A Very Important Guide to Podcast Music
Oct 29, 2019
There’s no denying it: the podcast medium is having its moment in the spotlight.
Like YouTube videos and vlogging, podcasting has experienced a dramatic improvement in production value to accompany it. Music is the most noteworthy upgrade. As podcasting steps in to the limelight, podcast music is there, adding depth and nuance to the scene.
It’s no coincidence that the most famous podcasts in recent memory also have the most compelling music — music that’s often created by recognizable recording artists.
Serial is the most obvious example. By taking an episodic approach to investigative journalism, Serial hooked millions of listeners and won numerous awards.
But listen closely, and you’ll notice Serial did something else too: it introduced us to a score that was just as dramatic as the content of the show. Give the intro a listen if you haven’t heard it before (or even if you have, it’s worth another go):
The music is so good because the producers enlisted professional help. The entire score for Serial was composed by Nick Thorburn of indie stalwarts Islands.
Serial isn’t the only show that’s turning to established musicians to compose music to support the content. WNYC, the New York City affiliate for NPR, maintains an entire roster of composers who create music for the station’s shows. Andrew Dust from fun. worked on the theme for Women of the Hour.
The standard of podcast music is improving dramatically. In concert, so are the expectations of listeners.
Why good podcast music matters
Content will always be the most important part of any podcast.
Shows that interview intriguing guests or telling arresting stories better than the competition will always attract more listeners.
But the sounds that accompany the content are important, too.
The right intro music can hook new listeners as soon as they press play. Instead of waiting for the story to build some momentum, they’ll be instantly engaged by the music.
Using the same music for every show can also tap into the Familiarity Principle, a psychological phenomenon by which people develop a preference for something simply by being exposed to that same thing multiple times. Just having consistent podcast music will make your show more enjoyable to listeners.
These production details matter because everyone needs a plan to grow their audience.
Meet your competition. Some of them have songs by T-Bone Burnett.
At its core, music can not only help you develop a more distinct brand for your show, but can also help your content stand out against the ever-growing list of podcasts you’re competing against for listeners.
What else we’ll cover
Choosing the right podcast music isn’t easy. As you’ll see, this emerging genre has unique characteristics that you should consider when selecting tracks for your show.
This guide is here to help you do that. Here’s what you’ll learn in the following chapters:
I. The Types of Podcast Music
II. How to License Podcast Music
III. Where to Find Royalty-Free Podcast Music
Sound good? Then let’s go.
I. The 3 Types of Podcast Music
It’s tempting to think the music for your show needs to be attention grabbing, like what you’d hear on the radio. If all of your listeners are operating on 5 second attention spans, shouldn’t your intro hook them with an irresistible beat?
In Pitchfork’s interview with multiple podcast producers and musicians, one theme became particularly clear: podcast music isn’t supposed to be overtly catchy.
The primary responsibility of this music is to enhance your content, not compete with it. Or as the article eloquently states: “At best, podcast music amplifies not only what’s being said, but the act of saying.”
So does that mean you want to pick an intro that’s droll? Absolutely not. It means that you should think of your intro music (and the segment breaks and the outro) as a segue to the main course of your show, the content.
The music isn’t content itself; it exists to serve and enhance your dialogue.
How to find your sound
Despite not being the main draw, podcast music can set the stage for your story. How well it does so depends on how effectively the tracks you choose match the tone of your content.
This might sound intimidating at first. After all, there are producers who do this stuff for a living.
Luckily, there’s a simple method to find music with just the right tone for your show. Just think of three words that describe the content of your podcast, and then find tracks that match some (or all) of these three adjectives.
Let’s use Serial as an example.
Since this show deals with investigative journalism, it could be described as serious. Most investigations are told as mysteries, so you could also describe the show as suspenseful.
However, the show never dips into horror. It remains accessible to most listeners — Serial is journalism, not Jaws.
If you were choosing the music for Serial, you could use those three adjectives to help judge which music is appropriate for the show. Is this the most sophisticated method for scoring podcasts? No. But does it work? Absolutely.
3 types of podcast music you need for your show
Music does three basic jobs in podcasts: it helps with the intro, lives in the background of certain segments, and closes the show.
This section provides some context for each type of podcast music and provides some guidance for choosing the right tunes.
1. Intro Music
If there’s one place to really focus on hooking listeners with just music, it’s the introduction to your show.
Listening to podcasts is a private experience. When people put on headphones and tune in to your show, they’re actually tuning out everything else.
To that end, your podcast intro music should be compelling enough to seize listeners’ attention and focus them on the opening words of that episode.
Use the model we discussed in the last section to narrow down the style of music you’re looking for, and then look for something that just feels right. Podcast intros are typically 15 to 30 seconds long, so you’ll always want to make sure the song you choose has it’s best hook in that time frame.
2. Background music
At certain points in the show, there will be moments when you want to highlight a particular piece of dialogue.
The obvious way to do this is to introduce background music to frame the content and provide guidance to the listener about how they should feel at that particular moment.
This needs to be done with care, or else the music will leap out of the background and push the content — the stuff you really want people to hear — into obscurity. Obviously, that’s not the result you or the audience wants, so a good best practice is to keep background music extraordinarily simple.
