and decide whether the collection suits your needs. Remember, these CD’s may cost close to $100, so you’ll need at least 4 or 5 tracks that you think maybe useable. The best way to check usability is by previewing the track and running your footage alongside it in your Movie Making program. Do all the elements work together? If not, move on.

Perhaps in this case as we need only a single track we should check out the sites Music Genre categories. On top end sites, a list of categories won’t be far away. Usually displayed skyscaper-style down the left or right hand side of every page.

Remember, our track is routed in Gansta Rap. Most sites will refer to this as Urban/R’n’B or Hip Hop. ‘Gangsta Rap’ may be available as a sub genre, but is more likely to be a little too esoteric for most tastes! Let’s try Urban. That’s the closest. Clicking on this category link will take you through to a list of tracks available in the style of ‘Urban’.

Now the fun begins. At your leisure, you can read through the description of each track and preview them against your footage. The music will usually be ‘watermarked’ with an ident. A voice over stating that ‘This is a preview’, or something to that effect. But this shouldn’t prevent you from judging whether the track will be suitable for use.

If they’re further categorised by BPM (our tempo is 93BPM) and key (A minor), then check out those first, so that our search becomes as accurate as possible.

Most tracks will be available as full versions, or as loops of various durations (10 seconds, 30 seconds, 1 minute etc.). There may also be an underscore, which will include basic instrumentation, useful when there is a voice over to be added. In our case, there is no voice over.

OK, so let’s judge the quality of the music.

Choosing The Right Track

I can virtually guarantee that many of the composers on many of the sites you visit will have produced a (shall we say) homage to the great Dr. Dre and his ground breaking world wide hit, ‘Still D.R.E.’. Ah, yes. If only that royalty free producer had grown up on the wrong side of L.A., come up with that incredible piano riff before Dr. Dre, and befriended Snoop Dogg who then agreed to rap on it…Well, it could be a whole different story, my friend. But no. His royalty free version will forever merely be a facsimile, albeit a very good one, of the original track. And as we listen through, it becomes clear…This Dr. Dre homage is just what we need to replace the original on our fashion show project. In fact, it’s perfect…

As for format, most mp3’s on offer will use a high quality compression algorithm barely distinguishable from a 44.1 wav. But the audiophiles among us will feel more secure in the knowledge that our project offers the best possible quality and download the wav version rather than the mp3. Be aware that the wav takes longer to download, depending on your broadband connection.

The decision is yours.

OK, happy?

So ‘Add To Cart’ and let’s go!

Add To Cart

Woah, there! Before we go any further, let’s consider the cost. Typically an mp3 version of the track should hover around the $30 mark. With a 44.1 wav version being slightly more expensive.

Many sites will be offering ‘bargain bin’ prices ($7.00, $4.00…My entire catalogue for $37.50!). This low cost is often reflected in the quality of what’s on offer. Of course, some sites will charge a lot more than $30, but this is no indication of quality. That’s left to your own judgement, discretion and indeed budget allowances!

Trust your ears and preview a number of times against your footage. Remember that truly robust music will stand up to repeated listens. If there’s any doubt about the quality of the composition, the flaws will expose themselves after a number of plays. Is our chosen track Dre enough? It is? OK, proceed to checkout.

Proceed To Checkout

But what’s this? We’re being asked a number of questions about ‘licenses’…I thought this was supposed to be ‘royalty free’?

Patience, it is. But there are a number of different licenses within that category and you need to make sure you choose the correct one.

Normally there will be a choice of two (some sites have more). These will be a broadcast license (for TV, radio and film etc), and a non-broadcast license (typically the best one for our short-run audio/visual project). This non-broadcast license will have a restriction on the number of copies you can produce. As an example, anything over 5,000 may be termed as mass market and would require you to buy the alternative license.

Sealing The Deal

So, after choosing the correct license you will be forwarded to a typical Internet shop where you are able to pay for and eventually download your royalty free track.

Within minutes the process is complete and the track is yours ready to import into your movie maker program and sync up to your fashion show footage.

And that’s it!

A Conclusion

OK, so we’ve been through the definition and the process involved in using royalty free music as a music resource.

But as always, there are downsides. There will be times when you find it impossible to find a good match to what you have in mind. You may spend a frustrating amount of time searching through music that just doesn’t somehow meet your needs. There is also an enormous amount of royalty free music available, which can lead to confusion over choice and price comparison.

Sometimes you will be scared away by the frustration of visiting sites with music that just doesn’t come up to the mark.

