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29 April 2021updated 22 Jul 2021 1:51pm

How composer Kevin MacLeod became the king of royalty-free music

If you've ever spent time on YouTube or TikTok, you would have probably heard MacLeod’s work.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

In September 2014, U2 released their 13th studio album Songs of Innocence by launching it directly into the digital library of all iTunes users. The album was free to download, and was immediately available to more than 500 million people. It was, Apple CEO Tim Cook said, “the largest album release of all time”. 

But it also annoyed many music fans. “Yeah, OK, this might be the largest album release in history. It’s also rock-and-roll as dystopian junk mail,” wrote Chris Richards in the Washington Post. Chris Wade in Slate agreed: “Apparently, consent and interest are no longer a requisite for owning an album, only corporate prerogative,” he wrote.

“It irritated a lot of people who got the free album,” the musician and composer Kevin MacLeod told me in April, as he looked back on the event. “But U2 knew that music does nothing if people can’t hear it. Music in a closet is useless. It has to be performed. It has to be experienced in order for it to have value. And if you can increase your chances of getting your music experienced, you will increase its value.”

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MacLeod has never pushed any of his music directly into the iTunes library of anyone – but he works on the premise that the more freely available an artist’s music is, the more successful it will be. The 48-year-old, who spoke over video call from his state-of-the-art home studio in Green Bay, Wisconsin, is the composer of over 2,000 pieces of royalty-free music that are available for use via Creative Commons. Anyone can download these tracks from his website for free, so long as they credit him as the composer. As such, his music has been used in thousands of films, videos and games.

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If you’ve spent much time at all on YouTube or similar platforms over the last 15 years, you will have heard MacLeod’s work. The flute-filled, easily meme-able “Monkeys Spinning Monkeys” appears in numerous TikToks. “Sneaky Snitch”, “Thatched Villagers”, “Carefree”: even if you’ve never heard MacLeod’s name, so much of his computer-generated, nostalgic-leaning work will sound weirdly familiar. Though MacLeod, himself a TikTok user, claimed he had never come across any of his own music on the app: “I’m in a completely different world of slow-motion pole-vaulters and rescue beavers.”

Only if he is unable to be credited in the traditional way – such as on TV and radio adverts, or for background music in retail spaces – does MacLeod charge a fee for his work. For these formats, he sells licences, which start at $30 per piece. Several production companies pay him an annual fee for his work, and he also earns money from advertising, and from Spotify, Apple Music and Amazon Music streams. Otherwise, he relies on donations via Patreon. He doesn’t even set fees for commissioned work – where he writes music specifically for someone. “If a project comes in and I want to do it, I’ll just do it. People say, ‘Hey, we want you to do the exclusive rights to it.’ I’m like, ‘Well, that’s not helping the world,’ and so I just don’t take those jobs.”

There is an ideological motive to MacLeod’s model: “I think that the system that’s been built up over the last 50 years of copyright is not helping creators.” But it’s worked out practically for him too. “This is the way to do music distribution,” he said. “You just give it away. Getting heard is the hardest thing. If you put anything in the way, if you’re like, ‘I’ll send you my album if you send me your email address?’ Nah! Nope. You’re going to lose half your people there. You have to create an account? You’re going to lose another half. It’s got to be as freely available as possible. You want as much attention as you can get.”

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“There aren’t very many people doing it the way that I’m doing it. If you’re a struggling composer, think about it. Think about moving. Think about embracing a different model, because I don’t think I’m that good. I think my distribution model is better than my skill level.”

He couldn’t, though, explain how such a distribution model might work for everyone financially. Many artists – particularly those lobbying the UK government to regulate music streaming – would strongly oppose working without payment. Few up-and-coming musicians have the luxury of being able to give their work away for free simply for exposure; next to none will have the financial cushioning that U2 did in 2014. So how has MacLeod been able to earn a living? “I don’t know how it works. I know that I’ve always ended up with enough money, but I don’t understand how society works. I don’t understand how I’m rewarded for this. I’m glad that I am. But it’s not about making money: it’s about making the best product and then figuring out that eventually people will give you money for it, I guess.”

MacLeod was working in computer programming when he first set up and started earning ad revenue from a web tool that generates free PDFs of graph paper (which is still available, alongside his music). Someone wanting to live as a full-time, self-employed composer would, he said, “have to take it on as a second job for at least a couple of weeks. Maybe you’ll have to work two hours a day on it, until you can get the Patreon up to half your rent. And then, bam! You’ll be putting in more hours, certainly, but there is a path there. Just don’t stop people: don’t stop people from giving you money; don’t stop people from liking your stuff.” And is that really feasible for the average person? “I’ve seen it happen.”

The music MacLeod releases under Creative Commons remains copyrighted, which is why users must credit him for it. But he is also working, with the help of other composers, on building up a resource of songs that are totally in the public domain – pieces of music that “anyone can use for anything”. 

“But there is a big change coming,” he added. He predicts that the first song made by artificial intelligence (AI) will enter the charts within the next six years. “The output of AI is technically uncopyrightable, which means that going forward, if we get AI that’s doing better pop music, better background music, better everything music, the value of human composers is going to drop to zero, or marginally zero, and then maybe we’ll all forget about this whole copyright problem.”

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