If you were a composer, and your music was used in close to 1,500 different movies and more than 1-million YouTube videos, you might expect to be rolling in dough with your name in lights.
But Green Bay native, Kevin MacLeod, isn’t exactly living in a Malibu beach house with a gigantic, state-of-the-art recording studio.
That’s because he’s written hundreds and hundreds of songs that people can use for free. And they have – from the biggest names in online media, to Oscar-winning feature films, to people making stupid cat videos.
Now, someone has finally decided to give a little more credit where credit is truly due. A group of filmmakers is putting together a documentary about MacLeod’s work and his mission. First they need help from the many people who’ve used MacLeod’s music in order to make the film a success.
Creating the Soundtrack for the Internet
He may not enjoy traditional fame – but on the internet – Kevin MacLeod is a legendary composer. That’s not an exaggeration. The fact is, people are already calling him that.
Unless you’ve been living in an undisclosed location in the Amazon jungle for the past 15 years, you’ve probably heard at least one piece of his music somewhere. His work is practically ubiquitous.
College Humor and Buzz Feed use it, Conan O’Brien’s Team Coco uses it, you’ll hear it in the irreverent cartoon Happy Tree Friends and in Martin Scorsese’s Academy Award-winning film Hugo. MacLeod’s compositions can be found in video games, at theme parks as well as in many independent films and home movies.
A Kickstarter page for the upcoming documentary, Royalty Free explains that this all started with a rejection.
“After music he created for a composing job was rejected, he put the music on his website for free hoping that someone out there would find a use for it.”
That’s how MacLeod’s personal website, Incompetech.com, became the go-to source for royalty free (and literally free) music on the internet. WhooNEW exchanged several emails with the composer who told us he simply didn’t want to see unused music go to waste.
“I remember when I started producing I would enter a lot of contests, he says. “I never won any of them. But the music was still pretty good. I probably figured it would be useful to someone!”
MacLeod typically offers his compositions for download at no charge with a Creative Commons license. The only request is that he is properly credited for providing the music. Those who want to use his work without a credit can still do so for a fee of $30 (or less if more than one song is purchased). And the purchaser still doesn’t have to worry about paying future royalties.
It’s easy to forget that when MacLeod started putting his music online, the internet was still “young,” and the Creative Commons license didn’t exist. That’s just one reason why he is truly a pioneer in online collaboration.
“I started sharing before CC was anything,” he says. “When Creative Commons came out it was an obvious match. Understanding the power of this approach literally took years and years. I still don’t quite understand it.”
When talking with Kevin MacLeod it becomes apparent that he is an artist with high standards, but also with plenty of humility. In a Creative Commons case study, a quotation from the composer explains his motivation for avoiding traditional licensing practices.
“ASCAP and other originations are making enemies out of the people who really love the music, so as long as I don’t join one of those I can be in control of my music the entire way and give it to anyone I want and nobody is going to be threaten to be sued.”
In other words it’s not just about making money. It’s about keeping ownership of his art and making sure people who enjoy it get to experience what he makes while finding ways to be creative with it themselves.
Still, skeptics may wonder how giving away your work for free could possibly be a sustainable business model.
Incompetech gives users the option to make donations through PayPal. MacLeod says he typically gets at least one donation every day. By giving away his music, he also earns incredible exposure, which opens the door for paying gigs.
MacLeod admits that plenty of people come to him asking for freebies in addition to what he already offers. “But when you have a million people a month coming for the free things – you don’t need a big percentage of ‘real’ clients,” he adds.
Today, MacLeod splits his time between his hometown of Green Bay and his personal recording studio in Brooklyn, NY. Recently, he became a co-owner of the De Pere entertainment venue, The Green Room Lounge. The establishment is also home to the improvisational performances of Comedy City – of which Kevin is an alumnus.
The Filmmakers – Telling the Incompetech Story
New York filmmaker Ryan Camarda came across Kevin MacLeod’s music the same way countless others did. He was working on an independent short film in college. There wasn’t much of a budget, and he needed to find music he could use. After discovering the perfect piece on Incompetech, Camarda kept coming back for more music to use in other projects.
