How I Made It: Jeff Emtman’s music licensing secrets

October 16, 2017—Editor’s note: You know that magical feeling, when you find just the right piece of music for your show and suddenly all the loose ends come together? Jeff Emtman, host and creator of the podcast Here Be Monsters, is no stranger to that phenomenon. He started HBM in 2012, which he says he produces partly to address his many fears. He has since gone down countless rabbit holes in his search for podcast music. Read on to find his tricks of the music licensing trade.

KCRW distributes HBM, and their new season just launched on September 26! Check out the premiere (for which Jeff wrote all the music). Jeff has been an AIRster since 2013.

To start things off, how would you describe the way Here Be Monsters approaches sound? You’ve mentioned ‘deep sound.’ Can you elaborate?
In 2012, when I was first conceptualizing Here Be Monsters, I was worried that I’d have to start from scratch. I mostly studied photography in school, so I decided to make the podcast sound the way my pictures looked. I tried to apply the stuff I already knew about photography to the new (to me) medium of podcasting.  

I think that’s how the show got its sonic depth. In those early days I became enamored by stories that took place at dusk and in the night. I mixed layers of crickets, light wind through dry grass, and dogs barking in the distance together with music that made me feel like I was home.  

Now, more than five years later, I still do think about photography (exposure, depth of field, composition, etc.) when I’m mixing the show.

How did you get into licensing music for Here Be Monsters?
Necessity. My previous gig was at my college station. There I had the luxury of piggybacking on their ASCAP / BMI license, which let me legally use pretty much any song I wanted in stories for broadcast.   

But when I wound up in the world of indie podcasting, I felt a bit lost. My favorite mainstream musicians were off-limits because ASCAP/BMI/etc licenses only apply to terrestrial radio in the USA where you’re specifically playing music in its entirety (if you’re using it for music beds or modifying it for another program, you’ll need a synchronization license). Also, I really didn’t have much money. That left me with four options:

Option 1: Use copyrighted music without asking, hope no one sues me.
I’ve heard of some podcasters justifying this practice under the guise of “promotion.” This is a thinly veiled and self-interested argument. I threw this option out immediately. Also, blatant copyright infringement is the stupidest reason to get sued. Occasionally, I will use copyrighted material, but only when I’m positive I can justify it through the fair use criteria. Just because you think something is fair use, doesn’t meant the law will. Exercise extreme caution with this!

Option 2: Use Creative Commons music from The Free Music Archive or similar sites.
This was more tempting. There are very talented artists who release their work for free in exchange for credit, and/or a guarantee that work won’t be used for commercial purposes.  However, I had trouble finding artists under this umbrella that were exactly what I was looking for. Furthermore, failing to meet the terms of the Creative Commons license (intentionally or accidentally) can also make for legal trouble.   

Option 3: License music from small and independent musicians, or hire a composer.
When I worked at the radio station, a lot of small-time musicians would send us CDs. Some of them were pretty good. So I listened to them, tried to find the ones that felt like “podcast music” (see next question). Then I wrote some emails (see picture). I just tried to be personable and honest. Almost everyone responded positively.  

Just keep in mind that there are other things to consider like dual copyright in recorded music. AIR has some resources on navigating this and other music licensing questions.

Option 4: Learn to write music myself.
This is the true cheapskate’s option. I’ve always been a tinkerer. Back in college, I bought a little keyboard and just started fiddling around with it. Learning to make sounds and songs for the podcast wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be.  And it’s 100% stinkin’ free. I’ll share some music-making tips a bit later.

What steps should I take if a musician or band reaches out to me about offering their music?
I’ve always encouraged musicians to reach out. While it’s tempting to say “yes” to everyone who offers, I think there’s value in being picky. Most of these music pitches result in nice rejection emails.

But sometimes they don’t.  Getting to “yes” with a musician means looking at several related questions.


Is it good? This is the base-most smell test. Think of the aesthetic of the work you create or admire.  Look for music that either matches that aesthetic, or deliberately runs against it.  

But is it “Podcast Music”? Plenty of good music is bad for podcasts. It varies widely depending on what you’re trying to achieve, but the most common trait of good podcast music is that it adds meaning, motion, and emotion, all without taking up too much space. Consider these criteria:  

Pace: Most music has cadence, as does a voice. You, as the editor, get to choose whether your music is faster than the speaker, slower than the speaker, or roughly the same pace. Each has different effects. Listening to a slow speaker with fast music is dizzying. Matching music too closely to voice sounds either amazing or unnecessarily glossy and overproduced. For these reasons, if I’m using long stretches of music, I usually opt for songs on the slower end, between 60 and 90 beats per minute. 

Repetitiveness vs. Dynamism: Lots of musical styles have a verse-chorus-verse-chorus structure. Some styles have lots of rapid key changes. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with these features, the frequent changes will draw your listener’s ear. That’s dandy if you’re using the music to signal a transition or playing short cuts. However, it can be a problem if you’re hoping to run a track for any length of time under a voice.  

Alternatively, some musical styles focus more on repetitiveness, where the dynamism comes from the addition and subtraction of instruments, and the subtle variations on themes. I lean more towards this music because it tends to be easier to loop and less complicated for general purposes.  

Instrumentation: Certain instruments draw a lot of attention–sung lyrics certainly. Past that, I’m wary of music with high hats or cymbals, since they occupy the same set of upper frequencies that the human voice relies on for intelligibility. Electric guitars, banjos and other plucked instruments can really fill up these frequencies too. Fun fact: this is why so many podcasts put marimba music under vocals. But don’t do that—it’s cliche. If you’re set on using a song with difficult instrumentation, consider adding a low pass filter to the music to muffle it a bit and clear out some space for your voice.

