UPDATED – Inspiration is not theft

This is an article not about licensing music. Music should always be paid for when the artist makes money from the work of others. This article is instead an impassioned plea for unrestricted use of music in non-profit personal videos, as long as the artist is credited. However there is a worrying trend of some recording artists who look negatively at their work being used in non-commercial films without prior permission – they are missing the spirit of what creativity is, and the opportunities afforded by the internet.

UPDATE: I think Jon Blake summed it up perfectly in the comments below.

Jon Blake:

Beethoven said that he wished there was a universal repository, a warehouse where artists could go and pick/borrow any piece of art in any form, drop off their own and be their on their merry way. All of this for free. Now that’s the vision of a true artistic spirit that I can respect. Billionaires, like Metallica, who are buried up their necks in money and suing everyone – not too sure about that.

Generating a feeling through cinematography is a skill very similar to how a composer builds emotion and feel into his music. We need to use good music. It is not as if we’re abusing or steal it, or even have a choice – and many can’t afford to pay royalties. It is part of our craft like a guitar is part of a musician’s.

Sadly some recording artists are trying to prevent cinematographers from exercising their craft.

They take the view that use of any music – rather than being a compliment or an honourable gesture – is instead simply stealing and damaging the integrity of the artist’s music, unless permission is first sought and hoops jumped through – or licensing fees paid. Even then, they say, there is no guarantee that the freedom to express yourself through their music will be granted.

It all looks to me like one big highway of egotism.

And I want to close it off.

90% of the best videos on Vimeo by up-and-coming filmmakers, are short 4-5 minute films which make fantastic use of some of the best artists and music the world has ever seen. They use the best music available. Established artists, who have fame, admiration and fortune by the bucket load – and rightly so.

There is nothing wrong with sharing a video inspired by great music, and not making any money from doing so. It is all about showing a talent for cinematography, mood, style and cinema. Good music is an essential part of that.

If an artist wants to deny us that, it would be a rather controlling, ignorant and mean-spirited attitude to have to filmmakers who aren’t yet established and don’t make money through using the work of others – but simply want to show they have the talent for great cinema over 4-5 minute HD DSLR videos.

Trying to lock the doors of Beethoven’s Warehouse is insulting to filmmakers at best, damaging to culture at worst. When I am inspired by music in my personal work – I want nothing more than to work hard to do the music justice, and for picture & audio to work hand-in-hand. The videos are not for profit. The music inspires the footage, not just in the editing suite but before it is even shot!

I have never had any trouble from the bands I’ve used. Radiohead, Pink Floyd, some big names – they have not requested for the videos to be pulled from Vimeo. But some artists have a very different view.

A great strength of video sharing websites, and cinema in general, is that it’s capable of building huge awareness in music. This is one of the role’s of cinema of which I am fondest but it is not something all recording artists yet understand.

Use of music in film and cinematography – who should pay, and who should just credit?

1. I believe artists who are part of world culture, famous and well known belong in Beethoven’s Warehouse. Since they are set-up for life and have huge royalties coming in from large commercial conglomerates, TV and radio and commercial Hollywood films, they are safe in terms of cash flow. I believe the big ones owe something back to other artists who have not yet made it. After all, in order to get where they have and to exercise their talents – they relied on the use of other people’s IP and were inspired by other people. The design of a guitar is not locked down so that you need a licensing fee to play one! Production studio software does not ask for royalties. Being inspired by another musician, perhaps one of the greats as Wendy Carlos was in terms of Beethoven – is not theft. So music by established acts should go in the warehouse where they can be pulled out and re-appropriated into the creative personal work of other artists for free.

2. But when the work is for commercial use, or used by a large company – of course it should be paid for, because that project is benefiting commercially from the use of an artists work and not just artistically or in terms of developing a career and making that jump from office to film set. When someone is in the position to profit from the work, then they should pay.

3. It is however not right for a wealthy artists to extract cash from someone who does not yet make enough to pay, and is just trying to further their careers by plying their trade. A filmmakers trade involves the use of music. He has no choice but to use it, and to try and use the best available. This should not be stopped. This is why, when a filmmaker uses a commercial sound track without permission and has it removed by a record label – this is restriction of trade, and it makes me incredibly sad that a large bully can pick on the small guy in such a way – it is pure greed.

4. When a recording artist themselves is not in any way well known, and like the up-and-coming filmmaker just wants to get their work out there into people’s minds, and to collaborate with other people, I believe that because these individuals are more accessible and open to collaborations in order to further their work, then permission should be sought, credit should be given and a fee paid if the filmmaker makes any money directly from the video. Here the exposure is more important than asking for payment, and remember – the filmmaker is not making money from doing the video – he is promoting the recording artist and plying his trade in a non-commercial way, in an attempt to get a career in filmmaking. There is nothing evil about it, and nothing that warrants the musician to extract money from the process. The benefits for both could be career-making, if the project is of high enough inspiration and quality, and gets noticed.

Filmmakers share many creative aspects in common.

Outside of the commercial sector, by far the most important thing is not to profit in terms of money, but in some other way – artistically, or by doing someone a favour – and when using the work of others, to do a good job of showcasing it. It’s essential that your video has high production values and high artistic merit so that the visuals do the music justice, so not to upset the recording artist or insult their vision for what the music represents.