But find the right site, and buying royalty free music can be the most satisfying and enjoyable process of all. And the results quite often speak for themselves when your project is given that indefinable ‘X’ factor by a well chosen music bed. If you haven’t used it already as part of your audio/visual production toolkit I can recommend it as a highly beneficial resource of good quality music.

Now let’s move on and finish that fashion show project before the weekends comes!


Royalty free music at shockwave-sound
Comprehensive international list of royalty collection agencies

More in this series:

There are previous two parts in this series:

Part One – Using Copyrighted Music
Part Two – Top 5 Music Resources On A Budget

About the author: Simon Power has made
over 50 short films and documentaries for the music technology website Sonic
State. He has also removed & replaced copyrighted music on a number
of commercial BBC releases. In these articles he offers advice and tips
about using music in your low budget film and audio/visual projects. You
can learn more about Simon and his projects at his website,

Cue the Music – Part 2: Top 5 Music Resources On A Budget

Cue the Music – Part 2: Top 5 Music Resources On A Budget

by Simon Power

In Part One, we looked into the process of using copyrighted music on a low budget short-run audio/visual project. In part two we are going to look at the Top 5 alternatives to using copyrighted music by seeking out available music from other sources.

Where Do I Start?

There is an ever growing number of alternative sources of music available to the amateur and semi-pro audio/visual producer. Websites are falling over each other to exploit music budgets by enticing producers with a variety of deals and bundles. But the choice can often be bewildering, and the quality, price and usability can vary wildly.

Hopefully this article will help make some sense of exactly what is on offer. And how you can get the best possible value from your music budget.

So let’s look at the alternatives as we count down the Top 5 Music Resources On A Budget.

By the way. I’ve used a star system here whereby each source is marked out of 5 for convenience, expense and usability. The higher the star rating, the better it performs in that category.

5. Music Software & Programs

Many of the leading music software packages come bundled with comprehensive selections of music loops & kits. In GarageBand for instance, there are a huge number of loops featuring high quality instrumentation. And many of the virtual samplers like Halion, Reason and EXS24 offer simple solutions for music creation that are highly intuitive and easy to use.

However, you have to buy the software to access the loops. If music production isn’t your primary business, you may end up paying over the odds for a wealth of music software that you can’t use for any other purpose than gaining access to the bundled music. Then of course you have to arrange the loops and process them to suit your needs.

Some music software programs offer bundled music loops

There are also dedicated video production businesses that now offer buy-out music as part of their service. Many of these offer every conceivable tool for visuals, from stock footage and animation, to graphics, sound FX and yes, royalty free music loops and kits. Although these are rarely sold as entire compositions, favouring instead 8 and 16 bar loops necessitating the need for a command of music sequencer programs to edit to your needs. And beware. The quantity of loops available often out weighs the quality. My advice would be to preview the entire package to gauge its usability before making a purchase. Although many of the compositions sound highly polished on first listen, you may find subsequently that they just don’t cut it when used as an underscore on your audio/visual project.

    Convenience **
    Expense *
    Usability ***

4. Sample Collections

Sample collections have improved immensely in recent years as more and more established music producers make their self produced samples and loops available on commercial releases. Quite often they will offer entire ready-mixed tracks that can be utilised as music beds with little adjustment. The loops are normally categorised by genre, tempo and key which would certainly help to find suitable music that needed to be of a strict predetermined speed or duration.

However, the ability to manipulate these loops or create your own music beds will require a degree of musical know-how and the ability to operate dedicated music software. You will need to have a sound knowledge of composition, mixing and layering to get the best results. Playing around with loops and samples may be the last thing you need to be doing if you’re on a tight deadline.

Another negative aspect may be the cost. Gaining access to elite collections of samples doesn’t come cheap. Physical CD’s can cost anything up to $200 and you still may not be able to guarantee finding a suitable music bed.

Also beware of copyright. Despite the initial expense, the producers still maintain ownership of the music. In most cases, you’re merely buying a restricted license to use their work. So sample collections can often be a pricey and unwieldy way of finding a solution.

    Convenience **
    Expense *
    Usability ***

3. Production Music

Production Music, or Library Music as it’s commonly known has been around for a long time. Infact it was introduced back in the days of silent movies and has been an abundant resource of ‘synchronized’ or licensed music ever since. Lately, though the business model has started to look decidedly creaky. A lot of Production Music libraries ask for exorbitant up-front fees plus subsequent royalties that put the music out of reach for producers working with a limited budget. Some Production Music companies have addressed this issue by adjusting their business model to suit today’s needs. While others hold on to their values, seeing the alternatives as quirky fads that will soon fade away into obscurity. Sure, you will find high quality music from experienced musicians and composers, but the business model errs more towards TV and film production rather than the low budget producer who is the subject of this exercise.

