Many wedding photographers use music to some degree on their Web sites. Proponents say that music helps create and enhance the emotional experience, and also serves to brand the wedding photographer’s approach to the craft.
Unfortunately, a large number of wedding photographers use music on their sites illegally, whether through a lack of familiarity with the law, a rationalization that their use is “promoting the artist,” or blatant disregard. This is ironic, since like photography, music is creative property, and the legal rights of its creators need to be respected.
And even properly licensed music has to be used carefully. The selection of songs, how and where on the site music is employed and the amount of user control are all critical factors that interact to either create a memorable experience or turn off the viewer. Plus, good pictures are good pictures with or without the music, and a bad photo isn’t going to be helped much by a song.
All of this makes the use of music an extremely important and delicate application for any wedding photographer.
You would think that as creative professionals wedding photographers would be extremely sensitive about copyright, but that’s not always the case. In fact this is perhaps the most vexing issue when it comes to using music on Web sites, since licensing commercial songs is a topic of some complexity and great misunderstanding.
This creates a paradox that has become a real problem: While photographers are highly protective of their images, they often will cut corners illegally and use all manner of rationales to use the copyrighted songs of others without paying for them. Some think that if a client buys a CD or pays for an iTunes download, then the photographer has the right to use the song in a publicly viewable slideshow of that couple. Others believe that using less than 20 or 30 seconds of a music clip is permissible.
None of this is correct. In order to use any commercial music on your site, you must license it from the artist or from one of the major music publishing agencies, the American Society of Music Composers and Publishers (ASCAP) or Broadcast Music Incorporated (BMI). Only recently have these organizations began to offer licensing models for music use on Web sites, and in all cases the agreements are somewhat complex. (See the sidebar at the end of this article for useful music licensing links.)
If you go your own way without proper licensing, you may face a stiff fine ranging into many thousands of dollars, depending on your site traffic and how you used the copyrighted music. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) has been very aggressive over the last few years in suing for music piracy.
Texas, USA-based photographer Joseph Victor Stefanchik says he’s sick of wedding photographers violating copyright. “People are so crazed about maintaining their own copyright with their own clients. They’re all upset and post all over the forums. Then they turn around a break someone else’s copyright in a heartbeat,” he says. “If someone was made an example for violating this, I expect that all of this illegal use would stop.”
“Some photographers have this weird, misconstrued idea that they’re helping to promote the musician,” he continues. “You’re not working for these people. It’s a law being broken, it’s out of hand, and it needs to stop.”
Generally, for a site that is not in itself directly generating revenue, but is simply promoting your work, you can now strike a deal that involves an annual fee of a few hundred dollars plus a charge based on how many songs you’re using, whether the user has any control over them (less control is cheaper), and how many page impressions you log each year.
“For those of us who want to do the right thing, it’s difficult,” states Mark Adams, a Georgia, USA-based WPJA member who uses commercial songs on the Web site for his company, LaCour. “You look at the photography business, were you can go online and download something from Getty for the type of use you want, but for music it’s not so easy.”
Adams uses an "ASCAP Experimental License Agreement for Internet Sites & Services" for music on his site. It costs $288 annually, and allows you to use anything in ASCAP’s catalog so long as you're not selling a product with the song itself, or allowing the user to select which piece of music is played. It covers 365,000 "user sessions" (which cannot be more than one hour in length) annually.
BMI offers a similar license that requires a $299 annual fee, plus a charge amounting to 0.0004 cents per page impression. That means that 100,000 page impressions over the course of the year would currently cost you the $299 plus an additional $40. It sounds reasonable, but the agreements are restrictive, with numerous conditions and reporting requirements, so check the ASCAP and BMI Web sites for the latest information.
A safer, simpler and often more effective solution is to commission your own music, avoiding possible legal entanglements, with the added creative opportunity to provide a totally unique user experience.
Stefanchik commissions a classically trained pianist and composer working on an electronic keyboard to create custom music for his site. “Therefore, we own the music,” he explains. “When we present to a client after a wedding with a slide show, the musician that we’ve hired has actually seen all of their pictures, and he writes a score based on those pictures. He gives a good sense of the beginning, middle and end; how we’re trying to tell a story, the lows and highs, so it really makes sense. It’s a perfect match, instead of a random song.”
Pennsylvania, USA-based WPJA member Joseph Gidjunis has commissioned music from a local band and has included a link to them from his site. First he purchased the rights for several songs they had already recorded. “When I first started I wanted to have music and those tracks spoke to me. I felt they represented the studio well. But I also wanted to get something more fine-tuned.” So, he commissioned them to write one song specifically for the site. He paid a flat fee for the band reviewing his site, writing and recording the song, and unlimited use.