The best art is ambiguous and the artist can read into it new things, and get inspiration back out of it in return. They won’t always like the results – not every video is perfect – not every song is perfect – but they must participate in the experiment.

The role of the artist is also to subvert things and to add new meaning. This is important, because it helps create a richer tapestry of life. (I admire the French for this immensely – they never toe the line). If the original music video for a track was the only thing we ever saw and thought of upon hearing the music and the track never reached our lives in any other form, we’d all be a bit duller for that.

The Wendy Carlos Phenomena

I recently pointed out that Wendy’s music for A Clockwork Orange is guarded from even iTunes, and that my personal homage which used her track (and credited her) was ripped off both Vimeo and YouTube within hours by an asset management company. If even Apple don’t stand a chance against this weird behaviour toward the internet, then filmmakers certainly don’t.

How does this help develop the rich tapestry of life and help new artists have a voice or subvert culture? It’s particularly ironic given that Wendy’s music is based so heavily on Beethoven. I hope she has written permission from beyond the grave, and that Ludwig doesn’t have any skeletal lawyers hanging around. A Clockwork Orange’s sound track was a subversion of Beethoven and classical music. But apparently new artists aren’t allowed to subvert A Clockwork Orange.

In this respect the commercial aspect of music licensing and royalties is sickeningly mean-spirited, greedy and anti-creativity.

Some suggested in response to my article that if somebody had ‘stolen’ one of my videos and stripped it of the intended sound track, only to replace it with their own recording (as has happened with Philip Bloom on YouTube recently), this would be the same as I am doing only in reverse.

But this reversal theory is wrong.

For example – what happened to Philip Bloom was that someone passed his work off as their own, and put techno music over the top of it. That is not the same artistry as being inspired by other’s work and bending to the needs of a sound track like a filmmaker does. There is very little skill in simply overlaying music to an already edited video. The skill is in the editing and the shooting, having a voice as an artist, the artistic expression – and the song is key to that, and long may we continue to use music in our work in the right way like all filmmakers need to.

The inspiration and creativity that a song gives me whilst editing is as complex and demanding as the process of composing a song in the first place. Filmmakers – this is our art. We cannot be denied it.

Had someone taken my video and edited it to fit a different sound track – turning it into something new – and crediting me for the inspiration, I would utterly respect that – especially if I could see the effort which went into making it and if it had artistic merit. It would feel like a pleasant surprise, a new collaboration that could potentially lead somewhere interesting – a place I would never have know had there been strict copyright licensing fees on the use of my footage, or an outside company jealously guarding it for me. Seems like a waste of effort, all that shit.

Something like Creative Commons licenses are far more helpful, but I still find it a little pedantic. We just need to credit.

Using the work of others to inspire your own is what bonds artists together and creates new opportunities and friendships, whether asked for or not.

Both the cinematographer and recording artist benefit from doing each other favours and sharing their creations. Some artists seem to have a very ridged view of what their work means, or should mean for everyone. But the best art is ambiguous, people read different meanings into it and it becomes part of culture, where it is reused. Get it out there!

The Sofia Coppola Effect

It a bit rich that our fellow artists who are trying to ply their trade and make a name for themselves can even countenance the opinion that cinematographers – no matter how skilled – can never use their work without first seeking permission. Some (a minority thankfully) squeal about artistic integrity, abuse of their sound track, subversion of their vision, unpaid royalties (from proceeds which don’t even exist!), and countless other moans.

But had their song been picked up by none other than Sofia Coppola and tailored into her latest motion picture, along with full credits, I somehow don’t think they’d be moaning about the lack of permission – rather revelling in their newfound recognition and resulting sales.

It shows a lack of trust that a recording artist can be upset even before the event, about ‘amateur’ filmmakers using their tracks without permission. They assume it must turn out badly, that no good can ever come of it, and that even though they are credited, they do not want to be associated with the work of others – because they have no faith in it.

This is a very pessimistic way to look at others, and artistic endeavours in general and it tells you a lot about that kind of artist!

Soundtrack to Life

Music is a sound track to life. You take away the images and the music serves far less purpose. Equally, cinema is a lesser force without a sound track.

I put together a song with visuals all the time – not only in videos but whilst living life. I see the world through my own two eyes, whilst the track plays either live or on an iPod and I love the enjoyment of this. Being a filmmaker is my only chance to share what I feel when visuals and music join up to capture a moment or an emotion or an important part of my life.

Like in a world populated almost entirely by Eeyores from Winnie The Pooh, the negative energy surrounding some recording artists (and especially the struggling record labels themselves), will turn all of our lives a bit grey.

We will be accused of damaging the artistic integrity of music simply through opening our eyes whilst listening to our iPods.

Indeed, what is the difference between walking around somewhere beautiful with music to fit, and sharing this in video form on the internet? None at all, except the second is the least selfish.

I should be able to use whatever music I like on my videos without fear of recrimination or insults. I should allow myself to be inspired by the greatness of other artists, without having to jump through pedantic hoops before expressing it.

Why do some musicians want to stop cinematographers and filmmakers from plying their trade, and using their skills?

Some perspective is needed. Thankfully the vast majority of recording artists, if they are truly creative, will understand what cinematographers and filmmakers like myself are trying to achieve…

Freedom of expression is everything. The day we let ourselves be limited by mean pedantry and commercial greed is the day creativity dies.

Beethoven would have agreed with me.