    Convenience **
    Expense *
    Usability ****

2. MIDI Files

Musical Instrument Digital Interface or MIDI for short was invented in the early 1980’s to allow communication between digital synthesizers, sequencers and computers. Since then it has become the industry standard protocol for computerised music. Even to this day all music software packages interact with controller keyboards using MIDI interface, although wholly ‘in-the-box’ sequencers have somewhat reduced it’s sovereignty over sequencer control. GM or General MIDI was introduced as a secondary protocol so that MIDI data could be interpreted by the same standard on every synthesised instrument. (A predetermined MIDI channel for a piano, a bass, drums and so on). GM was consequently introduced to soundcards and computers internal synthesis programs and functions. Hence the popularity of MIDI files for all sorts of applications from karaoke to games music.

This popularity and standardisation has led to an enormous industry based on MIDI files of popular songs. Any number of sites will offer tracks as MIDI files that utilise General MIDI that will prompt your soundcard to play a song faithfully when imported into your digital sequencer.

However, let’s take an example. Say you downloaded a MIDI file of ‘Waiting For A Girl Like You’ by Foreigner, recorded the MIDI data as audio and inserted it on your audio/visual project. This would be a copyright infringement and result in legal proceeding should the publisher decide to sue. These are copyrighted songs that are on offer, not original compositions. You will need permission to use them, much in the same way you would to use a specific recording. (Although in this case you wouldn’t require permission from the owner of the physical recording of ‘Waiting For A Girl Like You’ by Foreigner, just the synchronisation rights from the publisher).

Having said that, there are sites that offer original MIDI recordings by their own staff composers. In other words, ‘royalty free MIDI compositions’. This may be a cheap and effective way to produce original (albeit non-exclusive) music beds for your project. Of course, this requires a degree of knowledge in manipulating digital recordings and the results will be determined by the quality of the sounds on your soundcard or choice of VST instrument. But all in all it’s a reasonable, cheap solution, bearing in mind you need to factor in a certain amount of time to get the desired results.

    Convenience *
    Expense ****
    Usability ****

1. Royalty Free Music

The royalty free music business model came out on top for a number of reasons. Of course the quality varies and some sites are better than others, but overall the process involved was the smoothest and most convenient.

Bearing in mind that the music on offer is non-exclusive, gaining access to highly useable tracks, MIDI and SFX is easy, cheap and fast.

Matched up against production music and sample CD’s, royalty free music scored high on economics, being currently the cheapest way to access good quality music. And for usage possibilities it scored well against software loops that still don’t as yet offer as much variety as royalty free music. For convenience, too. You don’t have to be a musician or digital music producer in order to prepare a track for your project. You just download it and import it straight into your Movie Maker without much fuss at all.

Dr Who & The Pyramids audiobook
enhanced by royalty free SFX in post production

Perhaps things will change. We are currently seeing a great rift appearing between royalty free sites that are slashing prices, while others are charging higher fees to use their music. Eventually the higher quality compositions may become more in line with production music, pricing themselves out of the reach of the ameteur and semi-pro multi media producers. While the one’s slashing their prices will be exposed as offering ‘poor quality’ music. But currently times are good for the consumer, and there is an opportunity to build up a vast selection of credible music via royalty free libraries. Right now it’s the best way to access effective music solutions for low budget audio/visual projects when you’re up against a stiff deadline.

    Convenience ****
    Expense ****
    Usability ****


I hope this article has been helpful and informative. In part three we’ll be examining things in a little more detail when we put the royalty free music business model under the microscope.
More in this series:

You may proceed to Part Three of this series.
Or even go back to Part One of this series.

About the author: Simon Power has made
over 50 short films and documentaries for the music technology website Sonic
State. He has also removed & replaced copyrighted music on a number
of commercial BBC releases. In these articles he offers advice and tips
about using music in your low budget film and audio/visual projects. You
can learn more about Simon and his projects at his website,

Cue the Music, Part 1 – Using copyrighted music

Cue the Music, Part 1 – Using copyrighted music

by Simon Power

“Cue The Music” is a three part series examining the options available to amateur and semi-pro audio/visual producers who wish to incorporate music in their productions. Part one examines the process of clearing copyrighted music. Part two offers 5 alternatives to using copyrighted music. Part three examines the process of using royalty free music.



There’s a whole wealth of music out there that could really enhance your audio/visual projects and impress your customers. But there’s a problem. Literally everything you hear on TV, radio, cinema and in bars and nightclubs is protected by copyright. And you will face a wall of expensive bureaucracy trying to gain permission to use it for your own ends.

