Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Using a barrage of low-res stills to illustrate pop songs you don’t have the rights to = bad.
The use of music in film is a huge topic – far too huge for a single blog post or for a non-expert like me – but, having encountered the above scenario a few times, it bears some consideration.
There are perfectly valid reasons for why you may want to use recognizable, popular songs in your film, just as there are equally good reasons to forego that route to instead have an original score. I’m not going to argue here why you should take one approach or another, but I will focus on the former and some of the missteps I’ve occasionally observed.
Many filmmakers like the immediate associations that viewers may have with pop songs, and use specific songs to try to evoke specific emotions, trading on nostalgia or other factors related to the music. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, of course, though I’d caution being too manipulative in your music cues – audiences can and do notice when you’re using your score to push them artificially to certain feelings.
Similarly, you should be wary of being too literal, and effectively creating a music video illustrating the music you’ve selected – as I’ve indicated in the DDF that leads off this entry. Don’t lose sight of your own project – your score should complement and subtly comment on your overall film, not overwhelm it. I’ve written about excess previously, and this kind of approach falls under that same general heading, in my view. Be judicious – yes, you could structure a six minute sequence break in your film timed to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” but does your scene transition really need to be that long? Is your film’s editing becoming beholden to the song, or vice versa?
Another important factor to consider with pop songs is the question of licensing. Again, this is a much larger topic than can be fully addressed here, so do your research. Brush up on fair use, and when it can and cannot be invoked. Investigate your different options for licensing music and make sure to include this in your budget before you begin production. If you ignore this reality, you will just be creating a lot of headaches for yourself should you wish to try to sell your film for theatrical or TV broadcast. A lot of what you can get away with regarding clearances for festival play just won’t fly once a distributor or broadcaster wants to become involved. Put your project in the best position to be able to get it out in the world the way you’d like – don’t put unnecessary barriers in place by using expensive pop songs and not having a way to pay for them, and be smart about how you’re using the music in the first place.