The Creator's Guide to Royalty Free Music
Sep 26, 2019
Most film historians agree The Jazz Singer launched the Golden Age of Hollywood.
This era defined many of the major movie genres, produced thousands of motion pictures with iconic stars, and established Hollywood as the filmmaking capital of the world.
What, exactly, was so special about The Jazz Singer? It was the first major motion picture to feature a synchronized recorded music score as well as lip-synchronous singing and spoken dialogue. These technical innovations allowed recorded music and sound to work more closely with the visuals to connect audiences to the story on the screen. In essence, it ended the age of silent film.
Decades later, it’s fair to say we’re entering another golden age, this time for digital media. More affordable equipment and the advent of online distribution has helped an entire industry of independent creators flourish.
Yet whether it’s Youtube videos, independent films, or podcasts, digital media still heavily relies on music to evoke the right emotional response from the audience. A lot has changed since the Golden Age of Hollywood, but sound remains as important as ever.
Back in the day, studios hired entire orchestras to score one film. Unless you’re raking in the dough, you probably can’t fly in a full set of classically-trained musicians.
This brings us to one of the looming problems for creators: How do you get the right music for your work?
Licensing, Copyright, and Royalty Free Music
The music industry doesn’t make it easy to license songs. Song ownership is often fragmented among a number of parties, and license agreements are complex and expensive.
We’ll cover this in-depth later, but suffice it to say the music industry has not kept pace with the creator industry. Spending an entire month and $5,000 to license one song isn’t good for your mental health or the future of your project — especially if you’re creating content on a weekly basis.
And it’s not like you can just skip this part and ignore copyright law. Well, technically you could but it would be a bad idea.
In 2014, Youtube launched its Content ID algorithm, which automatically scans for copyrighted music and alerts the copyright holder. At that point, the copyright holder can have your video blocked (basically removed) at any time.
Youtube works on a strike system, and each time they have to warn you, you get a strike. You know where this is going: three strikes and you’re out. Youtube disintegrates your channel, just like Thanos.
But that’s not all. Other bad things could happen.
There’s a bizarre scenario where the copyright holder of the song you used could start monetizing ads on your videos for themselves — sort of like a retroactive licensing fee.
Or you could get sued like makeup artist and Youtube creator Michelle Phan. Phan ran a channel with over 8 million subscribers, and during her rise to fame she continually used copyrighted music without permission.
Ultra Records didn’t like that, and they sued her for $150,000, the maximum penalty for copyright infringement, per instance of misuse — 50 instances in Phan’s case.
Phan’s case is an outlier, but it does show just how serious the music industry is about copyright.
The Myth of Royalty Free Music
Driven by the complexity of music licensing and the fear of potential copyright infringement, a lot of people comb Google search results for “royalty free music.”
This term is well-intentioned but often misunderstood.
When people search for “royalty free music” they’re typically looking for a cheaper alternative to traditional licensing. After all, it makes sense to assume most of the expense is wrapped up in royalties.
Actual royalty free music is very rare. Artists typically don’t make something and then just post it on Tumblr for anyone to download with no strings attached.
And even when some noble soul does do that, the music often sounds like a backwards version of Gangnam Style that’s been run through a cheap synthesizer.
Subtext: it doesn’t sound like music you want to use for your video, film, or podcast.
The Good News
So is all hope lost? Not at all.
It is entirely possible to find high quality music at an affordable price without entangling yourself in a license that’s about as simple as Rubik’s Cube.
If that sounds like what you’re looking for, you can jump to the last chapter to find out more.
How This Guide Helps
The rest of this guide does two very important things:
- It explains how music licensing works in a way that everyone can understand, i.e., that won’t bring you to the brink of insanity.
- It shows you a better way to license music for your work. Specifically, it outlines how Soundstripe simplifies the entire licensing process and supplies creators with the music you need to keep creating.
How Music Licensing Actually Works
Why Licensing Is Important
First things first: licensing is a critical part of the music industry. Musicians deserve to profit from their work, and the sale of licenses can be one of the main ways they do so.
By definition, a license is a legally binding contract that gives someone permission to use intellectual property (in this case a song) for a set purpose over a specified period of time.
To get a music license, you need permission from the artist or whoever owns any part of the copyright, which may include: songwriters, music publishers, artists, and record labels.
Technically, any type of requirements can be put into a license, because it’s just a legal agreement between the party requesting to use the song and the copyright holder(s).
Thankfully, standards exist for various types of licensing agreements, which makes it somewhat simpler for all involved.
Anatomy of a Song
To get a better idea of how music licensing works — and why it’s so complicated — it’s best to start with how the industry defines a song.
Every song comes in two pieces: the song in its composition form (the notes, the arrangement, the lyrics) and a sound recording, i.e., the physical digital file of said song.
For example, Ben Gibbard wrote the song Such Great Heights and then created a sound recording of it for the Postal Service’s album Give Up. Shortly thereafter, Iron & Wine covered Such Great Heights and created a new sound recording of that work — but not an entirely new song.
The difference is meaningful because each half of a piece of music, the song and the sound recording, have different copyrights — and different copyright holders.
This is a critical component to music licensing, so let that sink in for a moment.
The Tangled Web of Ownership
For most use cases, you’ll want to license the song and the sound recording.
This involves getting a synchronization license and a master license — obtained from the music publisher and record label respectively — so you can pair the song with your video or drop it into your podcast. (We dive into the individual types of licenses in the next chapter.)
This is where things get complicated.