Does it fill a gap? Look for music that isn’t too similar to what you already have.

Yes? License it!

If the music passes these criteria, I send an email to the artist and tell them about the licensing process. In the legal side of licensing and written agreements, there are some magic words (out of many that you need for a strong contract): perpetual, worldwide, non-exclusive, and royalty free.

  • Perpetual: I can use their music for forever
  • Worldwide: I can use it anywhere on earth
  • Non-exclusive: The musician can sell their music to other people too
  • Royalty-free: The musician will not be further compensated for my usage

There’s also more to consider, for example:

  • How much money will I pay them?
  • Will there be additional credits given to musician on our website or elsewhere?
  • Can I sell my podcast (with their music in it) to someone else?

If finding the right music feels wildly overwhelming, AIRster Will Coley’s collected a list of free, royalty free, and/or cheap podsafe music.

What are the common pitfalls I should be aware of when licensing music?
Most licensing contracts are hell to read. I mindlessly click through those End User License Agreements (EULAs) all the time, signing my rights away, giving companies all sorts of permissions that I’m unaware of. Asking me to read a EULA is like asking me to be an octopus surgeon: I couldn’t even tell you which end’s the butt. Nevertheless, a good licensing contract (always written—don’t do a verbal one) is one in which both parties are on exactly the same page about what’s happening.  

The clearer you are with musicians you license, the better. For that reason, when we license music for Here Be Monsters, we write our contract in as plain language as possible, and we define every term that could be confusing.

We also ask musicians to listen to the show before they sign on. For example, one musician I emailed responded positively, but initially requested that his music not be used behind anyone who had right-wing, religious and/or conspiratorial proclivities. Such a broad limitation would have been incredibly difficult to evaluate and enforce. So I sent the artist links to a couple episodes in which we had interviewed hard-to-like characters. Once he actually heard how we approach difficult topics, he rescinded this request and agreed to a general-purpose license, without restrictions on content. Success!

You mentioned creating music yourself. What is your creative process like when making your own music for an episode of Here Be Monsters?
Back in 2008, I used to have a refrigerator that made a particular humming sound. So I recorded the sound. It was an F sharp. I put it in my audio editor (back then, Audacity), and made three copies of the sound. The first one I left the same (F#). The second went down five semitones (C#) and the third went up four semitones (A#). These three notes make a major chord. Then I just faded between the three until I had a song. I later added a bunch more sounds to the composition, but the part of that song I’ve always liked the most was those first couple notes. While music doesn’t have to be as simple as three refrigerator notes, it certainly can be.  

This sound eventually turned into the Here Be Monsters audio logo. Even today, these two simple notes are heard near the beginning of almost every episode of HBM:

Even when my music hits the cutting room floor (often), it’s still valuable as a limbering-up practice. When I first sit down at my computer for a day of editing, I always try to open up my music app (Ableton Live) and pop out a couple melodies. When I stumble on the rare good melody, I make them into loops and export each instrument individually (aka “stem exporting”) so that I can mix and match the instruments individually when I’m working on a podcast episode.

(Below: Two songs made from a bit of poking around on my keyboard. The first hit the cutting room floor hard. The second has found its way onto a number of episodes.)

What would you say to folks who are curious about producing their own experimental music for episodes but haven’t taken the plunge?
I’d say “don’t quit before you start.” Music-making is low stakes. Just because you make it, doesn’t mean anyone has to hear it, right? Over the last 8-ish years, I’ve made something in the neighborhood of 500 music sessions. The vast majority are made without any intention and wildly unlistenable—just fingermashings on a keyboard. Yet even in the tracks that are terrible, I find new ways to think about sound. Don’t expect to be good at it from the get go, but expect to get better.

Learning the vocabulary is huge. Learn Attack Decay Sustain Release, compression, EQ—these are widely considered musical concepts, but can be completely applicable to voice. Ableton has a great free computer music course for beginners. Sound On Sound is my go-to online resource, both for music and general audio engineering.  

Find software you like. For acoustic music, your current DAW (I use Reaper) is probably all you need. For more left-field or electronic music, Reason is worth a look. This software is laid out in a really logical way that can get you up and running with minimal research.

Find sounds you like. I like sounds that are familiar. Much of my music starts as little sounds from my recorder or cell phone. Some of my favorite musical samples: a metal buoy clanking, singing with my mom in a long resonant hallway, seagulls screaming on a windy day.

Find a song you like. Try to recreate its feeling. Your attempts to steal someone else’s musical idea will likely yield interesting results. For the last 8 years, I’ve been trying to steal others’ styles and while I’ve never gotten close, my attempts have led me to interesting musical places.

Again, if you want to make your own music, you just have to do it.

Any final thoughts or advice?
My approach to music started from the necessity of a very tight budget. While that seemed limiting at first, it forced me to get creative. For that, I’m immensely thankful, since it’s helped create the trademark sound of Here Be Monsters.  

That being said, there’s a certain kind of terror I experienced in the early days of releasing the show, like “what if the audience hates this band I just paid money for?” (or worse) “what if they find out it’s me?”  

I will say that the musical imposter syndrome thing is real. It’s the same as in voice: no one hands you a certificate one day that says “you are now a board-certified musician/podcaster/what-have-you.” Your shoulder devil won’t ever whisper in your ear, “Good thing you didn’t pay a reeeaaal lawyer to write that music contract.” I think the truly dedicated just run with these skills, as terrifying as that is. If it helps you feel less like an impostor, please follow this hyperlink, which contains downloadable certificate templates that you can fill out as you please.

Do you have some work, or a creative process, you’d like to share with the network? Use the #AIRsters hashtag on social and you could wind up in an AIR spotlight!