Where to get legal music for your reel — and why you should

By Jon Parker with Lori Burwash
If you’re a filmmaker or video editor, you probably wouldn’t like it if someone helped themselves to your footage without asking. Yet we see so many filmmakers’ showreels using music that hasn’t been properly licensed. We’re all in the business of intellectual property, so let’s respect that. Here’s why you should, and where you can find good, legal music for your work.

Because you’re a professional …

Your showreel is your business card, your storefront. If people see you using uncredited recognizable music or crediting music for which you don’t have permission, it says you’re kind of okay with copyright infringement and undermines your credibility as a professional.

A potential client may wonder, if they commission an ad, website, or any other creative work, will you license all the type, images, music, and stock footage? Do you have model releases? Will they wind up getting a cease-and-desist order, have their commercial removed from YouTube, or even be sued? You might feel okay with the risk of using commercial music on your showreel — citing artistic license or, mistakenly, “fair use” (see the four key factors) — but your potential client needs to be more careful.

… and you could get caught

In our social and connected world, everyone is accessible — publishing companies, record labels, even the musicians themselves. 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. Attribution does not mean permission, and disclaimers like “No copyright infringement intended” and “Commercial use unintended” don’t hold water if you proceed to contradict them.

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 less than $100 to license for a showreel. A small price to pay for peace of mind.

Creative Commons music

The Free Music Archive is a rapidly growing 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.

You can search SoundCloud by Creative Commons license too. But be warned, many uploaders have mistagged their music as being okay 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).

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. It’s usually easy to find artist contact information, so you can ask permission if necessary.

Go to the source

Speaking of contacting the artist, it took us 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.

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.

Neumann Films

They’re on hiatus at the moment, but keep your eye on Neumann Films for when they resume the Daily Freebies giveaway — one free song every weekday. Just like Neumann Films Facebook page. All they ask for is proper attribution.

Moby Gratis

Free to students, non-profits, and indie filmmakers, Moby Gratis offers up about 150 of Moby’s tracks for your use. You need to apply, but approval usually happens within 24 hours, and Moby thinks they’ve never turned anybody down.

Honesty is good business — and good marketing

Using music properly and giving credit is not only the right thing to do, but it opens doors. When you use a track, 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. It’s a win-win.