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What Is Royalty Free Music?

Drew Gula

Feb 28, 2020

 *Updated December 2021


Life in the digital age is full of tough questions. 

From conspiracy theories to intellectual property arguments, nothing is sacred anymore. It’s almost like we’re in some sort of cyber Wild West where nobody knows the rules until they break them. And once they did, it’s too late to back down.

In this environment, it’s important for content creators to understand copyright law — it’s how you protect yourself and your work.

A cease and desist order will hurt your reputation, but a full on copyright claim could lead to $100,000 in legal fees and, in the worst case scenario, jail time.

That’s why one of the most important questions creators can ask is, “What is royalty free music?” It’s a way to take control in your own hands. 

Probably not something you want to take a risk with. So when it comes to copyright issues — particularly music licensing — you need to educate yourself on this topic so you can make sure all of your creative and commercial projects are legally covered.


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What Is Royalty Free Music?

Royalty free music allows content creators to use music in their projects without having to share revenue with the multitude of rights holders, like labels, publishers, and artists.

In a nutshell, creators license individual songs for specific projects, and those licenses come directly from a royalty free music company rather than an individual artist or record label. As a result, the content creator won’t be required to pay royalties on their video’s success.

But there is a lot more to it than that. There are other details about royalty free music (and music licensing as a whole) that you really need to know in order to legally protect yourself.

That knowledge help you use royalty free music correctly so you get to keep the money your videos generate.

The Basics Of Music Licensing

Before we get finding a royalty fee music license, we need to take a few steps back and look at the big picture. And that really means addressing the legal side of copyrighted music.

Copyright law exists to protect people’s work. Whether that’s a technological breakthrough or a relaxing song, a copyright gives the creator a chance to “own” the thing they’ve invested time and money into.

On the other side of the coin, licensing is the process of paying someone to use the product or song they made. As a content creator, you probably don’t write the music you use in your films, commercial projects, or vlogs. That means you’ll have to get songs made by other people.

But you can’t just download songs you like and drop them into your project timeline. (Well, you could, but that would be illegal.)

Even if you purchase an album or track on iTunes, that doesn’t provide you with any sort of license to use that artist’s music in any other form. You need a licensing agreement if you want to use that music for anything besides your own listening pleasure.



So let’s assume you have a specific song you want to use in your next project. Here’s what you have to do if you don’t use royalty free music.

  1. You’ll start the music licensing process by reaching out to the song’s copyright holders.
  2. That doesn’t just mean the artist. You’ll end up talking with several people, which could include songwriters, recording artists, record label representatives, and more.
  3. Everyone who played a part in the song’s creation needs to agree to the licensing agreement that you proposed, and it’s your job to make them all feel compensated. 
  4. The licensing agreement will include the financial details, which means upfront licensing fees and also recurring royalty frees.
  5. Once everyone agrees and the deal is complete, you’ll get a license to use that song. That’s how you guarantee that no one can hit you with a copyright strike later on.

Keep in mind that that is a streamlined, simplified version of the actual process. Licensing agreements are anything but simple because they’re legally binding contracts. You’re dealing with legal teams, music industry gurus, and creative musicians.

And the onus is on you to figure it all out.  

First, it’s your responsibility to figure out the copyright holders for that song and then contact them. It’s your responsibility to arrange the licensing details, settle on a fee, and then make sure the payment goes through. It’s also your responsibility to wait a few months for everyone to respond and sign the license so you can finally finish the project you started so long ago.

But the process still isn’t over yet.

If your video is a commercial project, or a YouTube video, or a short film, you’ll need to pay royalty fees. In other words, if the video contributes to a channel or platform that generates revenue for you, you’ll owe a percentage to the copyright holders.

Since the music they “own” played a part in your video’s success, the copyright holders are legally entitled to share in any financial success too. Those people almost become investors or partners in the project, so you’ll have to continue paying those royalty fees.

How Royalty Free Licenses Work

Nothing about that process sounds fun or convenient, right?

It’s just one example of how the music industry is a victim of its own outdated rules. But this is where royalty free music comes into play.

For those of you wondering what is royalty free music, you should know that it isn’t some new, unproven innovation — it’s been around for going on two decades. (And no, it’s not another term for copyright free music. But I’ll break down the “royalty free vs copyright free” comparison in the next section.)

Some music companies have always looked for ways to make things better for content creators, and the easiest way to do that was to get away from the old licensing model.

Unless you want a specific song from a specific artist, you’ll be able to sidestep the whole process I detailed in the last section. Instead, you’ll browse songs through a music licensing company, find tracks you love, and pay that company for royalty free licenses to use those songs.

In most cases, these companies have already paid the artist for the right to license that music. They are legally allowed to sell royalty free licenses to those tracks, which helps smaller artists get exposure and offers a way for content creators to pay less for music for video without having to sacrifice on quality.

While every piece of music is owned by at least one person, royalty free music streamlines the process of licensing songs without spending thousands of dollars or negotiating with a dozen lawyers.

Here’s the breakdown of the process:

  1. A musician writes an absolute banger of a song.
  2. That musician sells the song to a royalty free music company, who then includes it in the library of tracks on their site.
  3. As a content creator, you’re looking for radio-quality music without the huge price tag and obnoxious hassle of traditional music licensing.
  4. You find the musician’s song on your favorite royalty free music site and decide to license it for your project.

The amount you pay to license the music helps compensate the company for what they paid for the song. (And in some cases, a portion of each sale is paid directly to the artist.) Meanwhile, the company serves as a middle man and provides you with a licensing agreement.

It really is so much easier than going the traditional route for music licensing.

