Finding Free Music for a Free Film with Jamendo, VLC, and K3B

One of the great advantages of using a free license for a work is that you can re-use a growing body of free-licensed source material to help you do it. But it can seem a little daunting to find the material that you both want and can legally use. Here's a little bit of my strategy, a few tips, and some sources, including Jamendo, which I found to be the most useful for finding music. I also touch upon some useful free software tools for listening and sorting tracks.

Making Movies with Free Software

This article is part of an on-going series on the challenges I've faced in producing two free-licensed movies, Marya Morevna, through the Morevna Project and Lunatics, which we are working on as Anansi Spaceworks.

Cooperation, Appropriation, and Free-culture

When advocating free licenses (especially copyleft licenses), I often mention the benefit of being able to reuse other works under the same free licenses. But when do we actually see the payoff on that? Free licensed source material can be a challenge to find, and even when it is well-marked on the individual works, it can be a pain sifting through all of the non-free works to find the free ones. Over time, though, I've accumulated a number of good sources and techniques for finding what I'm looking for that I want to outline here.

Free licensed source material can be a challenge to find, and even when it is well-marked on the individual works, it can be a pain sifting through all of the non-free works to find the free ones

Since I'm not a musician, the soundtrack for Lunatics is an obvious place where I will need to lean on the work of others. Unlike Nina Paley's position with Sita Sings the Blues, where she was consciously setting out to illustrate songs that were meaningful to her, I did not have any particular music in mind when I started. Lunatics started with ideas for characters and a lot visual ideas. The music would be selected to fit the ideas and images, and of course, it would reflect the musical tastes of myself and my wife and collaborator, Rosalyn Hunter.

Although I considered other approaches, I ultimately decided that the right strategy for Lunatics was to primarily use existing free-licensed music, and make up any deficiencies with commissioned or specially-licensed music.

It's virtually impossible to use music from a conventional proprietary publisher in a free-culture film

It's virtually impossible to use music from a conventional proprietary publisher in a free-culture film. Aside from the typically expensive licensing, it requires you to individually negotiate a re-release under a free license for each work. There are no standard contracts or statutory licensing deals for this -- the proprietary music industry is not set up to give so much as the time of day to free culture. For the most part, they see us as some kind of evil cancer eating away at their lifelines.

So, that's a hard (read "impossible") sell.

Free Music Sourcing Strategies

But of course, there are plenty of musicians who don't feel this way at all. In fact, quite a few have released their work under free licenses themselves, and the body of work that is available under Creative Commons licenses has continued to grow for the last decade or so. I first encountered this when working on game projects in the early 2000s, so I knew a few leads on where to find the material.

There are three major strategies you can use music sharing sites for in finding music for a film:

1) 'commission': Find a musician who you can commission to do specific work for your project

2) 'negotiate': Find music which you like, then re-license under acceptable terms (under the "signal" theory -- using a CC license, even a CC-NC-ND is a sign that the musician may be open to free licensing, so is releasing their tracks online under any license)

3) 'search': Find music which is already under an acceptable license

There's some excellent work under free licenses, and you're missing a lot if you haven't listened to it

For the first, the important thing is to quickly establish style, talent, and amenability to your project goals (e.g. "It's a space movie, does this musician even like space?" or "He's released some tracks under By-SA, so he'd probably understand if I ask him to again.").

For the second, you search without restricting your license, although possibly only sites with full downloads or CC licensing. You check licenses after selecting some tracks and then contact the author to negotiate licensing.

For either of these first two, you must be able to contact the musician directly if you want to get the music you need under a license you can use.

The third option is to treat the licensing and music as an existing fact which you don't try to change. For this strategy, you close off other music and focus on "what's already available under an acceptable license". From this, you try to select material you like.

Each of these strategies has risks. With commissioning, you have the most business risk (the artist might not take commissions, or might not take commissions under free licenses, or you might not be able to afford the fees), but can probably get the greatest artistic freedom (you can commission the work to be exactly fitted to your film).

The risk of the third option is artistic. If you cut out all but free-licensed music, you may find that there simply isn't any track out there that will work for you. A decade ago, this was a very likely situation, and you'd either wind up having to compromise artistically, using tracks that were really second rate. Today, however, there's some excellent work under free licenses, and you're missing a lot if you haven't listened to it.

