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Music in Your Movie

By Scott Shaw  |  02-Jan-2008

Adding soundtrack to your Indie Film is one of the most essential elements to make it look and feel like a real motion picture. The question is often raised by Indie Filmmakers, on a limited budget, just how do I get the kind of music I want for my film? The answer to that is both complicated and quite simple. To answer this question this article will look at both what to do and what not to do in order to soundtrack your film.

Borrowing Music
Many budding filmmakers, upon completing their first short or feature film, simply attach music that they like -- created by groups that they have no relationship with. Oftentimes, they use music recorded by a well-known band.

It has long been the common belief that you can use any music that you want in your film, and you don’t have to pay a dime for it, at least until your film gains notoriety. WRONG!

A perfect example of just how wrong this belief is recently occurred to the woman who placed a video on YouTube of her child dancing to music created by a well-known artist. The record company not only had the video removed from the site but also sued the lady. I am sure we all believe that this was ridiculous, but record companies readily go after anybody who uses their songs without appropriate consent.

A similar situation happened to a friend of mine who used music from a well-know group from the 1960s in his film. He believed that since one of the members of the band was deceased and the group had long ago broken up, in addition to the fact that the record label he took the song from was no loner in business, he would not encounter any problems. He was very wrong. Another publishing company had purchased the rights to the band's music and their legal department went after him. He turned to the distribution company that was slated to distribute his film, but instead of helping him, they dropped his film from their roster. He ended up financially devastated.

Superstar Groups
The question is commonly asked by Indie Filmmakers, 'How do I get the music of a well-known band in my film?' The fact is; it is very difficult. This is especially the case if you have created a low budget film and do not have guaranteed international distribution attached to your movie. You can contact the record labels or managers of the high-profile bands if you want, but the common experience is, you will receive no reply or a nicely worded letter of, "No Thank you."

The reason for this is very simple -- why would a successful band have the need to allow you to use their music in your film? Bands are just like filmmakers, when they are attempting to get their name known and create an audience; they are willing to do whatever it takes to get their name out there. Once they have "Made it" however, being attached to a low budget Indie project may have an adverse effect to their career. So, it is rare that a well-known band will allow you to use their music.

How to Get the Music
This leads us to the next point, which is perhaps the most important factor of getting the music you want. Instead of courting super-star groups, get your soundtrack from a band or bands that play your local music scene. By doing this, not only have you created a new film, but you are also putting original music in it -- which gives the entire project an air of fresh creativity.

As discussed, established groups have no reason to provide you with music. But, a new and upcoming group may find it very exciting to have their music featured in a film. In fact, you do not have to only use the music of only one group in your film; you can contact several bands from your local music scene and place their music throughout the various parts of your movie.

I have followed this process many times in my films. In each case, it has always proven to provide the feature with an exciting soundtrack. In addition, several of these bands have been so happy with the finished product that they mentioned it in interviews and on their website, thereby providing additional P.R. for the film.

What's In It For Them?
It is a common misconception that if you are making a movie, you have a lot of money. For all of us who have worked on Indie Films, we certainly know that this is rarely the case. None-the-less, some bands may want money for you to use their music. But, it is better to not go in this direction with your arrangement -- as bringing money into the equation always makes things much more complicated. You should also not offer them points, (future earnings), if and when your movie actually begins to make money, because then they may want to periodically look at your books. Again, this just makes everything messy. The best thing to offer a band is that they will get credit at the end of your film for them allowing you to use their music.

What you will need to do is to draw up a simple performer release contract - as simple contracts are always the best, and leave the least amount of room for legal interpretation, in case your relationship with the band turns adversarial. This contract should simply state that you, (the filmmaker), have the right to use the bands original music in one specific film. For this right, you will provide the band and/or the songwriters with the appropriate credit. For example: naming the song, the songwriters, and the album if it is included in a collection. You will then have all of the members who contributed to the song sign the release and that is that.

I have used this method many times and have always been very happy with the results. Some great musicians have contributed to the overall presentation of my films.

Growing Fame
For those of you who are old enough to remember when Ted Nugent was a rock superstar, there is a funny story relating to this process of getting a soundtrack for your film for free. Just prior to Nugent's breakthrough, a friend of mine, Donald G. Jackson, who lived in a nearby Michigan community to Nugent, contacted him and asked him if he could use some of his music for his film. Nugent agreed. In the final stages of the film's post-production Nugent signed a deal with a major record label and the label's legal staff informed my friend that he would not be able to use Nugent's music. The fact is, if my friend was able to complete the film just a bit sooner, then Nugent's music would have already been in the film and his rise to fame would have helped in the overall distribution of my friend's film.

