“Royalty Free: The Music of Kevin Macleod” – There’s always a price to pay [MOVIE REVIEW]

Kevin MacLeod in "Royalty Free," Photo courtesy of First Run Features,

Kevin MacLeod in “Royalty Free.” Photo courtesy of First Run Features.

“Royalty Free,” the very ambitious new documentary by Ryan Camarda, bites off more than we can chew. Ostensibly about Kevin Macleod whose royalty-free music is everywhere even if you don’t know his name, the narrative veers into discussions more about the digital age than about Kevin. Kevin alone would have been enough without stretching this film into what amounts to a diatribe against mainstream media fighting the wave of digital music and synthesizers that replicate all the instruments of an orchestra. More about that later. First we need to talk about Kevin. He’s an extraordinarily talented, self-effacing, insecure, and depressive personality whose fingerprints are everywhere in the music world.

Kevin Macleod is physically unprepossessing in his ubiquitous t-shirt and blank expression. He began composing music on his computer as a youngster with an ear for melody and atmosphere. He would compose and then release the music into the ether, no copyright, no royalty, just music that could be used by anyone. His music was just out there and eventually it was found and used. People on a budget, grandmas creating kitten videos, independent film producers, he had music that fit all categories. There was always a familiar quality to it. His music summons up a mood or feeling that’s instantly recognizable. There is nothing new, just something that will already be satisfying. When YouTube began to crack down on copyright infringement, Kevin’s music got a huge boost. At this point in time, his thousands of compositions have garnered billions of views on multiple platforms. Kevin Macleod’s songs are this generation’s Muzak unencumbered by royalties. He only asks for attribution and the occasional $30 license fee. As such, he has become one of the most downloaded composers in the world.

How does he live, you might ask? Very well apparently because there are still payments, whether it’s his $30 license fee, donations from grateful users, custom compositions, and/or ad revenues. Giving away his music was an inadvertent stealth marketing campaign because it got him out there in a big way and increased his work-for-hire commissions. But by dominating this field, he’s made it much harder for other musicians, especially when big corporations use his generically pleasant music for their ad campaigns. But, to be fair, that’s not Kevin’s fault; it’s big business cutting costs and you get what you pay for because Kevin is no Barry Manilow. While you may recognize the familiarity of his sound, you most likely won’t be humming his music in the shower.

The upside to his license-free tunes is that anyone can use them. The downside to his license-free tunes is that anyone can use them. For the former, the aforementioned grandma and her kitten videos; for the latter it’s David Dukes speaking to a rally of white supremacists with Kevin’s music playing in the background. He doesn’t recognize there might be a problem when his music is used to back abhorrent views. Giving the example of Nazis killing puppies, he says that no one thinks of the composer’s role in this; that the creator of the music used for any purpose is blameless. He posits that the composer had a job to do and he really believes that doing the job was his obligation to fulfill the client’s wishes. Of course most often he just throws his music out there for anyone to use however they want. For him, once it’s published and it goes out in the world, you no longer have any control because it’s no longer yours. This is the recklessness of not licensing or stipulating use. When you license your work, even if it’s for a nominal amount, you can stipulate how it is and isn’t used. Just ask any musician whose song was co-opted by Donald Trump for his campaign.

Many of Kevin’s friends, some of whom now work for him, and his girlfriend, an opera singer who speaks eloquently on his behalf, are interviewed. They’re experts on being friends with him, but their bona fides in the world of composition are pretty sketchy.

Christopher Sprigman, formerly on the Creative Commons Board, in “Royalty Free.” Photo courtesy of First Run Features.

At some point the documentary veers into a discussion of the Creative Commons company, a non-profit that functions as a clearinghouse for content that sidesteps copyright. They offer license agreements that function on different levels for different needs. The explanation of their business model of “some rights reserved” was very fuzzy.

More troubling is the way Camarda presents the ongoing job losses for musicians. Stating that synthesizers can replicate any instrument, it is presumed that orchestras may become a thing of the past. Downsizing will save a lot of money from the standpoint of live music versus recorded. Broadway has fought this fight for years as the size of live orchestras in the pit of musicals has continually decreased. The ear, they insist, cannot hear the difference between digital and analog music and play both versions of a piece to underscore their position. Of course the fallacy of that argument is that they were playing both in the soundtrack where it was very difficult to hear any differences. However, anyone who has ever sat in a theater where the music was recorded or played on a synthesizer substituting for many of the instruments and compared it with the sound coming from a Broadway orchestra playing live would have no difficulty in discerning the difference. Synthesizers are a marvelous invention but they are no substitute for the real thing in many live environments.

Had the filmmaker stayed on the interesting story of Kevin and defined the so-called Creative Commons system in understandable terms, it might have been a better documentary. In the end, I’m not sure what it was supposed to be about. Camarda over-reached in some cases and didn’t reach far enough in others. Not to be too cold, but I don’t care much what Kevin’s friends had to say. They didn’t really add useful information to the narrative.

The film moves right along, there are quotable moments, and the digital filming and sound is pristine. But in the end, to paraphrase someone who almost always misspoke, I really don’t care. Do you?

Streaming March 29 on Apple TV, iTunes, and Vimeo. 


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