An Interview with Kevin MacLeod, Podcasting’s Favorite Composer

If you’ve ever listened to a podcast, you’ve probably heard Kevin MacLeod.

Kevin MacLeod is one of the most prolific composers, having written over 2000+ songs, all of which are made with the Creative Commons License, all hosted on his website. This means that as long as he’s credited, just about anyone can use them in their works. His fantastic, free music is used in films, TV shows, YouTube videos, and, yes, many podcasts.

I’ve always been curious about Kevin MacLeod, the composer so many podcasters are indebted to, and was so honored to ask him some questions about his methods, his thoughts on copyrights, and his feelings on podcasting.

Your compositions have an incredibly wide range of genres, tones, and instruments. What is your process for composing these pieces? Where do you get your inspiration?

Research! Sometimes I hear a new genre and need to pull it apart to see how it works. Sometimes I get a direction like “Vietnamese Folk Music” or “Chillwave”. So, I run off to YouTube, and listen to a lot of that, make a lot of notes, occasionally I’ll recreate a piece to see if I’m understanding it, and then . . . Build the new piece!

Do you ever worry about running out of songs to compose? Do you ever struggle with pieces sounding too much like each other?

For now? No. It still takes time to make a piece of music. I don’t have enough time to make all the things I want to make, and there are more ideas than finished releases! I imagine when the AI gets good at this, I will be able to satisfy all my curiosities is near-real-time. “Hey Maestro, get me a piece of music that is mostly 70s pop, but with the harmonic structures of the early middle ages . . . sung by Elvis Presley . . . . and . . . the lyrics are about cabbage harvesting.”

With over 2000 pieces, I imagine it’s hard to keep track of them all. Do you have any that have remained favorites over the years?

I like the light electronic pop like tunes. “Cipher,” “Pinball Spring,” “Go Cart,” “Pamgaea.”

You’ve talked about some of the more surprising places you’ve heard your work, but are there any surprising ways in which they were used? Are the many cases in which the scene/work/etc. your song is used in feels like it completely goes against the song itself? Were there any moments like that these that surprised you with how well they used the song?

Short answer; Yes! I’ve been surprised. The long answer is . . . way too long to explain.

You have a list of your 19 most downloaded tracks, the topmost being “Cottages.” What do you think it is about this piece that makes it so popular? I actually don’t know if I’ve heard this one in any podcasts or videos—do you know where it’s commonly used?

That piece is popular now because it is a new release. It’ll fall in the coming weeks to better pieces. The most popular pieces of all time are “Carefree” and “Life of Riley.” I’m pretty sure you’ll know why when you hear those.

When did you start hearing your work everywhere? When did it click for you that your work would be as popular as it is today?

I don’t know! It all started gradually many many years ago. I have yet to come to the conclusion that my work is popular today. I think it is best to keep it that way, so I keep trying to write more stuff.

In a Reddit AMA, you say that the strangest place you ever heard your own music was a train station in Pennsylvania. It’s been four years since that AMA—have you heard your work anywhere stranger or more surprising since?

I just found out that the college I attended produced a video of the famous people that went to that college. They used my music in the video. They have no idea I went to that college.

In an interview with The Daily Dot, you talk about how you create works in the Creative Commons license because the copyright system in the U.S. is broken. Was there an inciting incident that broke the straw on the camel’s back for you, or was it an overall understanding of how complicated and terrible the copyright system is?

It never made sense, really. Not that it is really complicated, just that it isn’t needed and it is an artifical brake on creativity and progress. People say the copyright system is meant to incentivize creators to make things.

What do we have now? Life +70.

Let’s say “Chris” was born in 1996 and writes a cool pop tune. Chris lives to be 83 and collects royalties the entire time. When Chris dies, there are still more royalties to be collected. Specifically, up to the year 2152. That’s when it goes into the public domain. According to my research, that is when Star Trek: Enterprise takes place. You can write a piece of music today that is rights-encumbered until well after warp drive is invented.

Makes no sense.

I think unencumbered music will just out-compete heavily protected music. I hope it will.

Your work is used heavily in podcasting. Like your music, podcasting is often talked about with this sort of rebellious nature, given it’s entertainment that’s made for free (excluding podcasts that are paywalled). What are your thoughts on podcasting and the wave of entertainment and art being made for free for its audience?

I pay for some podcasts. I get most of them for free. There are some topics and formats that work better for a pay-for audience, and I think that’s great! I subscribe to Abracababble, which is a [Patreon-exclusive] podcast about stage magic and shows. Since they talk about actual magic stuff in the show, they don’t want that downloaded by everyone . . . or it kind of makes magic suck.  

Entertainment is changing. I’m pretty sure cable companies are losing customers every day. The people who leave cable TV now have extra money they can spend on Netflix, YouTube, Amazon, and direct! I think that’s awesome.

When I told some podcasters that you might be interested in an interview, they were elated. There was such a strong, immediate outpouring of how much they appreciate your work. The podcasters I talked to were so reverent and appreciative; they talked about you with more awe than I hear them talk about most big-name podcasters. Is there anything you’d like to say to those podcasters?

Yeah! Who are you? We should hang out! I’m writing music in the dark here, talk to me and tell me the kinds of things you folks need! Come on over to Patreon. It is really fun over there!

What podcasts are you listening to?

No Agenda – with Adam Curry (the guy who started podcasts) and John C Dvorak. It is a bizarre mix of real world politics and shadow conspiracies and aliens.

Ice Cream Social – Paul Mattingly, Matt Donnelly, and Jacob the Audio Guy are actual people who talk about getting gigs and building shows in Las Vegas. This is my favorite “reality” podcast.

Mac Break Weekly – Tech podcast with Leo Laporte, Alex Lindsay, and Andy Inhatko.

Hello Internet – C.P.G. Grey and Brady Haran. Winner “2 guys talking” style podcast.

Hello from the Magic Tavern – This fictional interview show has been going for 3 and a half, maybe a little more years. Delightful!

Liftoff, MECO [Main Engine Cut Off], and Astronomy Cast are my go-tos for space news

Dollop, Citation Needed, and Hardcore History round out the infotainment.

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