Eventually – he wanted to find out who the man behind the music really was.
“Once I looked at his IMDb page, I was like ‘WOW, how and why does this guy do what he does?’ I wondered how one man could create so much music in so many varied genres, and how he makes good money while releasing his music for free.”
The ultimate goal of Camarda’s upcoming documentary Royalty Free: The Music of Kevin MacLeod is to tell the composer’s story as well as why what he’s accomplished matters in the larger scope of online creativity, collaboration and innovation.
“We want to hear the story of how Kevin’s music has impacted people, both on YouTube and elsewhere,” says Camarda. “Kevin provided a great resource for filmmakers getting started and even professionals. YouTube specifically would be a much different place without Kevin’s music.”
The film will include interviews with those who’ve used MacLeod’s songs, as well as other people who’ve made waves with things like Creative Commons licensed work. Plus, the plan is also to take a closer look at current copyright laws and how they may be hampering artists more than helping them.
MacLeod has stated publicly that he feels the copyright system is “broken.” But Camarda believes that is changing thanks to people who put creativity first.
“With the Creative Commons revolution, and people like Kevin, millions are given a free alternative to the prevailing copyright system,” he says. “It’s the democratization of creativity. For the visual, first came video cameras allowing anyone to make movies at a fraction of the price it used to be. Now we’re in a musical revolution where even the poorest person can use music in their video even if they have no musical connections, or money.”
Watch the Kickstarter Video for the Royalty Free Documentary
Yet another idea for the film is using animation to compare copyright laws with Creative Commons, royalty free and public domain material. Understanding the differences between these licenses can be confusing. Camarda thinks this will be a valuable resource to help independent artists figure out what they can use and how they can use it..
How You Can Get Involved
Even with free music – a project like this won’t be cheap. The team behind Royalty Free needs to travel (sometimes internationally) to get interviews. There are equipment costs, film festival fees and much more to consider.
That’s why the filmmakers launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds in support of the project. The ambitious goal is to raise $30,000 by November 13th. As of this writing, backers have pledged about two-thirds of that goal. If the goal is not reached, no pledges are collected.
If you are someone who has used Kevin MacLeod’s music, this is the perfect opportunity to show your support. But even if you’ve never downloaded a song, chances are you’ve enjoyed his music in one way or another.
Kickstarter backers are eligible for all sorts of prizes – from an online Wall of Heroes to a digital download of the completed film, to onscreen producer credits. There’s even the chance to have MacLeod compose a custom piece for you.
Camarda plans to take the film to festivals, where he expects to meet many other appreciative independent filmmakers who’ve used music from Icompetech.com. After that, digital downloads and a streaming version will be made available for everyone.
If you believe in the power of creativity, generosity and artistic expression – this is something worth getting behind.
- Check out the Kickstarter Campaign for the film
- Visit the film’s official website RoyaltyFreeDoc.com
- Like the documentary on Facebook
- Visit Incompetech.com
- Get more from Kevin MacLeod in his recent Reddit AMA
Yet another way you can make a difference is to consider following Kevin MacLeod’s lead. In our discussion with him, he seemed a bit frustrated that so many people don’t see the advantages of this road less traveled. We asked him what he might say to encourage more online collaboration and sharing of creative work.
“I have no idea. I’ve been trying to do it for years,” he says. “Nothing I say ever seems to work. At some point, you can’t argue with results…but I’ve apparently not gotten to that point yet.”
There’s a good chance this film could open people’s eyes to the possibilities.
What kind of art can you put out in the world without expecting anything in return? How can you help others accomplish their goals? You may not be a composer, or a painter, or a writer – but we all have something we can contribute.
And when you do, you just might find opportunity knocking on your door.
Kevin MacLeod may not be rich and famous in the way you’d normally expect. But he’s made a life for himself making music and making people happy. You can’t ask for much more than that.