But if you really, really think it’s the only option you have, this article aims to give you some insight into the process of using copyrighted music on a low budget project.

Let’s Suppose

Let’s suppose you get a job to produce a DVD about the fashion industry. Some of the footage features a catwalk show filmed at the Fashion Institute.

On the night, the PA system is pumping out Dr. Dre’s ‘Still D.R.E.’ at full volume. That’s fine. It adds a real hard edged atmosphere and sounds great as the models strut down the catwalk.

But here’s the thing. The venue will be covered by an annual blanket performance license that allows them to play copyrighted music whenever they like. Unfortunately, your DVD copies won’t be covered by the same license. If you leave the soundtrack as it is you will be breaking the law. Even for a small run, you need express permission to use a published works, even if it’s in the background. And let’s be clear. Gaining clearance to use copyrighted music on a low budget short run DVD project is quite an undertaking. Infact, that’s something of an understatement. Running into a minefield blindfolded would perhaps be a more accurate description! There are so many pitfalls and grey areas that it’s difficult to see why anyone would wish to even attempt such a thing in the first place.

Some people don’t get permission, of course. They just go ahead and use it anyway without asking. Chances are no one will see or hear their work, so they figure ‘why not?’. Well, that’s fine if you’re foolhardy enough to risk a massive fine or in extreme cases imprisonment. But if you’re serious about making a long and fruitful career out of audio/visual production you will need to address these issues head on.

So what I hope to do in this article is at least remove the blindfold, giving you a fighting chance in that minefield. Or perhaps even offer some of the options that are available that you may or may not have considered as alternatives.

The Grim Truth

Let’s start with the facts. The copyright on all published works is shared between a number of different institutions and individuals. Each of these parties will wish to be informed of your intensions before they decide whether to grant permission to use their copyrighted material.

You may think that obtaining permission will be the end of it. Not really. Each of these individual parties will want to be paid large sums for allowing you to use their copyrighted material for your own ends. And this is where the fun starts. You could find a very substantial amount of your narrow profit margin being siphoned off by unbelievably disproportionate advances and subsequent royalty payments to publishers and record companies attempting to claw back the large amounts of unrecuperated production costs.

Remember, their business is all based on economics. They will be completely oblivious to any point of view based simply on artistic or intellectual grounds. In other words, it doesn’t matter if the music looks and sounds great on your project. You won’t be able to use it legally unless they say “yes”. They own the copyright and that’s that.

A Glimmer Of Hope

I don’t wish to make it sound all doom and gloom.

What with the enormous amount of turbulence in the music market lately, institutions have had to wake up to the fact that they may have to act quickly to make some radical changes to encourage more income from a variety of sources in matters related to the usage and distribution of published works. In other words, they are trying to make it easier to gain access to their vast back catalogues for sync usage on various projects from major films to short run audio/visual projects like the one we have in mind here.

The Mighty Boosh audiobook.
Published music was replaced in post production

Take into account the new range of ‘blanket licenses’ issued by the UK’s royalty collection agency, MCPS. (more on that later). But it’s tiny steps not giant leaps. There is still lots and lots of bureaucracy involved, especially on behalf of the record labels.

Having said that, if you’re still determined to use copyrighted material by artists like Dr. Dre on your DVD project, let’s take a look at how you go about it.

First Contact

First you’ll need a copy of the track, so dig out your copy of Dr. Dre’s ‘2001’ album. Look at the printed information on the recording. Somewhere in very, very small type there will be the name of the publisher attached to the familiar ‘c in a circle’. This is who you need to contact to get permission to use the composition itself (the synchronization rights). The lyrics, the instrumentation, the musical score. Sure, the songwriter(s) owns the rights to the song, but generally they grant those rights to a “music publisher” to administer them, and that’s who you need to contact.

OK, so we have found the name of the publisher. Right next to that there will be a letter ‘p’ in a circle followed another company name. This refers to the physical sound recording of the composition. That copyright (the master rights) is owned by the record label. In this case Interscope. If you want to use a specific recording of a specific song, you will need permission from the publisher of the song ‘Still D.R.E.’ and the owner of the physical recording of that song, the record company, Interscope.

You will also need the title of the song (Still D.R.E.) and the name of the composer. In this case Andre Young (Dr. Dre’s somewhat less imposing birth name).

Armed with this information you will first need to find contact details for the publisher. The easiest way to track down music publishers is through the performing rights society. All songwriters and publishers need to be a member of that society in order to collect royalties. Unfortunately, the performing rights societies will only give out the publisher information for the writers they represent. Therefore, if you want to use a song written by writers from different societies, you will need to go to each society’s website to find all of the publisher information.