What About Stock Music Downloads?

Let’s spend a minute to go over some of the most popular misconceptions about royalty free music and music licensing in general.

And we'll put them in quotes, just to make it absolutely clear that these assumptions aren't correct. But royalty free music licensing is a relatively "young" and confusing industry, so we understand why some of the details are still unclear.

"Royalty free songs don't cost anything"

Some people assume that “royalty free music” means the songs are free to download and use. But royalty free music isn’t actually “royalty free” as you’d expect.

The truth is that copyright law requires royalty payments for every song that someone other than the creator uses. One big benefit of royalty free music is that the company that sells you the license will pay royalties so you don’t have to. 

There’s also a difference between “royalty free music” and “stock music” although that’s not as clear-cut. That’s what makes it a little confusing.

Stock media is anything (music, images, videos, etc.) that is put up for sale so other creators can license and use that content. So the difference between stock music and royalty free music is the “royalty” part — stock music could be considered royalty free if it’s sold in the same library, but that’s not a requirement or guarantee.

"A Creative Commons license is the same as royalty free licensing"

A royalty free license means you pay to use the song, but you don't have to worry about recurring royalty fees. Creative Commons music and public domain music are different for several reasons.

Public domain music is a song that is no longer protected by copyright law. That could be a song from Beethoven that is so old it preceded copyright law. Or a song (like most Christmas carols) that are cultural touchstones and aren't owned by any individual person or group.

Creative Commons is a little more confusing because these licenses are broken up into a bunch of different categories, and each type has different rules about how the song can be used. The important thing to know is that a Creative Commons song is something the creator listed for free, with no desire to ever receive compensation.


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These kinds of songs are legitimately free. However, the unfortunate reality is that copyright free tracks or free stock music aren't exactly "high quality" music because there is no incentive to make money off of them. Most artists want some kind of compensation for the work they put in.

To put this simply: You get what you pay for. (We'll cover this in-depth in a bit.)

"Royalty free means low quality"

Another misconception is that royalty free music is lower quality than other types of music. That settling for stock music downloads means you’ll have to choose between boring elevator music or unfinished MIDI tracks.

To be clear, there are certainly examples of royalty free music that just aren’t very good. Spend some time browsing different libraries and you’ll find some rough songs out there — I’m not going to try to convince you otherwise, because I’ve heard them too.

But the cost of a music license doesn’t necessarily come with a stamp of guaranteed quality. You can find professionally made songs in a royalty free music library that you’d pay $500 to license anywhere else, and you can find substandard stuff from a traditional music licensing platform that isn’t even worth the bandwidth it takes to download it.

In short, royalty free music is not subpar stock music that's free to download by anyone. It’s high-quality music that is free to use (after purchasing a license), and a good library will have tracks in every single genre that you can put a name to.

And yes, it’ll be much more affordable, much easier to license, and much more convenient without royalty fees or anything like that.

Royalty Free vs. Copyright Free

Another point of confusion for some people is determining the difference between royalty free vs. copyright free music. I mean, if royalty free music is a way to deal with music copyright laws, then isn’t copyright free music just another way to get around music royalties?

Yes...but no?

Copyright free music is a song that has zero copyright holders. That means nobody has claimed ownership of the song, no musicians are using it to build a career, no creators care about making money off its success, etc.

And as you might expect, that makes it a pretty rare occurrence in the wild. It would be similar to a content creator — like yourself — putting days or even weeks into a project, and then posting it online so anyone can reuse it without crediting you at all.

So as a result of this, a lot of copyright free music is...let’s say “subpar” in terms of quality. Unless you’re looking for classical music from the 1800s that has entered the public domain, you’re not likely to find copyright free music you would actually want to use in video projects.

Royalty free vs. copyright free music is an interesting comparison. While neither one will require you to pay royalties, royalty free music is usually made and distributed by professionals, while most copyright free music has that sort of “garage band” quality to it.

Sure, you will save some money since these songs are free downloads. But would you want to pair a mediocre song with the video you’ve worked so hard to make? Probably not.

What Royalty Free Music Really Is (And Isn’t)

But what if licensing a song could be even easier? What if there was a way to get high-quality music for less than $60 per license? For that matter, what if there was a way to use a song in multiple projects without paying for the same track again and again?

Thankfully, there are a handful of royalty free music sites that thought the process could be done more easily. And the further we get away from the traditional licensing model, the better the product will be for the people who actually need to use it.

You’ve probably already figured out that Soundstripe is a royalty free music service. Our passion is giving creative people the knowledge and resources to keep making the stuff they love. Royalty free music is a way for us to support musicians and filmmakers.

So we scrapped the industry standard and created a new model: a subscription service for royalty free music. I mean, you pay a subscription fee for TV networks, ad-free music, and grocery deliveries. Why shouldn’t royalty free music be just as easy and affordable?

Here’s how it works: We look for impressive musicians and hire them to create songs exclusively for Soundstripe. And because we own the songs completely, we don’t have to sell individual licenses or charge monthly royalty fees.

As an added benefit to filmmakers, we also offered royalty free sound effects as well as music tracks, and even stock footage. You can license all of this under a single, easy to use subscription. It's your path to unlimited downloads from a stock music library with everything you need to create your best content.

You can sign up for a monthly or yearly subscription to our entire library, and any song (or sound effect) you decide to download and use will be protected forever.

And you can start listening now to find out how much of a difference radio-quality royalty free music will make in your video projects.

Further Reading

To learn more about background music for YouTube videos, choosing the right music libraries, or navigating public domain music, here are a list of articles that will help you level up your video production: