Big picture


Even in the days of silent film, every screening featured musical accompaniment. So unless you’re planning an experiment in psychological warfare, your project will need a soundtrack. The value of music goes beyond simple entertainment value. The right score or song choice can actually push the audience to accept the core message of the film. While this means you’ll never see a propaganda video without some kind of a rousing song, that’s only because music is an extremely effective tool in filmmaking. The soundtrack can be as vital as the lead actors to the success of any project. So how can you provide a soundtrack for your project? And more importantly, how can you do it without breaking any laws?

Photo: Al Ravenna


Is there a song you really love that just has to be in your final cut? Maybe you envisioned a certain piece of music when you were writing a scene, or the song holds some special meaning for one of your main characters. Then you’ll need to find a way to contact the artist or songwriter, not to mention set aside some money in the project’s budget for the licensing rights. Most musicians register their works with either ASCAP or BMI, and like the other creative guilds these organizations have specific regulations for licensing. To be fair, there are a few aggregate music licensing sites out there such as Musicbed that can help you bypass some of these hurdles. However, do not – no matter what else you read on the internet or hear from that friend of a friend who works in the industry – get a festival licensing agreement. Without diving into the details, a festival use license is basically a gamble that’s an added expense even in the most favorable outcome. In the end, it’s also not a terrible idea to have a backup plan ready to go in the event you don’t get the rights to that one song.

Original Compositions

Is John Williams a long time family friend? That’s too bad. Realistically, it’s going to be hard to find an established composer to write an original score, let alone be able to actually pay for it. Still, you can’t sit around waiting for Ennio Morricone to walk through the door, even if his music works brilliantly on the temp track your editor put in after binge-watching “The Man with No Name” trilogy. So instead of asking what you want for your project, think about what your story actually needs. While we think of complex instrumental scores as being the norm, simpler soundtracks can actually work well, especially for smaller scale, independent projects with no budget for music like The Revenant – wait a second. Are there any musicians you do know, or can even contact through some shady backdoor channels? Chances are there are people in your immediate vicinity of acquaintances who can write at least a rudimentary score. If they’re willing to do this for what you’re able to pay, that’s even better. Just don’t be too demanding of their time if you’re paying them less than Taylor Swift makes any time she Tweets. Be open to feedback and how many revision stages you’ll want. In fact, the best way to do this is in a licensing and/or work-for-hire agreement to avoid any legal issues for your project. And if you really can’t find a musician of any kind, think about other options that might fit your story. Maybe a childlike plunking of piano keys or a whistled song could contribute to the atmosphere you hoped to create.

For More on Post-Production Sound:

Leave a Reply

Sign up for exclusive updates on Media