Dr. Dre’s ‘Still D.R.E.’. A hard act to follow?

However, once you have tracked down the publishers contact details you will need to approach them directly to ask for permission. For this you will need to send a letter or email. Use the term ‘Independent Film Request’ or ‘Low Budget Project’, something that immediately outlines your situation and intentions. Reference the title of the song and songwriters, then the name of your production. Tell them briefly about the production how the song fits in, as well as the duration of the music and a description of the accompanying visuals. They will also need to know the territories in which your product will be available and the amount of copies earmarked for the initial run.

As for approaching the record companies, The bigger ones use central offices that deal with these kind of queries. But the smaller record companies are much easier to find. Generally their websites have all the contact details you will need. Once you get these details, approach them in a similar way to the publishers.

Licensed To Ill

With that thought in mind, Royalty collection companies such as ASCAP (USA) have recently introduced ‘blanket’ licensing schemes that allow copyrighted music to be transmitted unconditionally in certain circumstances. Although these kind of high end licence deals are way beyond the likes of you and me, a similar approach is beginning to immerge to help smaller businesses, too.

Take for instance the AVP (Audio Visual Product) license offered by MCPS in the UK. This is targeted at small budget short run video/DVD productions where music is used, but is not the primary theme of the product. A class that they term ‘non-music’. (A fitness video, a sports event or a drama is OK. A concert or music chart show is not OK.). Our ‘fashion show’ project should fall into the category ‘non-music’, because music is not the primary theme of the presentation. It’s a fashion show using music as enhancement and not as the main theme. So in this case, an AVP license may be suitable.

The license removes the need for separate sync payments on each individual piece of music, favouring a ‘blanket’ license covering the whole project. But take into account that this license refers to the copyright of the composition and NOT to the sound recording itself. (As we’ve already determined, the physical copyright is owned by the record label). Take into account also that under the terms of the license agreement and for granting usage of their part of the copyright, MCPS will still want to skim off a whopping 8.5% of the highest published dealer price. So you kind of inherit a cash-hungry business partner as well as a license and that’s gonna eat into your profits in a big way. As a footnote, other royalty collection companies may have their own similar blanket license agreements. The AVP license is merely an example.

The Waiting Game

So you’ve sent out your letter or email to the publishers and the record company requesting permission to use their copyrighted material in your project. Getting a response to your initial query is going to take time. Especially in the case of the record company. Permission for small time usage is pretty low on their list of priorities and this is often reflected in their response. It may take ages and ages for them to say “no”. Or simply come up with some ludicrous figure of tens of thousands of bucks that you couldn’t possibly even consider.

On the upside, the chances of the publishers granting permission is marginally higher. This is after all their reason for existing. To license and promote the work of the artists that they represent. And in the case of the AVP license mentioned above, you are able to apply for permission relatively painlessly using an online application form.

What Happens next?

You will certainly need to follow up your query. But leave it for at least 14 days before you do. Beyond this point I’m afraid it’s in the lap of the Gods. You have followed the procedure that begins the process of clearing rights to use copyrighted music on a small-run DVD project. The outcome is entirely dependent on all parties agreeing to grant permission. You’ve got a reasonable chance of gaining rights from a publisher to use a composition. But precious little chance of being granted rights from the record company to use that specific recording. And no chance at all of being able to carry out all this administration before your deadline. If I were you I’d be investigating some alternatives. And that’s just what we’ll be doing next. Looking at all the options available to you when substituting copyrighted music with licensed music on a low budget short-run audio/visual project. All coming up in the next part of Cue The Music.

To summarize

To use copyrighted music on a low budget short-run DVD project you will need to apply for permission from two sources. The music’s publisher and the copyright owner of the physical recording of the composition (normally the record company).

Many royalty collection agencies now offer blanket licenses that provide easier access to synchronization rights. The license cost may be negligable, but the royalty demands will narrow your profit margin. Rights to use the physical recording will be the hardest to obtain and may be accompanied by a request for a large advance plus subsequent royalties.


ASCAP: The American Society Of Composers, Authors and Publishers
MCPS: The UK’s mechanical Rights society
Comprehensive international list of royalty collection agencies

More in this series:

You may proceed to Part Two of this series.
Or even to Part Three.

About the author: Simon Power has made
over 50 short films and documentaries for the music technology website Sonic
State. He has also removed & replaced copyrighted music on a number
of commercial BBC releases. In these articles he offers advice and tips
about using music in your low budget film and audio/visual projects. You
can learn more about Simon and his projects at his website,