The Hard Road: Negotiating for Re-licensing

With the 'negotiate' approach, you are mostly limited to music from the sources you can search, and probably only music available for download. While it's technically possible for a major label track from a CD you can buy in Best Buy to be relicensed under a CC By-SA license for your use, it would be a fairly extraordinary event -- so I don't recommend gambling on it.

The one exception to that would be if: 1) the track you want is an older or less popular track, 2) you can contact the artist, and 3) the artist is known to have free-culture interests (I can think of a few examples here like Nine Inch Nails, Courtney Love, or the Dresden Dolls, which might be worth the risk if you had a strong enough reason to use their work).

Figure 1: There are a few relatively "big name" bands that have experimented with free-culture and might be open to new models. Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails) has released a number of tracks under NC licenses for remixing, including an entire album called "The Slip." Courtney Love wrote a scathing review of the music label system and invited sharing of her music tracks up to a point. Amanda Palmer of The Dresden Dolls has used a number of interesting experimental "fan-based" models and the band releases quite a few of its tracks online (Photo Credits: Nine Inch Nails/PR, rufusowliebat@Flickr/By, Lisa Lunskaya Gordon/PR)

It'd still be risky, though -- you'd have to be able to sell them on your project, because although these artists have made their music widely available, and expressed interest in free culture, most of them have not released under "clean" licenses for derivation or synching (in other words, clearly and legally released the works under a free license). In fact, usually when they do use an explicit license, commercial artists will use one of the more restrictive "non-commercial" licenses (for example, NIN used CC By-NC-SA for "The Slip". It probably goes without saying, but I'll say it anyway -- this kind of licensing is almost certainly going to cost money, and you'll have to think about how you're going to get it from your own free-licensed project if you want to go this route.

Also: beware of "cover" songs! You're probably better off using original tracks. When a musical act performs an existing song, you need permission not just from the performers, but also from the song and lyric writers. For example, in researching this article, I just downloaded a track called "Imagine" by the Dresden Dolls. Of course, this is a cover of John Lennon's song. Licensing that is probably not an option at this time. The only exceptions would be if the original song and lyrics are public domain (i.e. older than about 1926) or if you have reasons to believe the songwriter is sympathetic to free culture or your project.

Smaller Acts and NonCommercial "Signaling"

In fact, for Lunatics, I'll probably be using a combination of all of these strategies. I know a few musical artists who are probably interested enough either in free culture or in our project to talk them into either licensing work or commissioning new work for the project on terms we can live with. I'll likely go this way when it comes to finding a title track (it's also a little bit easier to sell somebody on such a position of honor than on being the barely-audible ambient background music in some minor scene. Balancing egos is an important part of managing any creative project).

For Lunatics, I'll probably be using a combination of all of these strategies

There's also a few marginal cases of tracks under CC NonCommercial licenses or under free, but incompatible licenses, like the Free Art License which would require re-licensing, but for which I consider the prospect to be less risky: the artist is already using a "semi-free" license which is a signal that they are somewhat more open to licensing options, and I have appropriate contact information for the person who would make the decision.

Here I might also include some less well-known bands that have released content under relatively liberal terms or a few tracks under free licenses, including My Pet Dragon who did some tracks for Sita Sings the Blues (though not under the band name), and who are now also releasing albums under an ASCAP deal, and a personal favorite, Zia -- a band who I've a had a passing connection with for about 10 years now due to our mutual interest in space development. And of course, there are lots of other people out there. Less well-known independent bands are more likely to be open to alternative strategies for promoting and selling their music, and if you have a good deal for them, they may well listen.

Less well-known independent bands are more likely to be open to alternative strategies for promoting and selling their music, and if you have a good deal for them, they may well listen

You might also find bands who are releasing on net labels like Magnatune or BeatPick, or who participate with CCMixter. These bands release under non-commercial terms which are not directly usable in a free-culture film, but this can also be regarded as a signal that they may be open to more liberal licensing if the terms are favorable.

As far as I know, no one offers an option for automatically re-licensing to free-culture licenses. I still think this would be a very useful business model and community service.

Mind you, for any of these cases, you are almost certainly going to have to pay some actual money for the re-release. If you are planning to make money on your project (as we are attempting to do with Lunatics, though only time will tell), then you will probably also need to offer some kind of cut in what you make. How you might go about raising money for commissioning or how you might share out anything your own project makes is a little out of scope for this column, but I hope I'll get a chance to address that in a later column.

