​How to license music, win friends, and influence people

You’re not a teenage fan making tribute videos or memejacking The Harlem Shake. You’re not a mashup wunderkind. You’re not an artist appropriating intellectual property as a statement. All of whom might be excused, to varying degrees, of copyright transgression.

You’re a professional — a filmmaker or video editor who does work for clients, or someone using video and music to promote your own business. We’re talking about commercial use, not personal use.

The legal and ethical rules for commercial use of music are clear: don’t use it without permission and/or paying a licensing fee. Period. Here’s a guide to a few ins and outs.

“Tribute” is no excuse

Some see using their favorite music to accompany their video as a tribute. “I’m not directly making any money off this, or claiming it as my own.” (A word here on disclaimers: “No copyright infringement intended” and “Commercial use unintended” don’t hold water if you proceed to contradict them.)

Why not use Sigur Ros or Nine Inch Nails? “I love them, and it’s the perfect track… They won’t mind, my work is good, and I’ve given them credit.” Here’s why not…

“Borrowing” is shady, even in showreels

As someone who has hired creative people and agencies in the past, when I see you using uncredited recognizable music, or crediting music for which you don’t have permission, it tells me you’re kind of OK with copyright infringement. It undermines my trust in you as a professional.

It makes me wonder — if I commission a promo, web site, or any other creative work, will you license all the type, images, music, and stock footage? Do you have model releases? Will I get a cease-and-desist order, have my commercial removed from YouTube, or even be sued?

In my mind, showreels aren’t exempt. You might feel OK with the risk of using commercial music on your showreel — citing artistic license, or mistakenly, “fair use” (see the four key factors) — but as a business owner, I need to be more careful.

Your showreel is your business card, your storefront. So no, it’s not “commercial use” in the strict sense of the phrase — you’re not charging people to watch it. But you are hoping to land some clients from it. In my mind, that’s commercial use.

There’s no excuse for not asking

Unlike in the ‘90s or even ‘00s, where it was hard to find musicians, labels, or publishing companies online, in our social and connected world, everyone is accessible. Likewise, if you use someone’s music without permission, you will soon be outed. In fact, the better your video, the more likely your “borrowing” will be spotted.

Excuse 1: “But it’s such a hassle to navigate the licensing rights!” Sorry, I don’t buy it. It took me five seconds to find Sigur Rós’s process. Email the label. Send a Tweet to the band. Chances are you’ll hear back promptly — in this streaming-music era, licensing fees are one of the few revenue sources where artists can still make money.

Excuse 2: “But everybody does it.” No, they don’t. Students, kids, and amateurs do it. Not professionals.

Excuse 3: “I didn’t have time.” Didn’t hear back on your permission request? Take that as a “no”, and look to other sources…

Good, original music is easy to find

For every soundtrack superstar (like Sigur Ros, Boards of Canada, or Clint Mansell) who deserves and expects big royalties, there are hundreds of budding musicians who are looking for very reasonable royalties, or none at all, simply exposure and credit. Some are even OK with unvetted (no-questions-asked) commercial use, given credit.

If you can’t find the right music marked with a “commercial use” license, browse independent acts under the noncommercial license, then ask for permission from the artist. “Noncommercial” usually doesn’t mean they’re dead-set against all commercial use, but that they would either like a small fee or simply want to control where their music ends up.

Where to find commercially licensable music

Pre-cleared music

Our favorite site for pre-cleared tracks is Audiosocket. They provide tracks for personal, student, and commercial use at various rates based on output media and views. Rates can be very affordable, for example, this ambient electronic track is $35 to license for use on my showreel as a professional videographer. A small price to pay for peace of mind.

Creative Commons music
1. The Free Music Archive

This rapidly growing archive is a treasure trove with plenty of “attribution-only” tracks (just search by license type). You can also find music by surprisingly well-known artists like Arcade Fire and Nine Inch Nails, for use in noncommercial work. You’ll also find (intermittent) links to contact artists for further inquiries.

2. SoundCloud

You can search SoundCloud by Creative Commons license too. But be warned, many uploaders have mis-tagged their music as being OK for commercial use, but they aren’t the rights holders. You’ll find mashups, remixes, and DJ mixes featuring big names like Katy Perry and Britney Spears — shaky ground from a copyright standpoint. If you filter the time length by “2-10 min” you’ll weed out many of the mixes and find the original works by artists like Javier Suarez and Spazzkid (both of whom we’ve used in Dissolve videos).

3. Bandcamp

Lastly, Bandcamp is a fertile and active source of interesting independent music, with various licensing models. You can’t search by CC license, but by Googling the site you can find tracks like this pretty instrumental, for use with attribution. Again, it’s usually easy to find artist contact information so you can ask permission if necessary.

Honesty is good business — and good marketing

Here’s the win-win. Giving credit is not only the right thing to do, but it opens doors. If you use a track that’s pre-approved for commercial use, don’t just give credit — drop the creator a note. Everyone loves to see where their work gets used.

In doing so, you’ll invite someone whose work you respect to see and be involved with your own work. They might even Tweet or blog about it, sending more viewers to your video. Maybe they’ll love your work so much they’ll see you as future collaborators.

So don’t just “borrow” commercial music with a disclaimer or crossed fingers. Take the high road. I guarantee you’ll find compelling original music, along with displaying your professionalism to potential clients. You might even make some friends.