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How much is using music on a low budget documentary going to cost?

How much is using music on a low budget documentary is going to cost?

The phrase “the more the better,” does not apply to the world of cinema. Of course, a substantial amount results in great success, but some of the greatest documentary masterpieces have been made on a low budget. Digital cameras, computer software and collaborative funding sites make it easier to produce a low budget documentary.   Of course, not all of these films are worthy of the Oscars, but multi-million dollar movies also do not mean great success. Great stories were filmed with $ 1,000, $ 100,000, or $ 100 million, but they all require great imagination, and that’s the magic of it all.


Documentary filmmaking can be quite expensive. If you’re interested in making a low budget documentary film, especially if you’ve never done one before, you’ll need to spend wisely and count every penny. Producing a documentary is extremely hard work and it is important to keep in mind what you are getting into. Many filmmakers could have saved a huge amount of money if they had planned better before – Spike Lee talks about the art of filmmaking at masterclass.

There are several factors that make films and documentaries expensive. For a documentary filmmaker, especially at the beginning of their careers, knowing how to research and be creative at the time of production is critical to a successful movie.

With more documentaries being produced than ever before, there are fewer funds and sponsorships on the market. Fortunately, the price of professional high quality cameras and microphones is getting cheaper now a days.   Some ways that several documentaries filmmakers can keep the low budget for their productions are:

  • Edit your own movie
  • Use public domain footage and photos
  • Be strategic and selective in relation to Film Festivals
  • Distribute the movie online

However, one of the things that you should keep in mind in your documentary and take this very seriously is to use music in your productions as this can greatly increase your budget.   You should keep in mind that before expressing yourself and putting your favorite songs on your documentary be aware that they are probably protected by copyright.

Even that popular song you recorded in a restaurant during a scene is also protected. This means that all music has an owner and you will need permission to use it in your movie. How much will you spend using music on your documentary? There are some options and we’ll explain everything.

Music Rights 101

One of the keys to understanding how the world of music licensing works is that every recorded piece of music has two different copyrights. They are not always owned by the same person or parties. The two separate copyrights for recorded music are:

  1. The musical composition – a song’s music and lyrics, apart from any particular recording of that composition. This copyright is owned by the songwriter and / or publisher.
  1. The sound recording – a particular recorded version of a musical composition. This copyright is owned by the recording artist and / or label.


For your documentary you’ll need:

  • Master Use License – from the record company
  • Synchronization License – from the publisher


So what are the options for you not to get in trouble with the law and respect the copyrights of the songs used on your documentary? First of all the purpose of your documentary should be taken into account so that you begin to make the contacts regarding the use of the songs chosen in your movie.   Of course there are several options and for each of them the price will be different. Here’s where you’ll find out exactly what options are available today for you to have quality music in your documentary.

Contacting the record labels

Let’s say you really want to use one specific hit song in your documentary. In this case, you will have to obtain the necessary rights for both the musical composition and the sound recording. This does not mean you have to call the artist himself if you want to add their songs in your movie. For most well-known songs, these rights are administered by an agency who acts as the intermediary. For many sound recordings, you’ll probably need to contact record labels or artists/manager. To find out who is responsible for dealing with the copyrights of a certain song and to know the values ​​of its use, here are some websites that can help you with this search:


Film Festivals X Distribution

Once you’ve found who is responsible for that song you really want to use in your documentary, you should ask permission to use the song in your production. Obviously this is a complicated, expensive and time-consuming process. From the moment you find the name of the publisher or record company you should contact them. With a Google search you can find the email, the address and the phone number of the responsible. However, you should keep in mind that copyright ownership and management can often change hands, so you may have to contact many companies until you know who to deal with the music you want.

For documentary it is very common that the film is initially used only to be shown in film festivals. You should make it clear to the publisher and record company what the purposes of using your movie will be. If it’s really just to be exhibited at festivals around the world for a year explain this to them. The chance of you getting the license is much higher. Tell, for example, that 30 seconds of the song is being used in a particular scene of your movie. The cost of this type of license is usually low, between $ 100 and $ 500.

However, if your movie ends up being chosen to be distributed or if you want to upload it on the internet you will have to renegotiate these terms. Obviously if your movie is chosen for distribution on platforms like Netflix or be shown on a major channel around the world, this license will cost even more. That way, if you’re going to receive a large amount of money for the distribution of your movie, the owners of the songs will claim an even greater percentage in the next negotiations.   Working with a composer   Another option to add songs in your documentary is to hire a composer. This option can vary widely in price.   The biggest benefit of working with a composer is that he will perform specific songs for your documentary by customizing the theme and subject of your movie. He will also make the exact cuts for editing your movie.

Low budget options

So what are the alternative options to keep your documentary on a low budget and still ensure quality music for your movies without worrying about complex licenses? The two most commonly used are: public domain songs and Royalty Free Music.

Public Domain Songs

An option to use songs in your documentaries without cost are the sites with songs of public domain, that is, music that you do not have to pay for the right to use them. There are advantages and disadvantages in these types of websites. One of them is to have to search a lot to find the ideal music for your documentary. Below, you can check some of these websites:

  • Jamendo is a site for the distribution of free songs, licensed under Creative Commons or Free Art License. There, artists can make materials available for free, and users can gain legal access to the work at no cost.
  • Free Music Archive is an interactive library of high quality, cool audio downloads. Each mp3 filed in Free Music Archive is pre-enabled for certain types of uses that could be prohibited by copyright laws that were not designed for the digital age. These uses vary and are determined by the right holders.
  • Opsound is an experience in applying the free software model to music. Musicians and sound artists are invited to add their work to Opsound using a copyleft license developed by Creative Commons. Everyone is invited to download, share, remix and rethink.
  • You are permitted to use the music for personal or commercial use. This site makes use of a simple creative commons license that allows you to use the tracks legally.

 Royalty Free Music

The best, safest, and most affordable way for you to use music on your documentary is Royalty Free Music sites like You will find hundreds of music at your disposal divided by genre. From Jazz to Classic, from Ambient to Dubstep. No matter what the subject of your film is, you’ll find the ideal track for your production on our site. Unlike the traditional ways of music license system as outlined above, you can secure the most varied tracks for your documentary by paying only one-off fee. For the use of our songs in documentaries you will pay $ 99.00 per track and will have the use of these perpetually.

Sound effects are also an important tool of creating and editing a documentary. At, we have a collection of 21,000 sound effects. Each track costs $ 3.00 and the variety for each scene of your documentary will be endless.

Any music and SFX purchased from our library comes with a signed PDF document that proves any purchase and can be used under these conditions. So that’s it. There are several ways to legally use music in your upcoming documentaries.

Doing research and strategies is of fundamental importance so that you do not get out of your budget and especially do not have problems with copyrights. After all, just as you took a long time to produce your documentary and did it with the greatest care and dedication, so did the musician.

Boost your productions with premium royalty free tracks
and stop worrying about royalties

Yann Keerim
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