“I never wanted to get that angry lawyer letter,” Gidjunis states.
Assuming you’re using it legally, where and how you use music on your site are additional critical factors that can either clarify or muddy the mix.
Gidjunis notes that music helps set a mood, what emotional perspectives you pursue as a photographer and what you hope to convey to your audience. He believes that a certain rhythm, an upbeat groove or a more classic or traditional sound will add to the experience.
“You may even want to get it playing before an image even pops up to get the visitor’s attention,” he advises. “You want to get the rhythm going so that they feel whatever you want them to experience.”
Music plays completely through on his site, though he is beginning to think about whether there are parts where perhaps it shouldn’t play. “Silence can create it’s own experience, too,” he says. “That can make a different experience and evoke the emotion that you want.”
And in this day and age, Stefanchik believes that a multimedia presentation is generally expected. “As technology progresses people are going to want to be entertained even more,” he notes. “You hear music at home, in your car, on TV and on the Web.”
“A Web site is now a whole presentation,” agrees Gidjunis. “You can’t just do it with your pictures alone, and music can put your images over the top with certain clients. With the music coming into their ears and your images coming into their eyes, you will then be able to tell them ‘this is who we are and this is what we will try to do for your day.’”
Yet music alone does not make the photographer, and can even be a distraction to some. “Our computers are almost always muted here, especially when applicant sites are being reviewed for membership inclusion,” states WPJA founder David Roberts. “I find that music can be as distracting as text over a photo, a Photoshop tweak or in some cases a bad caption. I love when strong images can just speak for themselves. I just want to see good pictures. Period. I’m in the business of promoting good photographers, that is the bottom line here.” Still, he agrees that quality music can be effective when presented with great photography.
Part of using music successfully is about control, and how much of it should you give your visitors. How much user control is enough, or too much?
Gidjunis believes that as the photographer you are generating the experience, so you should have the control over how you evoke emotion for the visitors. Simply put, he recommends minimal user control. “While being able to turn the music on and off is probably a good feature, I don’t think that the user should have that much control over the initial Web site experience,” he notes. The photographer or studio should be dictating the experience just like they dictate the picture and the emotion coming from it.”
His Web site typically cycles through four tracks, with a control to stop or forward ahead to next song. “I probably have about 400 different images on the site, so I need more music so people don’t get bored listening to the same song over and over,” he notes.
Viewers landing on Adams’ LaCour site have the option to either mute the songs or let them play, as well as the choice of just clicking into the gallery of images, which ends the music.
“Most visitors like to have a little bit of control,” he says. They will go on a Web site at work, and it can open with unexpected, even jarring, loud music. When I go to Web sites and the music starts playing, I’m not necessarily looking at the site in an environment that’s conducive to visual learning, and the first thing I’m doing is looking for the stop or pause button. I don’t want the first thing people do on our site is to be looking for the mute button.”
Visitors to Adams’ site can get engaged with the pictures, with at least a couple of songs for each slideshow. “When they make that choice to click on the slide show, at that point I think most people are savvy enough to know that it is going to have music. And then they can put their headphones on, or adjust the speakers and enjoy that experience.”
Stefanchik typically uses a couple of songs on his site. “I think a volume control is about all the controls viewers need,” he opines. “If there are too many options you’ll have them worrying more about your site navigation than the pictures they should be viewing.”
He says he wants visitors to experience big, clear pictures and easy navigation, with a really sweet tune playing in the background. “It catches that sixth or seventh sense—that whole experience that you’re excited about,” he explains. “You may not know the couple from Adam, but you’re excited about their pictures, thinking ‘what can this guy do for us?’”
Given the emotional power of music, you’ve got to be careful in selecting and using it, if you decide to use it at all. You need to be thoughtful and purposeful with what you choose to do so that it has a positive impact and that it doesn’t detract from the experience you’re trying to provide.
If you’re using music, make sure you’re doing so legally, and consistently. “Stay away of going a popular route just because it is popular,” Gidjunis recommends. “Find something that is more unique to your site and stick with that. I know a lot of photographers will change music almost monthly. I have found that in keeping a more consistent tone while adding to the site, I’ve been able to convey the same experience to clients each year, and they can come back and say ‘oh yeah I remember that song.’”
—by Michael Roney for the Wedding Photojournalist Association