If you’re on this website right now, I’m going to hazard a guess and say that you probably don’t have John Williams on retainer. Nor, probably, do you have his home address nor his personal number, let alone the means to pay him to score your film even if you did.
This poses a bit of a problem for the do-it-yourself filmmaker, who doesn’t necessarily have time or know-how enough to compose and record music of their own. The right music can make or break a movie; what would Star Wars be without the Imperial March? I remember hearing a story the French film Amelie, and how Jean-Pierre Jeunet showed an early cut (without music) to a few contemporaries. They found it to be terribly dull, which drove him to seek out Yann Tiersen to write that unforgettably quaint, quirky soundtrack.
Nevertheless, even if your one buddy with the MIDI keyboard and the killer riffs is staying with his uncle in Montana for the summer, or maybe just not returning your calls, a variety of resources do exist which make it relatively easy – and often inexpensive – to score your masterpiece.
Sad to say, navigating the licensing rights of said music can sometimes be a tad bit of a cobweb of confusion for us non-lawyers. The most simple (and for our purposes, useful) type of license is the Creative Commons License. The best way to learn about the various types of Creative Commons Licenses is, of course, by reading about them on the Creative Commons website, but basically what it all boils down to is that the musician can mandate whether the music can be used commercially, if and how derivative works can be released (remixes, variations, dubstep remixes…) and whether the user must attribute the work to the artist,
A word about commercial-use: I do not know what constitutes commercial use, and neither, apparently, does the internet. Dig hard enough and you might be able to find a more concrete answer, but as of right now, I would say that the term “commercial-use” is mostly intuitive. My takeaway is that any time you use Creative Commons music in a film or video that is produced for, backed by or funded by a commercial organization (a for-profit company or corporation), that constitutes commercial-use. If you put together a band of friends and create a “film production company” with no bylaws, expense account or legal paperwork, I’m pretty sure you can use “no commercial-use” music to your heart’s content.
Now, here are some of my favorite sites.
I love this site! To be fair, that is largely for personal reasons; any site whose owner records volumes of baroque, classical and romantic era piano and orchestral music for the sole purpose of making it available to the world is aces in my book. The recordings are somewhat hit-and-miss; many of them are live recordings with random coughs and sneezes in places where you don’t want them, and some have a high-pitched mic hiss throughout, but many are spot-on.
Not all of the recordings on this site are available for licensing via Creative Commons, but I’d say that the majority of them are (just look for the rectangular, gray and black CC logo). Even better, the ones that do have licenses are available under the Public Domain portion of the Creative Commons License, meaning that you may use them in just about any capacity you can imagine. Just imagine how awesome your flick is going to be with Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture supporting the fiery, explosion-laden action!
I have personally used the music on this site more times than I can recall – everyone does. It originates from an artist named Kevin MacLeod, and all of the music listed under Royalty Free Music is available for use so long as you attribute the work in the credits of your film.
Some of his recordings are a bit cheesy, and a lot of them sound obviously computery. Nevertheless, the site has an unreal archive of music in every genre, mood and tempo imaginable. If you look hard enough, you can almost always find something that suits your purposes.
Kevin MacLeod will also compose and compile music specific to your project, for a fee. I have never met him nor worked with him, but I’d certainly shoot him an email if I ever had a budgeted film in need of some tunes.
FMA (Free Music Archive)
While I’ve logged in here a number of times, I have never actually used any of the music on this site in a production before. That said, as with Incompetech, there is a hugely expansive archive of music in every genre, mood and tempo. However, unlike Incompetech, the music on this site is by many artists as opposed to just one.
Accordingly, pay special attention to the CC License of each individual piece or album; many of the pieces are licensed as “attribution”, where one need only credit the artist, but many others are also not cleared for commercial-use.
I really like the music on this site. Much of it sounds very professional and good enough to put in a budgeted feature, and even sounds like a pretty high quality bit-rate compression.
This site is the premium blend. It’s loaded with music by a plethora of artists, who (because of their awesomeness) get paid through the site for the licensing rights to their tunes. And where the rest of these sites make use of the Creative Commons License, I do not believe that Jamendo does.
Why go here? Because the tracks are just that good. Because they are released with a high-quality, lossless compression (read: better than .mp3). And I like that half of the money going to the site for the licensing rights goes straight to the humble up-and-coming artists. Fees vary depending on the project; unlimited use in a short film goes for $59, while unlimited use in a feature go for $600-$900, depending on distribution.
Yes, that’s a bit steep for most of us. This is where you go when you actually have a bit of expendable cash in your budget, and want the film to sound like a professional effort.
Some final thoughts: also check out the Vimeo Music Store and SoundCloud, neither of which I have used or researched, but both of which seem promising, and come with some rave reviews. Be advised, however, that Vimeo does charge for the majority of its music.
Also watch for the “Share Alike” part of certain Creative Commons licensed music. If someone can tell me whether this means that any movie made using said music must also be released using a similar Creative Commons License, several dollars and many high-fives to them.