Finding Already-Free Music

However, for the most part, especially for this first "pilot" episode, I will be relying on already free-licensed music, just as I would for a free software project. So that's what I'm going to explore here.

Figure 2: Three music sharing sites which favor free-licenses

There are not as many sites that facilitate sharing music under free-licenses (such as Creative Commons Attribution (CC By), Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike (CC By-SA), or Art Libre's Free Art License (FAL)).

Three moderately large sites that I have found are: Dogmazic, CultureLoad, and Jamendo.

Dogmazic stands out particularly for having a very wide variety of licenses, including some that are usually thought of software licenses, although its search interface is a little difficult to use. Also, you will pretty much have to use the site in French (there's an "English" button to control localization, but it doesn't work very well).

Jamendo is the one that stands out for usability and it has a huge catalog

CultureLoad carries a lot of different material, not just music, although its interfaces need work. It's a pretty new site, and I haven't had much time to explore it.

There are also a number of more specialized collections. If you are looking for classical/orchestral music, you may find it very interesting to explore the Pandora Records Archive which through a rather convoluted legal process has come to be compatible with the CC By-SA 3.0 license. The only real problem is that the archive has no effective indexing. So the only way to search it is via the directory structure.

Jamendo is the source that stands out for usability and it has a huge catalog. This is the site I have so far relied on the most for music for Lunatics, so it's the one I'll explore further here.

Immersion in Free Music

The first thing that you must do, if you want to use free-licensed music is to listen to it.

"Why," you must ask yourself, "do you want to use proprietary music?"

Is it really better? Is it really of so-superior a quality than the free music? Or is it simply more familiar? And if so, why is it more familiar?

The truth is that your taste in music has been manipulated by media companies for years. You like this music because it's what you could hear, because the media companies have made it available to you -- by printing CDs, by encouraging air-play on the radio, and so on. Even if you don't listen exclusively to those commercial sources, many of the people around you do, and you pick up on their tastes.

The truth is that your taste in music has been manipulated by media companies for years

In fact, it's a maddening circle, because you are immersed in a culture of musical culture which has been bred, selected, and presented to you by proprietary corporate interests in the name of making money -- and you are largely not even consciously aware of this fact.

Too often, you find yourself looking for free-culture imitations of proprietary acts. This is not all bad, of course, music is highly imitative by nature. But it is limiting if what you are really looking for is really a particular proprietary band's sound, and what you are finding are simply poor imitations of that sound. Any imitator is going to sound inferior to the original.

It's only when the imitator goes beyond what they've imitated, to find their own sound that they will be really good. And it's only when you stop looking for copies and start opening up to new material that you are going to find stuff that really stands out on its own.

You are going to have to rebuild your world into one in which you are immersed in free music

And for that, you are -- at least for a while -- going to have to rebuild your world into one in which you are immersed in free music. Because, it's only after you've listened to a lot of it that you are going to start being able to find something that fits your project.

For Lunatics, I simply spent about two or three months just downloading individual tracks and whole albums from Jamendo. I would use the advanced search engine features to search for a keyword "tag" that sounded interesting, and refine the search to only include CC By, CC By-SA, and FAL licensed works.

As far as I can tell, it's not possible to do a straight search on Jamendo with the license filters. However, it's easy enough to add the filters to the search once a tag has been selected. To do this, navigate to the tags page (Music->Tags), pick a tag that seems appropriate, and then click the small "Advanced Search" link right under the search bar. Figure 3 shows how this looks on the site.

Figure 3: Using the advanced search features on Jamendo to find music by tag and license

I would pick tags that seemed to have some relevance to overall themes ("space"), individual characters ("brassy" or "jazz"), or even origins ("russian" -- either by tag or by selecting the country of origin field, though I found the tagging to be more useful).

Occasionally, I would loosen the licensing restrictions for more difficult searches, so I did have some non-commercial tracks. To be careful about this, I organized them into directories based on the licensing, like this:

# du -sk *

3748    ARR

640404  By

59356   ByNC

807716  ByNCND

1046588 ByNCSA

4       ByND

9406788 BySA

524736  FAL


As you can see, I found a lot of material: about 12 GB, with about 9 GB under the compatible By-SA license. This amounts to almost a solid week of music, from various sources, so it goes without saying that it took a long time to review.

