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Dead Simple Licensing

Never worry about sync licensing again. With Soundstripe, your membership covers the cost for every song license. Just find the right track, download the file, and get a custom license. That’s it. No channel or media-specific fees, no recurring royalties, ever. Here’s more good news: you have unlimited licenses. Go ahead, download as many songs as you want.

The Creator's Guide to Music Licensing 

Updated February 2022*

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 and lip-synced singing. For the first time, recorded music and sound worked in tandem with visuals to connect audiences to the story on the screen. 

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, podcasts, or even independent films, digital media still relies on music to establish a mood and evoke the right emotional response from the audience. A lot has changed since the Golden Age of Hollywood, but good music 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? 

The Answer is Music Licensing

Music licensing is a process that protects the interests of copyright owners (i.e., songwriters, publishers, etc.) who own the song(s) you want to use in your creative projects. 

With the proper licenses, you have the legal go-ahead to feature music in your YouTube video, film, or other project. These licenses include the sync license, master license, public performance license, and more. (We'll explain each license later in this post.)

Here's a quick breakdown of the types of music licenses

1. sync license
for syncing audio with visual media
2. master license
held by the owner of the recorded music
3. public performance license

required for public performances 
4. mechanical license

required to reproduce or resell a song 
5. theatrical license

required to use a song in the theater 
6. print license

required to reproduce or print the sheet music for a song

Why Music Licensing Matters 

The music industry doesn’t make it easy to license songs. Song ownership is often fragmented among a number of parties, and song licensing 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 creative 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 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 Misnomer of Royalty Free Music 

Driven by the complexity of music licensing for video and the fear of potential copyright infringement, a lot of people comb Google search results for “royalty free music.” 

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. 

A host of music licensing companies — like Soundstripe — have popped up over the years to address this need. So the term royalty free music refers to a song recording you can download and use in your work without having to pay royalty fees. 

These songs are still copyrighted, but you have permission to use them because of your agreement (typically a membership) with a music licensing company. 

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 radio-quality music at an affordable price without entangling yourself in a license that’s about as simple as a 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: 

  1. 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. 
  2. 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

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 for video 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 or 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, making the process feel like the smallest political campaign of all time. 

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 $300 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. 

There are two types of fees, with each one corresponding to a certain copyright holder: 

  1. A master license fee, paid to the owner of the sound recording, typically the label
  2. 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. 

For example, a single use license with Soundstripe is good for one project. With a membership you have unlimited licenses, so if you want to use the same song for a different project, you have to relicense it. Not a huge deal, but it’s worth noting. 

In contrast, our single song downloads come with a lifetime license, which means you can use that song in as many projects as you want — without having to relicense the song each time. 

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.

2. Territory

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. 

3. Media 

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 Radio-Quality 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. 

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.

Your projects deserve exceptional music.
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