On one side, you have the copyright for the sound recording. This is typically held by the artist who recorded the song and the label that represents the artist.
On the other side, you have the copyright for the song. This is typically held by the songwriter and the publisher.
This might not sound too bad until you consider that multiple parties can be involved on each side. Perhaps four writers worked together to compose the song, and two artists collaborated on the sound recording. (This also means there would be four publishers of the song.)
To get the licenses you need, all parties involved need to agree on the license terms.
Let’s say you successfully negotiate with the four publishers, the label, both artists and three of the songwriters. That in itself is a mammoth accomplishment.
But if even one publisher refuses your terms — for whatever reason — you have to adjust the license request and get everyone’s consensus all over again.
This is why licensing is so complicated: the ownership of both the song and the sound recording can be fragmented among numerous parties. There’s no guarantee those parties will agree over your request.
If you go rogue and ignore licensing requirements, you open yourself up to legal action. Remember what happened to Michelle Phan? That wasn’t a one off. Peloton, an exercise bike manufacturer, was sued in 2019 for $150 million for using unlicensed songs in their exercise playlists.
So as painful as the licensing process may be, it’s always better to get permission than put yourself at risk of litigation and penalties.
Negotiating Usage Terms and Rights
Every license contract includes details about fees and usage rights.
For creators there are typically two types of fees, which each correspond to a certain copyright holder:
- A master license fee, paid to the owner of the sound recording, typically the label
- A synchronization license fee, paid to the owner of the song, typically the publisher
Usage terms are the guidelines under which you’ll actually use the song or songs you license. Terms fall into three categories:
This refers to how long you’ll use the song for. In this sense licenses can be either termed or perpetual.
Perpetual licenses grant you the freedom to use a song for as long as you want. (This is what we issue at Soundstripe.)
However, a perpetual license might not always include the number of uses of the song, i.e., how many projects you can use the song on.
Termed licenses put restrictions on how long a song can be used. So Apple may only get a license to use a Migos song for six months. After that six months, Apple has to renegotiate the license or stop using the song.
Licensing regulations differ by territory, so negotiating in which location, i.e. the United States versus Europe, you’ll use the song is an important part of the process.
When you draw up a license, you also need to agree on what types of media you’ll use the work for. This means you may be able to use a song on Youtube, but you’ll have to agree that you won’t use it on television, like in a commercial.
Types of Music Licenses
Technically, a license is just a legal agreement, so anything could be negotiated and included. Thankfully, the industry does have standards. It’s important to know about each type of license so you have an understanding of exactly what you need.
Here’s a rundown of the most common types of licenses and usage rights agreements.
The Sync License
For creators, a synchronization (or sync, if you’re lazy) license is a very common form of agreement for copyrighted music. Anytime a copyrighted song is played in tandem with visual media, i.e., synchronized, then this type of license is required.
Visual media comes in a lot of different flavors, which is why this license is so prevalent. Examples include television commercials, streaming ads, studio and independent films, and Youtube videos.
Even something like your company’s end-of-year video necessitates a sync license if a copyrighted song is played behind it.
The Master License
A master license gives you permission to use a recorded version of a song with either visual or audio media. That means you can sample a track for a dubstep album or put it in a documentary about urban raccoons, but you cannot record a new version. That would require a mechanical license.
Master use licenses are held by the owner of a particular sound recording. If you obtain a sync license, you typically need to obtain a master use license as well.
The Public Performance License
Don’t let the term “performance” deceive you: anytime a song is publicly performed to an audience, a public performance license is required. This classification includes everything from the music played in fancy retail stores, to jukeboxes in bars (where else do jukeboxes live these days?), to actual concerts.
Performing rights organizations (PROs) manage these licenses, issue royalties, and come collecting — on behalf of themselves and copyright holders(6) — when anyone uses a copyrighted song under their jurisdiction.
The Mechanical License
To sell reproductions — physical or digital — of a song, you need a mechanical license. Copyright holders establish the terms of a mechanical license with various parties — typically distributors, labels, and publishers.
If you plan on covering, remixing, or significantly changing a song in any way, you must have a mechanical license.
The Theatrical License
If you’re going to use a copyrighted song in a theatrical performance, you’re going to need this license. Otherwise, the whole production will be way less dramatic, because there won’t be any music.
The Print License
You need this license to reproduce the sheet music for a given copyrighted work.
A Better Way to Find the Right 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.
We get it. Soundstripe was founded by three professional musicians, so we know the challenges of licensing music as an artist and finding good music as a creator.
Our mission is simple: Keep Creators Creating. The entire reason Soundstripe exists is to give you simple and affordable access to quality music.
How it works
To access our music library, all you have to do is subscribe to one of our plans. You can pay monthly or annually. Then start downloading all the high quality songs your heart desires.
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 employ artists in-house, so we’re adding hundreds of new songs every month. We’ve also spent a lot of time making the music library easy to use, which means you can find the perfect song in minutes rather than hours.
“Soundstripe has changed the game for my team completely when it comes to scoring our work. We went from finding the perfect tracks being a tedious and time consuming part of the process to one of our absolute favorite parts of the journey to bringing our vision to life.”
- Amanda, Barefoot Church
“I always keep my Adobe Cloud and Soundstripe accounts active and paid up. Nothing else matters.”
“I’m so glad I went with Soundstripe. Access to their library of music and artists is incredible for the price. No matter what type of project you’re working on, there’s a good chance you’ll find what you need to take it to the next level. Finding music is a joy, as they have curated collections ready for you to explore.”
- Travis Kelleher
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 and see what you think.