A good soundtrack can make the difference between a travel film that is a snooze and one that is stunning.

The days of sharing vacation memories though boring slide shows are long past. Turning hours of camcorder footage into something more watchable than a dull slide show, however, is another matter. The key to a great travel film is music.

Here are a handful of ways to get the music you’ll need for a killer soundtrack:

Copyrighted Music

Does it seem like the easiest way to score your movie might be to drag a few choice tracks from iTunes or a CD into your video editing software? Well, hold on a second there, Michael Bay — do you have permission to use those copyrighted tunes?

Without diving too deep into the nebulous waters of international copyright law, it’s best to assume that you can’t get the rights to recorded music unless you are willing to pay handsomely for it.

There are, however, two possible exceptions. The first is private home use, which means you’re just making the movie for your own entertainment and aren’t going to show it to anyone except maybe your grandma and cousins. In the United States, home use is considered fair use of copyrighted material, and most other countries have similar provisions.

Photo by Square Eye.

You Tube

The second possibility is YouTube, which has negotiated deals with the world’s “Big Four” record labels, Warner, BMI, Universal, and Sony BMG, to allow its users the right to use those companies’ songs in their videos. Since the Big Four have swallowed up most smaller record labels, this includes 71% of the music sold each year.

However, the record labels only hold the licenses for specific recordings of songs, and the National Music Publishers Association, which represents songwriters and composers, is involved in a class-action suit against YouTube for copyright infringement. So you’re cleared to use major label recordings, but without permission to use the songs themselves, it’s still copyright infringement. See how quickly this gets convoluted?

But even if copyrighted music was totally good to go on YouTube, there are plenty of other places you might want to show your travel movie. If you ever plan on entering it in a film festival, showing it at a conference, getting it on television or even just distributing copies on DVD, you’ll need to clear your music licenses.

Covers Of Copyrighted Songs

If you’ve ever bought a budget CD titled something like “Best Classic Rock Songs!” only to be disappointed that they weren’t the original, famous recordings, it’s because it’s cheaper to license a song than a specific recording.

The same goes for a filmmaker who records her own acoustic version of “On The Road Again” to play under video of hitchhiking across Alabama — she only has to get permission from the record company and the songwriter.

If she wanted to use Willie Nelson’s version of the song (or Bob Dylan’s), she would need permission from the recording artist as well, which is usually far beyond the budget of a backpacking filmmaker.

Photo by Rabble.

Make Your Own Music

Of course, the filmmaker who performs and records her own cover of a famous song is only one step away from being totally free of copyright concerns by writing the songs herself. It fits in with the Do-It-Yourself culture of backpacking, but big Hollywood filmmakers like Clint Eastwood and Robert Rodriguez score their own films, too.

Windows users can download the free program Acid Xpress, and Mac users can turn to Apple’s Garage Band to help create original music for a movie score.

You don’t need much musical know-how to work either of these programs, which are based around creating songs out of sequences of short sound files called loops. Each comes with a library of ready-to-use, royalty-free loops, and plenty of others can be found online.

Stringing loops together is easy as using drag-and-drop video editing software like iMovie or Acid Xpress, so filmmakers should feel right at home, and adding your own vocal or instrumental track is also a piece of cake.

There’s no reason you need to score your travel film with the music you listened to on your trip — instead, why not use the music you created while you were there?

Photo by Leo Prieto.

Some tips to consider:

– If there’s a specific song you really want to use, consider putting it into your video editor first and cutting the video to fit the rhythm of the song rather than trying to shoehorn the song in after the film is edited.

– You know you’ve immersed yourself in a culture when you’ve found the local music scene … or at least chatted up some street musicians. Ask them if you can record some of their music to really get an authentic soundtrack. Just be sure to tell them how you’ll use it.

– Why not make a music video about your time overseas? Check out these examples from Korea and Germany

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community connection

There are dozens of talented filmmakers from amateurs to professionals in the Matador community.

Interested in learning more about how to become a Backpack Filmmaker? Check out this article.