This is typically a good use for song STEMS, or the individual pieces of a song. Instead of putting a multi-instrument track behind the dialogue, you could use a single guitar rift or drum fill.
Background music also comes in to play when there are no words being spoken, when you’re giving the audience a bit of breathing room to digest what they just heard. The background music of transitions adheres to most of the same rules we just outlined — you want transitions to be moments of reflection, not interruptions that drag the audience out of focus.
3. Outro Music
The ending of your show is nearly as important as the beginning.
Like it or not, the way you end a show will have a heavy influence on how listeners feel about the episode as a whole. Did you tie the story up? Did you recap what happened and synthesize it in a satisfactory way?
Music can certainly help you close the show, but like background music, outro music needs to take a backseat to the dialogue. An easy way to do this is to use your intro music, but reduce the volume so it plays second fiddle to the closing thoughts you’re leaving your audience with.
II. How to License Podcast Music
Now for the difficult part. Where, exactly, are you going to find podcast music to use in your show?
Unless you find music that’s completely free, you’re going to have to license some songs. Sure, free music exists, but it’s almost always sub par and overused. The entire point of using music in your podcast is to increase the production value, and free music works against that goal.
That leaves music licensing.
Why you need to license music
Music licensing is complicated. Entire books have been written about the intricacies of copyright law and the many moving parts involved in licensing a song.
Still, music licensing is something you need to understand, because copyright violations can cost you.
Peloton is a good example. The company makes workout bikes, but they also provide workout classes that customers can follow when they work out. And those classes have music playlists.
Peloton loaded those playlists up with famous songs, which people loved. But the company forgot to license the rights to all of those songs, which made some organizations pretty upset. Eventually, a group of music publishers sued Peloton for $150 million due to copyright infringement.
Now, if you use a song without licensing it, will you get sued for $150 million? No. But you could be forced to take down any episodes in which the offending music was used. In more severe cases, you could be fined. Or if you have a video podcast on YouTube, your content can be demonetized.
By the way, don’t be swayed by myths like the 10 Second Rule or the idea that if your podcast doesn’t make money, you don’t need to license the music you use.
Those are myths, and they can get you sued.
So, it’s always better to just license the music. Here’s how that works.
How music licensing works
Every piece of music consists of two parts: the song / composition and the sound recording.
The songwriters and publishers own the rights to the song, while the label and artists (the people who perform the song, not necessarily the people who wrote it) own the rights to the sound recording.
If you want to use a song in your podcast, you need to get legal permission to do so. That means obtaining a license, which is a legal agreement between the rights holders and you.
Licensing fees are one of the main ways artists, labels, songwriters, et al get paid. So it’s a fundamental part of the music business.
To use a song, you need to get permission from every right holder. If even one says no — either because they don’t like how you’re going to use the music or don’t agree to the fee you’ve offered — then you can’t license the song.
Now consider that there could be multiple songwriters or multiple artists involved in one song. And you need to get all of their permission. Intense, right?
But wait there’s more.
There are multiple types of licenses, and they vary by use case.
For podcasting, you need to obtain a sync license — so called because it was first introduced as a license for “syncing” music to video. A sync license includes usage rights to the sound recording and the composition.
The question is: How do you do so without starting a letter writing campaign to 7 copyrights holders?
III. Where to Find Royalty-Free Podcast Music
If you’ve read any of what I’ve just written, or even worse, tried to license music firsthand, you know the current processes just don’t work for creators.
Whether it’s the time commitment of negotiations or the actual cost of paying for the music license, there are too many barriers between podcasters and quality royalty-free music.
These obstacles can be even more complex for podcasters, because you may need to obtain a more expensive license to use a song in multiple episodes of your show.
Here’s the good news: The entire reason Soundstripe exists is to give you easy and affordable access to quality music for your projects.
How our audio library works
To access our music library, all you have to do is subscribe to one of our plans. You can pay monthly or annually. As soon as you sign up, you get instant access to thousands of quality royalty-free tracks.
Behold, the Soundstripe audio library.
We’ve already negotiated licenses with every copyright owner that contributes to our library. That means you don’t have to move any mountains to license music. We’ve already done the legwork for you.
Every song you download comes with a single-use sync license, so you can utilize each track on whatever project you want, on whatever channels you please.
We’re also adding hundreds of new songs every month, so if you need a new song for a transition, or want to change up your intro song, you’ll always have options. Our audio library has everything from indie rock to full-fledged classical compositions.
We’ve also spent a lot of time making our music library easy to use, so you can find the perfect song in minutes rather than hours.
Here's what some creatives think about it:
“If you’re on a super tight budget, but need loads of music, [Soundstripe] is the best choice.”
- Rob Hardy, Founder of Filmmaker Freedom
“The quality, variety, ease of use, and the price is unbeatable.”
- Dan, Good Pelican Videography
“Soundstripe is one of the best options I’ve found out there.”- Ryan Snaadt, Youtube influencer
Ready to get moving? Good call. You can sign up here to get started.
Need more time? That’s cool, too. Feel free to browse our music library, listen to a few tracks, and see what you think.
If you'd like to read even more about podcast music, here are even more resources to check out: