Few composers can claim to have their music featured in dominatrix porn, unboxing videos, David Duke’s YouTube channel, and a Martin Scorsese movie. Royalty Free: The Music of Kevin MacLeod is an education on the man who allows his compositions to be used in such a variety. When you first see MacLeod, he doesn’t look like your typical composer. There’s nothing eccentric about his dress, and there’s no air of mystery about him. He looks like a guy who works at Best Buy and has strong opinions on graphics cards.
Behind this façade of normalcy, MacLeod has almost 3,000 IMDB credits—the most of any composer— and has written thousands upon thousands of songs. What makes him unique as a musician is his business model. In the music business, musicians are typically paid every time their compositions are used. MacLeod, on the other hand, only takes a one-time payment. At first glance, selling music for a flat fee rather than getting consistent royalties sounds like a dumb move, as most innovations do. It was such a foolish move on the composer’s part that his songs became favorites of indie creators with tight budgets. With his music so cheap, so widely used, and so abundant, his reputation began to swell. After many years of falling up, he is now among the top 1% of Wisconsin’s wealthiest people.
“… musicians are typically paid every time their compositions are used. MacLeod…only takes a one-time payment.”
It’s these kinds of small, weird stories that tend to slip past everyone, so it’s nice that a documentary came around to hold it in place for a photograph. Of Royalty Free‘s two primary points of interest, the first is Kevin MacLeod himself. He’s one of those people who stumble into success and doesn’t seem too impressed with it. When prodded about his music’s use in things like porn or David Duke videos, MacLeod doesn’t really care. When asked about other composers’ vitriol for his business model, which is such a good deal that it hogs the already struggling market, MacLeod compares himself to Walmart and Amazon moving in next door to the mom-and-pop shop. Unashamed and unaffected by success, he is a character.
The other route the documentary takes is how the subject’s music and business model relate to the industry as a whole. At a time when both the business and creative sides of music are limping, MacLeod is doing just fine. Has the concept of royalties outlived its usefulness? The movie makes a good case that the answer is yes. In a world where the only way a musician makes money is through touring, it’s no surprise that modern music is so performative and vapid. Even though art likes to stick its nose in the air and moodily smoke a cigarette in the corner, it needs the businessman more than it wants to admit. There’s also the digital aspect of how he makes music, using software and artificial instruments. While he claims that you can’t tell the difference, there is a noticeable loss of something. If you create all the same conditions for B.B. King, Django Reinhardt, and Jimmy Page to play a song, all of them are going to sound different. Or maybe I’d just like to believe that.
Aside from the odd puppet show, Royalty Free: The Music of Kevin MacLeod gives Kevin MacLeod the usual documentary treatment. It’s what you expect and not necessarily what you want. Picking up the slack is the subject itself, which is so unusual and deceptively meaningful that you’re almost glad the movie stays out of the way.
"…music featured in dominatrix porn, unboxing videos, David Duke's YouTube channel, and a Martin Scorsese movie."