The right music can seriously enhance the emotion of your film. Music can be so important to a film’s DNA that it can actually function as its own character. Fellow blogger-turned-filmmaker, Nikhat, recently asked me for advice on how to acquire the rights to protected songs for movies, which I’ve outlined here below. But if you’re making a microbudget film, acquiring song rights is an option you likely can’t afford. So before I dive into that, let’s talk about a way you can get great music for a reasonable price.
My ultimate dream for Wait was to conclude the film with “Wait” by M83 blaring in the background. But I knew my budget couldn’t afford to license the song. My initial total budget was $45,000, the majority of which I spent in pre-production and production. Having failed to set aside a good chunk of my budget for post-production, I ended up spending an additional $10,000 during post. That was already more money than I had to spend, so taking the time and money to license a popular song simply wasn’t possible.
One day on set, I shared my music licensing frustration with Murielle, who plays Natalie in Wait. Murielle said she knew two brothers who made great music and were interested in scoring movies. She gave me their information, and I quickly researched their work. To be honest, when I first listened to the work of Martin and Ezequiel Etcheverry, their tunes didn’t vibe with the tone I was looking for. However, the more I listened to their tracks, the more I realized how musically talented they were, even if the songs they had on their website weren’t a fit for Wait.
|Some influences on Wait's musical score|
Because the brothers had never created music like this before, we agreed on a trial run. Martin and Ezequiel would create a song I needed for Wait, and if I dug it, we’d go from there. Two days later, I had a song from the brothers titled “Thinking” in my inbox. I hit play and was transported. The song was intended to play during a moment in Wait when one of the main characters receives some shocking news. The character stumbles around his kitchen, completely dazed. I dropped “Thinking” into my editing timeline, and watched the dynamic of the scene grow stronger.
Martin and Ezequiel’s first attempt at their first track for Wait was a home run. I hired them to create four more songs, paying them $500 per song. My collaboration with Martin and Ezequiel remains one of the most important I formed for Wait. Their music did exactly what I needed it to. So, ultimately, my advice concerning original score is listen for musicality. Do not judge a musician based solely on the music they have released. If they have musical talent, there’s a good chance they can create tracks within your sonic landscape.
“How do I acquire the rights to a song for my film?” An easy question with a complicated answer. Because all of the music in Wait is original, there was no need for me to acquire the rights to use protected songs. But I do have experience attempting to legally acquire music rights, as I spent many agonizing hours trying to figure it out for my previous short, Earrings.
Some important distinctions need to be made here. I am not a lawyer, so please don’t take these words as rule of law. Everything I’m going to describe is accurate information I discovered in mid-2012, so it is possible that some of these “rules” have changed. Furthermore, as I can only accurately describe my own experience, know that everything I am about to say pertains to American fair use laws.
The main issue for acquiring song rights is money. If you will not require people to pay money to watch your film, then you can essentially use any song you’d like. I put Earrings on Vimeo for free, which is why I was legally allowed to use songs by Radiohead and M83. Wait is currently available on iTunes, Amazon and Vimeo OnDemand, all for a price. If I used protected songs in Wait without permission, then I could be sued.
|Martin and Ezequiel's song, "Thinking," seriously helped underscore the emotion of this scene in Wait|
If you aren’t charging people to watch your film, then you can, in theory, use any song you want. But now we have to break down the “in theory” part. Musicians (or their record label) own the rights to their songs. Some musicians are more lax about fair use than others. M83 and Radiohead are pretty chill. If you use a Radiohead song in your film, then upload that film to Vimeo, there’s a good chance your video will not get blocked by Vimeo’s copyright filters. This is why Earrings is still live on Vimeo, because Radiohead is apparently okay with their music being used in a free short film. (YouTube is a different story. Their copyright filters are very strict and they rarely let any music get used for free. This is why Earrings isn’t on YouTube – the film was blocked for using protected songs).
Other musicians, like Dr. Dre and Drake, have such strong filters on YouTube and Vimeo that if you attempt to use their work in your film, you likely won’t be able to make your video live. Even if it’s a short film that people can watch for free, certain artists simply will not allow their music to be used, as is their right.
Bottom lines: if you’re charging people to watch your film, hire a lawyer to negotiate song rights. If you’re putting your film online for free, use whatever song you want, but know that the artist has the right to take your video down whenever they want. It all depends on the musician and the streaming platform.
Film Festivals and Protected Songs
Let’s say you use a protected song in your microbudget feature, even though you didn’t get the rights to it. You submit your film to festivals, hoping it will eventually be picked up for distribution. Your new distributor will like your film so much that they’ll fork over the money to acquire the song rights. That all sounds great, but it doesn’t happen often. And when it does happen, it’s usually with established filmmakers.
And there’s a chance the festival may not accept your film, simply because you used songs you weren’t allowed to use. While the burden of copyright falls on the filmmaker, not the festival, festivals may not want to deal with the hassle of accepting a movie that used protected material. So many films are submitted to every festival, and using protected material without permission presents an unnecessary red flag.
I love music. Music inspired me to make Wait. I dreamed of using M83’s “Wait” in my film, but I knew I couldn’t afford it. My advice is to get creative and seek out someone who will make an original score for you. There are plenty of young, talented musicians who are eager as all hell to create music for a movie. They’ll likely give you an original score for cheap, if not free. Use your resources to find these people. Ask your actors and crew, use social media, scour SoundCloud, and so on. Making a microbudget film is cool as shit. And there are tons of people out there who love making music and would kill for the opportunity to have their work be heard in a feature film. Look hard and you’ll find them.
Main Takeaways from Part 6: Music
—It is very unlikely that you can afford to license protected songs to use in your film.
—If you use protected songs without permission, you can be exposed to serious legal consequences…
—…and it may be harder for your film to get into festivals.
—Get creative, find people who will create an original score for you, for a reasonable price.
—Do not judge a musician based solely on music they’ve made available. Meet with them, they may want to branch out and try something new for your film.
Primary Costs for Part 6: Music
—I paid Martin and Ezequiel $500 for each song they made for Wait, totaling $2,500.
Emotions to Expect for Part 6: Music
—Frustration once you realize you can’t afford protected songs.
—Overwhelmed in trying to find someone to score your film.
—Satisfaction when you find the right person(s) to make music for your movie.
—Utter joy when that music enhances your film immeasurably.
How I Made a Microbudget Feature Film