Blogs > 37th Frame

Photography, notes, commentary and much more from former Reporter Online Editor Chris Stanley.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Face the music

The music on this video was obtained directly from the musician, a friend.

Recently my wife was doing some freelance marketing work for a music licensing business. Besides learning a bit about this HUGE market (which is changing rapidly, like most of the music business), I also started listening to the space behind the dialogue on TV shows and commercials.

Whether you realize it or not, it is often filled with music. Sometimes just generic 'elevator music' and other times popular songs you might even recognize. The music drives the visuals, sets the tone for the video, and can be the difference between a home video and something closer to professional (and watchable).

Videos posted on YouTube mashups featured so many popular songs that YouTube just cut deals with some music sites to easily license use of songs on the site.

But for journalists, using licensed music is not an option unless you have the budget to pay for it. Under Fair Use copyright laws, you can keep SOME background music in a video (like the music playing at a dance competition, for example) but only in very limited quantities (generally 20 seconds or less). In this example, the music would reflect what is happening on the screen - the dancers are actually dancing to the song on the sound track in real time.

Fair Use does not allow you to use that background music under an ENTIRE video highlight reel, for example, even if the song was playing at PART of the event depicted in the video. So, in our example, if you used a copyrighted song recorded at the competition as a continuous soundtrack under B-roll video of the dancers arriving, preparing, an interview with an organizer, and finally the dancing itself - that song would need to be licensed. If the music was only heard in short clips showing the dancers actually dancing to it, you would be covered under Fair Use.

And remember, even a local band covering popular songs is included in Fair Use laws. The performance may not be copyrighted, but the song is. And to confuse things further, an orchestra playing a public-domain song (music free of copyright restrictions because of its age) could still be considered restricted, since the PERFORMANCE might be copyrighted. Using sound from a local string quartet playing Mozart is only acceptable if the quartet has agreed to let you use their performance, even though permission isn't usually needed for the music itself.

I need to put in some legalese here - I am not a lawyer and don't play one on TV. Many attorneys make their living on copyright law, since it is complicated and full of exceptions. For a good summary of Fair Use laws, I suggest looking HERE. Another good discussion HERE. Much has been written about Fair Use, and the definitions are changing all the time. Do your research.

So if you want to use some music in your videos but don't want to get sued, what are your choices? Here are some suggestions:

  • Find local music and get permission to use it. Some local bands, composers, and students would be happy to provide music in return for a link to their web sites and/or a credit on the video. This can be an opportunity to build their reputation and use the publicity to seek paid gigs.
  • Use non-copyrighted material. A good example is a local band 'jamming' at a concert (assuming you have permission to use their performance). Another I have used extensively is high school marching bands warming up before a game. The drum lines and percussion often play beats for several minutes, providing a great backdrop for action footage of the game.

    Example of HS marching band drums used as a musical intro

  • Purchase a royalty-free disk. For a set amount (which varies based on the quality and quantity of music provided) you can purchase disks or downloads of music which can then be used without further compensation in your videos. Many web sites (such as Magnatune) also sell royalty-free music with the same purpose - pay one amount, use the music however you want. Be aware: Royalty-free is NOT copyright-free music - instead of licensing it for a specific project, you are buying the rights to use the music outright. Many web sites advertising 'free music' are actually selling royalty-free collections. You still have to pay.
  • Use Garage Band, MIDI or other music creation programs. New versions of Garage Band are so sophisticated that with even with just a little musical aptitude, you can knock out a driving loop for a sports video or a simple tune for a how-to video. Some of the 'samples' are virtually self-contained songs in themselves. Another music creation resource is Aviary - a web-based music tool (which also has some other interesting creative tools).

    Music on this video was created from a public domain score found on the Internet, then rendered on a free MIDI editor, SynthFont.

  • Use music from musicians that have posted copyright-free material (using a Creative Commons license). Read the rules of use carefully - some ask for a credit on the video, some ask for nothing. Here are a few such sites: One of the oldest and most widely-used freebie sites with a HUGE selection of background music You can search this site for free commercial use music.

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Blogger Craig said...

Another site for Royalty Free Video Background Music is We also have software with with patented, industry leading technology that customizes the length, mix, moods and arrangements to meet the creative needs of each scene. A free trial of the software along with 10 free royalty free tracks is available here:

March 8, 2011 at 1:48 PM 

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