I say it often: the most important part of video is audio. Bad visuals can be saved by great audio; great visuals can be ruined by bad audio. Finding the right music for your piece is so important, and unless you are George Lucas or Sophia Coppola, it can also be quite a challenge. But turn that frown upside down, because that challenge is also a great part of the adventure of motionpicturology.
Sound sets or supports the tone of the content, and rhythm instructs the edit. Lyrics can add to or emphasize the meaning of the content, but can also distract from it. So choosing the right music and building a soundtrack is more than just an afterthought. It’s a crucial part of making good video. I cast a wide net when looking for sound. Lucky for me, I have a pretty extensive background in music writing, performance and production. I consider that experience half of what I brought to the table when I first became a motionpicturologist. Having recorded and produced several albums and recordings of my own and for others over the years prepped me for almost everything I’ve ever done in video. Every script I write, to me, is a set of lyrics.
“Every video I edit should move and feel like a song. Bringing an emotional thread to every video I make is my secret mission, whether it’s a tutorial or a customer story.”
Sometimes that thread is only available through the introduction of a little beat here, or a short music intro there, and other times it can be a part of everything in the piece — the footage, the edit, the script, etc. Rhythm and tone guide me along the production just as it can guide the audience through the finished piece. I rely on it when making my other creative decisions, and it can act as a very strong creative foundation, almost like a keel, if you let it.
So, how to find music? First I have to decide what I’m looking for. I keep some crude instruments around me at all times. A ukelele, a thumb piano, a ding drum, a guitar, a small keyboard, some drum sticks. It’s at the outset of any new project that I have the most creative enthusiasm and I’m most open to discovery — and that’s when I let my hands free to play around.
I’ll feel a rhythm first, something that seems to fit the mood of the footage, or the pace of the script I’m writing. If I feel a rhythm, then anything can happen if I pick up an instrument. I approach all instruments as rhythm instruments. Experimenting with sound and tone on top of a rhythm is where it all begins for me.
I can sometimes produce a song or a soundtrack on my own, but not often. So I take the sound and the rhythm I have discovered through my little desktop jam sessions and start hunting for tracks out there in the world. I use the intertubes for that. My first stop is usually the stock music sites like stockmusic.net or pond5.com. It’s cheap stuff, so I keep my expectations low. Sometimes you strike gold, more often you just get some stuff that leads you closer to what you really want.
Next stop are sites like Musync or the now extinguished matchlessmusic.net, where there are actual songs from actual bands that you can license. I was very excited when I discovered Matchless, because it felt as if we were one step closer to attaining TV commercial quality. Fees begin around $250 for a track, which is still reasonable, but can get higher. The Vimeo Music Store now offers a great resource for indie music, and again the fees are very reasonable (in fact much of it is free).
These sites are really a great new addition to the democratization of quality video production. They represent a win-win, as they benefit both the video producers and the musicians. I hope to see more and more of them.
When I’m feeling brave, or desperate, I venture into MySpace Music. Twice, I’ve found some really unique music from a couple of artists that I had no business doing business with. I knew before each search what I wanted to find, otherwise I would have never come out of MySpace alive. In the first case it was a jazzy, afrobeat-esque sort of feel that a sensational jazzman in Germany named Jerker Kluge nails. I’d be a fan just because of his name, but his stuff is just outta sight.
In the latter case, it was some authentic music from the region I had just returned from, which was East Sussex, England. The video I shot was a MailChimp Customer Story about a third generation bee keeper named Roger Payne. I knew immediately upon returning that I wanted some music in the piece that represented the tradition of Sussex to support that aspect of the story and lend some more authentic flavors besides the drizzly visuals and the charming accents in the dialogue.
After searching the keywords “Sussex folk music,” I found a small handful of links, which all led to the same handful of people. I didn’t really know this library was related to that tavern or that record label was run by the husband of the lady that was in this other band … that sort of thing. So I sent of a bunch of copies of the same email to these different addresses and got a couple responses and a few of mp3s from some enthusiastic folks halfway around the world. And literally, some began “My husband also received your letter!” Others condemned me for wanting to use a West Sussex folk tune in a film representing East Sussex.
Anyway, nothing I received was really quite right. But there was this one, cryptic, outdated MySpace page with a couple of songs by a grey bearded crooner named Terry Masterson. One particular track was a beautifully haunting a cappella rendition of a traditional Sussex folk tune called “Banks of the Sweet Primroses” that just stopped me in my tracks when I first heard it. It sounded like it was recorded at the turn of the century (the LAST one), but here it was on some old guy’s MySpace page. So I set out to contact the elusive Mr. Masterson. I didn’t even know if he was alive or not.
His MySpace had no email link. His last log in was in 2007. So I decided to send another email to the people who had responded to me, asking whether or not they knew of this gentleman.One of them wrote back telling me he was a dear friend, and that he would get the message to Mr. Masterson for me.
So I waited. And waited. For weeks. Just when I had decided to give up and move along, I got an email from Mr. Terry Masterson himself. He was very gracious, and told me that the project sounded interesting. With the help of his friend he would send me some other recordings to listen to as well. In the end I only wanted the one I first heard, the “Sweet Primroses,“ and we negotiated a price of 200 pounds sterling, which I was to send to his daughter-in-law through her Paypal account.
I use the song in the end of the video. It is both haunting, and hopeful, with a depth and authenticity that just couldn’t be emulated by something new. To me it plays a small part in the overall video, but to great effect. It’s the last thing the viewer experiences before it ends, and I think it sort of sticks around. Might sound a bit artsy-fartsy, but these are the moments I strive for in my work, regardless of whether or not other people appreciate them.
I’ve paid local artists for tracks too. There’s always a friend of a friend, or the wife or boyfriend of someone around who has a band, has a CD or whatnot. I’ve never received anything but interest and enthusiasm from any musician I’ve contacted, whether it be through MySpace or a website or a mutual acquaintance. Negotiating terms has never been much of a problem either. For what we do, anything around $150-$350 seems fair enough for the use of a track and credits in the video, and that has usually been welcomed by the artists. However, when the release forms start flying around things can get a little wiggly.
We have a great legal eagle here at MailChimp, Sheriff Valerie, and she provides really sharp release forms and usage agreements. I normally sit down with her and get to know the terms since I’m usually the one doing the negotiations. It’s just very important that the license is as comprehensive as possible. You pay once, and get to use the song forever in that one video. That’s the deal. Limits and renewals just get hairy and are asking for trouble, in my opinion, so I’d avoid them.
The legal stuff is not my favorite part to say the least, but I’ve always felt like our deals are fair so that’s made it pretty easy to get through. Once, I experienced the rough end of some band in-fighting. That resulted in a rash of ugly emails sent to me by a band member who had been formerly kicked out but still had some ownership rights to the recording we wanted. It got hairy, but I just stayed as polite as possible since I really wanted the track. Eventually, my contact in the band worked it out with her old partner and everything ended well. So I guess the moral of the story is that money talks, some of it is better than none of it, and being polite and patient can pay off.
Music is super important. Finding music can be hard, but it’s a fun part of the adventure and the process. The Internet connects you with artists around the world, and to this day it feels magical when I get an email from someone I’ve heard, or heard of, but never met before. And remember, music is everywhere. Finding it is just a matter of knowing what you are searching for, and getting it usually is as simple as being respectful, forthright, and polite, and having a few dollars to contribute. The search and the investment will definitely pay off, because choosing the right music can help turn a good video into a great one.