Ultimately, this is a great thing about using unsigned bands -- they may become very successful. Then, this will help your film's notoriety, as their fan base will seek it out.

Creating it Yourself
Many filmmakers overlook the fact that they can now easily create their own soundtrack for their film. Many believe that because they are not practicing musicians, soundtrack creation is impossible. But, creating your own soundtracks for your films has, in fact, now become very easy. There are several music creation programs out there, that are either free or very affordable and they are very easy to use.

The MAC has obviously been the primary post-production tool of Indie Filmmaking since the dawning of the digital age. Many Indie films are edited using either iMovie, which is supplied free with every Mac, or Final Cut Pro.

With every new Mac there is a music creation program provided free of charge. It is called GarageBand. This program is extremely simple to use. The program provides you with numerous sound patterns; i.e. drum, bass, percussion, guitar, keyboards, etc., and you simply open the program, and drag and drop them into place.

To create music with GarageBand, you simply choose a desired sound pattern and drag it onto the music timeline. Once the sound pattern is in place, you simply extended it as necessary. For example, you may want a drum pattern to go on for several beats. You simply place the pattern in the timeline and let it play. You may then want it to fade out or end and be replaced with another drum pattern. To do this, you simply drag and drop the next sound bite and put it in place. It is that easy! You then blend the drum, bass, guitars, synthesizers as you deem is appropriate for your soundtrack.

GarageBand provides you with numerous sound bites from the various styles of music. With this, your soundtrack is easily created. GarageBand also allows you to tailor the sound by adding various sound effects, such as reverb or chorus. Once you are completed with your song, it can then be exported to iTunes, which is also provided free on all Macs, and then it can be easily imported into your film.

Perhaps the most exciting feature about creating your soundtrack in this fashion is that you can easily switch between iMovie or Final Cut Pro and GarageBand. For example, you are watching your film on your computer and you discover a section that need some music, you simply decide how long the segment should be, open GarageBand, create the segment, and import it to your movie. It is truly that simple.

I have used this method and this program in several films. It is an ideal way to stay on your MAC while creating a very good soundtrack.

In some cases, you may be a musician, vocalist, or want to add some specific special effects to your music. With GarageBand, this can easily be done. You can easily import music through a USB Audio Card, thereby integrating your own unique elements into your soundtrack.

The first and arguably the best program for the easy creation of soundtracks is Acid. This program is marketed by Sony and can be used on the PC format. This program has many sound altering and music importing and exporting features that are not found in GarageBand. In essence, however, it follows the same protocol as GarageBand -- you simply drag and drop sound bites in their appropriate location on your music timeline and you can very easily create an enhanced soundtrack for your film.
The professional Acid program costs approximately $300 in the U.S. and it sells for about £200 in the U.K. Sony does, however, offer a fully functional free version called, AcidXPress that can be downloaded from their website.

Acid is one of the primary tools of soundtrack creation throughout the film and television industry. Sony has developed literally millions of sound bites that can be integrated into this program -- providing you with a virtually unlimited source of prerecorded music.

Similar to the process described with GarageBand, if you are using a film editing program on your PC, you can easily switch between programs and create your soundtrack as you go. By working with programs in this fashion, you can easily go back and correct any timing or sound hit mistakes while continuing forward in the completion of your film.

Royalty Free
The great thing about creating music with either of these programs is that all of the sound bites and patterns are royalty free. Thereby, you can freely use them without any worry of having the legal department of some large record label coming after you for infringing upon the rights of one of their artists. In fact, by creating your own soundtrack, you have opened up a new arena of guiding the process and the mood of your film.

As you now understand, it is very easy to provide your film with a soundtrack without having to encumber yourself, or your project, with unnecessary legal headaches. You can either go out and find a local band that you like or do it yourself. In either case, by soundtracking your film in this fashion you will emerge with a project that is uniquely your own.

Scott Shaw is a filmmaker and author based in Los Angeles, California. He developed the concept of Zen Filmmaking with Donald G. Jackson in 1991. Since that time, he has gone on to make over twenty feature films using this process. For more information visit

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Older Comments

Conner Productions 05-Nov-2012

Nice article, although I find the royalty free music to not be very good.

Cesar 13-Mar-2011

hi, i gotta question, in my film i use opera music singed by singer of 1920, but im using a new age opera song in a dance scene, what can you recommend me? do i change all the music?

Bibek 22-Dec-2010

Thanks for this really nice article. I was really enthusiastic about how to add music in the movie. This helped me a lot. Thank you so much.

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