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Music & Score

I am so sick of hearing music from Pearl Harbor, Armageddon, or Braveheart used in micro-budget films. I guarantee you didn’t get the rights to that U2 song, either. I now stop watching micro budget films if the music is obviously taken. Not only is it stealing, but it's also unoriginal. No, your movie does not fall under “educational use” nor do you want it to. You want anyone and everyone to watch your movie. “Educational use” has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not you make money on your movie (why does everyone think this?). It has to do with personal education. For a movie to be for educational use, only the people in the class that you made the piece for can watch it. You couldn’t even screen your movie in your school auditorium with only teachers and students in the audience. If you are like me, eventually you hope to fully financially support yourself with your intellectual property. You don’t want people stealing from you. Stop stealing from other people.

Properly securing the rights to popular songs is expensive. To use any song, you need to obtain two different licenses: The Master License and the Synchronization (Sync) License. The Sync license grants permission to use a song's composition (all the lyrics and the composed music)--this is often owned by the performer/composer. The Master license is giving permission to use a particular recording of that song in your movie--often the recording label/company owns this. And it is often cheaper/easier to get the sync rights to a song than the master rights to the song. This is why so many songs in movies are covers of the original.

An example of this is David Lynch's Blue Velvet. When they tried to get the rights to the title song, "Blue Velvet" by Bobby Vinton, they discovered it was cheaper to get the sync rights from him and completely re-record the song with him singing than to get the master rights from his then record label, Epic. They did this, spending thousands of dollars, but Lynch didn't like the way he sang it (it was almost 35 years after the first recording and he wasn't as good). Lynch went back and asked for more money to buy the Master rights from Epic. So, lots of money was wasted and the evil recording label won in the end. This gives you an idea on how much master rights can cost. If Epic is charging that much for Bobby Vinton’s music, how much do you think a Britney Spears' song costs to license?

Music is a shortcut to the audience’s emotional heartstrings. It can set the mood in a film, foreshadow something to come, or reinforce a reoccurring theme in the movie. More importantly from a credibility standpoint, it is yet another thing that’s expected by today’s movie-going audiences. You need music in your movie. If you don’t have music, there had better be a real good reason why. Not knowing anybody who makes music or not having the financial resources are not excuses. Just agree that your movie needs music.

There are two types of music in movies: music with a motivated source and music without a motivated source. Music with a motivated source is music coming from a radio, music in a bar, a choir singing in a church, the car radio, and music at a party. It is any music the audience should assume would be there if the scene were a real place. Music without a motivated source is music that can only exist in a movie. In the final confrontation of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Sergio Leone’s masterful music probably would not be playing from loudspeakers on Main Street in a town like that if you were to visit it, right? These are the two kinds of music in movies (according to me).

"Spotting the movie" is when you watch the movie to decide when and where to have music. First thing I do is figure out where in the movie to put motivated source music. This should already be known, so just get it on paper. Now figure out where non-motivated music should go. Music is one of those things that can be overdone (think Sally Fields' Movie of the Week), but it’s important to use music as a tool to reinforce the emotion and tone of the storyline in the movie. Decide if every time the beautiful leading lady appears, sexy music plays. Or when you cut to the villain in his lair, evil music plays. When the main character finally realizes that there is no Santa Claus, a music cue could reinforce that revelation. In a thriller, if there’s music in the entire movie and suddenly the music stops, something is going to happen. These are all cliché, but fine if not overdone. Now that you know where you need music and roughly what type of music, it’s time to get the music.

The first step in finding music for micro-budget movies is normally finding popular music that you like for the movie. No, you won’t be able to use it in the final movie, but it is a great reference when discussing music with composers, musicians, or anyone that might possibly give you music to use. Just don't get too attached to the popular music you choose. Now find a composer that will work very cheap or free. New composers are just as anxious to score a movie, as you are to have your movie scored. You get a great score and they get noticed. There are many, many online–go to various filmmaking forums. You can also contact a college with a music department. Or, go to a music instrument store and ask if anyone’s interested in scoring a movie. There are more composers/musicians out there than filmmakers! Don’t select the first composer you find, do some searching and communicate (phone/e-mail) with these people. Listen to work they’ve done before. Talk about the popular music you chose for each cue and why you chose it. Discuss technical limitations (e.g. live recording or synthesizer, drums or drum machine). The composer will have a big influence on the final movie, so make sure it’s an influence that you, the moviemaker, are happy with. Although it’s important to use similar music to reinforce the movies tone and mood, don’t be afraid to use a variety of composers and musicians. For example, get one composer to score all the unmotivated music, but find a local rock band song to use at the party scene as background music. Then find a jazz saxophonist to record a small song for the scene in a seedy pub.

With any of these wonderful, giving people, get good contracts signed. Give the composer/musicians whatever credit they want. Make sure they’re financially well taken care of if you make money with your film, but also make sure you have full rights to use all the music in the movie as it’s synchronized in the movie, regardless of exhibition format or distribution medium. If someone’s stupid enough to buy or distribute your film, you don’t want to have to renegotiate with the musicians. It’s best to work all the legal stuff out while everyone’s still a starving artist. As with anyone else working on your film, communication is important. If you get some music back that isn’t right, discuss making changes. If the music is perfect and better than you expected, call the composer and tell them (they’ve worked hard on it!). However, if things aren’t working the way you want, you always have the option to start over with another composer (but remember the composer can say the same thing to you).

The Internet is a great tool because it allows people to be anywhere in the world and collaborate. If the composer lives in South Africa, send her a compressed version of your movie to score to. Then, she can send you music cues via e-mail or any other file transfer. It's conceivable you never meet the composer face-to-face. Don’cha love technology?

Now it's time for the mix.

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