Audio: Production Music in Non-Theatrical Films and Videos
A little research up front can make a big difference in the sound of your next production. And there are many folks willing to help you pick the right music.
By Joel Goodman and Andrew DeWitt
Music plays a critical role in how we experience any audio-visual production. Through harmony, melody, instrumentation, rhythm and structure, music is a vehicle for both pacing and emotion that, when used properly, can really give a story that “next level” impact. But for those working with tight budgets, this can seem like a challenge. Is it really possible to get great music without hiring a composer? Where does one even begin to find the right music, let alone get it to work well with the picture?
The good news is there is no shortage of solutions out there. The production music business was built around supplying music to productions of all shapes and sizes, including non-theatrical and non-broadcast films and videos for corporate, industrial, education, and government use. With the right approach, you can find yourself a highly effective soundtrack—on time and on budget.
Know your options
When shopping around your music needs, it’s important to know your options. There are many music suppliers out there, and you want to make sure you’re aware of and working with the companies that are right for you. Do some research and see what you like. Do you prefer a large catalog of many styles, or a smaller, specialized catalog that focuses on a certain sound? Do you prefer to search for music yourself using an online search system, or would you rather work with a specialist who can help pick music for you?
Some suppliers produce their catalogs of music away from picture, and structure each piece to be as editable as possible. This flexibility works well for certain filmmakers, but for others might not provide the scored feeling they are looking for. Other suppliers offer music that originally was scored to picture from another project. This can provide the highly effective scored feeling that some filmmakers are after, but also has the potential to be less flexible depending on how the scene is cut.
In either case, try to get a sense for the selection of variations or alternate mixes for each piece of music the supplier offers. Examples of these include versions of a piece of music without the melody, with an alternate ending, or with different instrumentation. Having these at your disposal will allow for the maximum flexibility in working the music into your picture just the way you want, and effectively give you the most bang for your buck.
Of course, not all suppliers fall squarely into one type of offering. There are plenty who have different combinations of every example above; our company Oovra Music, being one of them. Ultimately, it comes down to identifying your needs and preferences. The membership of the Production Music Association is a great resource and starting point for researching possible suppliers. You can view a list of production music companies on their website, which encompasses a very diverse cross-section of suppliers. Most companies will be happy to set you up with an account so you can get a sense for their offering and even try some music in your production without needing to commit to a license.
Search is king
While identifying the right suppliers is important, finding what you need in the catalog is really what matters most. A great thing to do when working with a production music company is to ask for some help at the beginning of your project. Most companies have a sales rep or a catalog specialist who would be happy to pick an initial selection of music based on your needs, and can be a continued resource throughout your project as well. Even if you normally prefer to search for music yourself, this can be a great way to find a starting point from which to explore, especially when working with companies that have a large catalog or multiple catalogs.
Most production music companies today have some sort of an online system that allows you to browse or type in search terms based on a wide variety of criteria, including genre, mood, instrument, tempo, album, and more. Be sure to explore all of these features, not only to see what is most intuitive to you, but also because each approach will yield different results. You never know where the right piece might be hiding!
Often times, your search results will be presented as a long list of individual tracks from different artists and albums. Once you find a few pieces that you like, be sure to check for any variations or alternate mixes. Often, these will appear “nested” underneath the main track result, and can be seen by expanding the track information, usually by clicking on an arrow or other small icon to reveal the additional mixes. You also can use your favorite tracks as new starting points to find similar tracks.
Take a look at other tracks that are on the same album as the tracks you like. If the system shows you what keywords, moods, and other tags are associated with your favorite tracks, use these same combinations of tags to find similar music. Some systems even have a built-in option that will “find similar music” based on the same combinations of tags, or by analyzing the actual audio waveform. No matter how you navigate your search, it can be helpful to create a new playlist (a feature available on most search systems) before you start, and add music to this as you explore. There’s nothing more frustrating than losing track of a great track!
Rights and licenses
When scoping out potential suppliers, it’s also good to speak with a sales rep early on about licensing costs and options. Be upfront about your budget—this way the sales rep can be working with this in mind from the start. If your production is non-broadcast or non-theatrical, and limited only to the United States or a specific region therein, make sure they know. There often are savings that can be found when limited rights are needed. If you plan to use a lot of music, consider speaking with your rep about a production blanket license, which allows you to choose as many tracks as you need for a single fixed cost.
In all cases, make sure the supplier owns or represents 100 percent of the rights in the music in which you are interested. This includes rights in both the recording and the underlying composition of the music. Most production companies do, but it’s important to confirm this. You don’t want to be chasing down multiple rights holders for approval, or have someone knocking on your door several months down the line, asking you for money. Similarly, in order to limit any potential complications, make sure the supplier represents their music exclusively. In addition to being a good indicator of quality, music that is represented exclusively is free from potential claims by other companies, and you can rest assured that you are getting great music from a hassle-free source.
With more production music available today than at any other time in history, and the quality at the best it’s ever been, it’s an exciting time to be working with music in film and video. Every project deserves a great musical soundtrack, and with the right approach this is entirely achievable and affordable. Research your suppliers, perfect your search technique, feel confident in your rights and license needs, and make your project sing.
Joel Goodman is the founder of, and Andrew DeWitt oversees production and operations for, Oovra Music. Oovra is a music licensing company that represents the works of great composers exclusively. For more info, visit www.oovramusic.com.