This amounts to almost a solid week of music, from various sources, so it goes without saying that it took a long time to review

Fortunately, I do like "electronica" a lot, because that's by far the most popular genres for free-licensed music, but there is other stuff as well. "Folk" is probably the second most popular. But I also found "punk", "blues", "j-pop" (Japanese pop, regrettably under a By-NC-ND license, which is a shame, because I'm going to have some fun negotiating those terms across language, legal, and national barriers!), and even "Country" acts. It was quite a collection.

Figure 4: K3B provides a simple drag-and-drop interface for creating audio CDs. I used this a lot while collecting and reviewing tracks for Lunatics

From these, I burned a number of MP3 CDs using K3B (Figure 4), and just listened to them all day long for a couple of months. I felt like a teenager again.

And I did what I used to do as a teenager, which is to imagine stories with the background music as a guide to timing and visualization. Over time, I started to see certain themes, characters, or scenes with definite associations to certain tracks. Then I started sorting.

I created a tree of directories for the project, with this organization:

$ tree -d Lunatics


|-- ByCharacter

|   |-- Allen

|   |-- Anya

|   |-- Georgiana

|   |-- Hiromi

|   |-- Josh

|   |-- Others

|   |-- Rob

|   |-- Sarah

|   `-- Tim

|       `-- CheesyGameMusic

|-- ByEpisode

|   |-- e111_children

|   |-- e112_landing

|   |-- e113_earth

|   |-- e114_cyborg

|   |-- e115_rocks

|   |-- e116_deaths_door


`-- ByTheme

    |-- Conflicts

    |-- Farming

    |-- HappyHome

    |-- IridiumStation

    |-- LunarSurface

    |-- NerveCenter

    |-- Plumbing

    |-- Politics

    |-- Road

    |-- Space

    `-- Titles

48 directories

Then I started sorting tracks, like this: I would load up each album from each artist into VLC, starting with the albums under the free-licensed By-SA and By directories ("By" is not nearly as popular a choice as "By-SA", by the way, for reasons which are probably obvious, but my project is okay with "By-SA" music, which is one of the advantages of choosing a free license for the series). I used Konqueror for the actual sorting, though I suppose any graphical file manager would make this nearly as easy. Figure 5 illustrates my drag-and-drop approach. For these tracks, which I wanted to favor, if I liked the track at all, I would ask myself "Assuming you use this track, what's the best use for it?"

Figure 5: Sorting tracks using VLC and Konqueror

For the less favorably licensed tracks, my question was more like "Is this track so good that you really need it for a particular purpose?" There were a few of these, but obviously I didn't choose as many of them, which suited my purpose since any of these would mean a lot more work to use.

You'll note I linked the files under category headings rather than copying them. Being music tracks, these are heavy files, and I don't usually like to copy or move them more than I have to.

But linking has additional advantages, too:

  • The original file stays under the license category, allowing me to tell in a snap what the terms are (see Figure 6)
  • The file can be categorized under multiple uses if it applies (for example, both for a character and a theme or episode)
  • Deleting the links doesn't lose the original music track, it just takes it out of a given category

Over time, I started to build up a clear set of tracks fitting each character, and I also burned collections of those already sorted tracks to disk to listen to (usually in the car, so I used standard audio CD format for that -- although getting a flash-media player and car-adapter probably would be even better).

Figure 6: With the link system, it's easy to backtrack the license information on a track (the red box highlights the license, which is just the directory where the actual file is stored)

A Working Soundtrack

Similarly, I started building up collections for specific episodes, and as I started working on the pilot, I collected tracks that fit the particular scenes I had in mind and I assembled those into the correct order, and burned the first version of my temporary soundtrack for the pilot.

I found this to be extremely helpful, not only in terms of finding the music, but also in formulating the scenes themselves. So you might say that at this point, I was composing scenes to match the music, although the music had been very carefully selected based on the scenes I knew I needed.

At this point, I had my basic soundtrack. In later columns, I will describe how I went about cutting-down, editing, and mixing this collection to fit the video.

Licensing Notice

This work may be distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License, version 3.0, with attribution to "Terry Hancock, first published in Free Software Magazine". Illustrations and modifications to illustrations are under the same license and attribution, except as noted in their captions (all images in this article are CC By-SA 3.0 compatible).


Verbatim copying and distribution of this entire article are permitted worldwide, without royalty, in any medium, provided this notice is preserved.