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Royalty-Free Music - What it is and what it isn´t

Welcome! Since you have arrived at our website, you are most likely already familiar with the concept of royalty-free music.

But there are plenty of misconceptions around what exactly the term "Royalty-Free Music" entails.

Let us start with a definition of what it is so that we have a basis on which to address these misconceptions further on. 

To encapsulate: 

The term, Royalty-Free Music, references a type of licensing agreement that pertains to music distribution.

It makes provision for the purchaser of music to pay for that license as a once-off fee, but then there is no restriction on the time of use of that music. 

To use a practical example: 

If you have a website and purchase a royalty-free music license to use a music video on that site, it is a single fee payable regardless of the website visitors to your site.

There can be 50 visitors or 5,000 visitors, and the video can be available on the site for a period of 2 months or 2 years. In essence, there is a single payment, and the usage is unlimited. 

The opposite of Royalty-Free Music 

Whereas "royalty-free" means that there are no royalties paid, this is opposite to the term "Rights Managed".

With the latter, the buyer of the music pays fees or royalties in relation to the number of times that music is used or consumed.

Rights Managed music licensing is also known as "Needle Drop" music licensing, and a fee is payable for every time a piece of music is used - every time the "needle is dropped". 

The Difference between a Song and a Sound Recording 

The copyright ownership of any piece of music consists of two parts: 

  • The copyright of the "song" - which entails the lyrics, melody, and arrangement of the song itself 
  • The copyright of the actual sound "recording" of that song 

Typically, the legal arrangement of music copyright is that there will be a different owner for either of these cases. In the case of the "song",

The normal owner is the composer or the songwriter or a publishing company that has copyright ownership. 

A record label could be the entity that has copyright ownership of the "recording" of a song because they released the recording of the song.

If the song is recorded by another act, then the new version will have its own set of copyrights. 

Specific Royalty-Free Music needs 

It is important to note that music production companies rarely create their own music, but they typically do license it from various services, which in turn license it from the musicians directly.

Many sites offer Royalty-Free Music and depending on the requirements of use or style, this can impact the fee payable. 

YouTube Royalty-Free Music 

YouTube has made it very easy for content creators to access and use royalty-free music. The YouTube Audio Library is a comprehensive collection of free music that content creators can use to add music and audio to their projects and videos. 

YouTube made it easy by splitting their library into free music and sound effects. Within these categories, users can further apply various filters to fine-tune their search results by: 

  • Genre: High-level categorizations like Heavy Metal or Electronic Dance music. 
  • Mood: For example, energetic music, cinematic music etc, Bright can be a mood. Suitable for explainer videos. 
  • Instrument: For instance, acoustic guitar or synth-based music 
  • Duration: It is important to avoid having to edit tracks to fit a specific time-frame and royalty-free music is often available in durations such as 6 seconds music, 15 seconds music, 30 seconds music etc and longer.  
  • Attribution: In YouTube's case, it could be that certain artists require a mention when a track is used, referred to as Creative Commons licensing.

These can be filtered out if the content creator's brand does not allow for it. 

In the case of the Attribution filter, the Creative Commons copyright license is merely a tool that allows for a standard way to grant copyright permissions for the use of music, allowing for a pool of content that can be copied, remixed, edited, and distributed within the framework of overall copyright law. 

All music and sound effects available in the YouTube Audio Library are copyright safe and royalty-free, and it is found exclusively in YouTube Studio.

Royalty-Free Background Music 

According to research done, by 2021, about 82% of all internet traffic would consist of video content.

Video-making has morphed into a big industry that could become quite costly considering the need for sound equipment and post-production costs.

People involved in video-creation are increasingly looking at cutting costs, and background music is an area that this can be achieved without necessarily reducing quality.

Thank-fully there are several online sites and resources where royalty-free music has been made available for use. 

In terms of the cost of background music, two concepts have to be explained: 

  • Royalty-free music: As mentioned in the introduction, royalty-free does not mean that the music is provided totally free of cost. This is where the one-time fee for the license comes in, but the music is then free to use where and for how long.
  • Public domain and Creative Commons model: Music made available according to this model is free. The only distinction between these two concepts is that public domain music does not require permission from the music creator. As explained in the YouTube Audio Library example, there is often permission or attribution required. 

Royalty-free music for videos 

The Creative Commons licensing framework created the need for sites or portals where artists that want to share their work can participate openly.

One example is the Music for Video portal on the website that fills that void for music in online media projects.

This portal features artists that want to share their works under the Creative Commons licensing framework.

The site features Creative Commons music mixes curated with the producer of the project in mind. 

What Royalty-Free Music is NOT 

Now that we have established what Royalty Free Music is, it is also essential to state what it is not. 

  • Royalty-Free music is not "free"

Royalty-Free music is merely free of royalties. It is not cost-free. Just like a tax-free product is not totally free, it is merely exempt from taxes.

Music may be offered for free, but there is still a cost involved, such as the publishing of music with a listing of the artist in the credits. 

  • Royalty-Free music is not copyright free 

No music is copyright-free in that the creator of that piece of music automatically owns that copyright to that music.

The distinction is that the creator of a specific piece of music may just not care about copyright and state that anyone can use his music for any purpose.

In this case, the music owner is affording users of his music the right to copy the music for whatever purpose.

While that piece of music is free to use, it does not make it free from copyright. 

It also does not mean that the creator of the music is giving up his performing rights if his music is being used as a background track for a video. It could be that the copyright owner might want to still receive royalties as the composer of the music should it be used in the public domain.

Even if the music is public domain music, it will not be copyright free. Be sure to read up on Copyright and Public Domain music at resources such as

  • Royalty-Free music is not stock music 

A stock music library is a library that makes available music that is already in "stock". This means that the music pieces are already composed and manufactured and ready to be licensed and used. As with stock image libraries, people often equate stock music sites as cheap or "canned" music.

This is not the case, and stock music sites can range from bad basic recordings but will also feature professional music tracts of the highest quality.

Many stock music catalogs will offer their music as Royalty-Free but, most will employ a rights-managed or usage-based model based on the frequency and territory or use. 

  • Royalty-Free music is not bad quality 

Tied to the previous concept of Stock Music, royalty-free music is not always of bad quality. Any music can be licensed as Royalty-Free music and that includes everything from very amateur recordings, right up to very professional recordings.

Music quality can vary from library to library and has more to do with the management policy employed by the library owners.

This means whether the music is hand-picked versus picked by computer algorithms or whether the composers are screened or not. 

  • Royalty-Free music is not cheap 

Again, following on for our Stock music concept, royalty-free music can be licensed at any price point. It does not mean that it sets a pricing structure.

It could be that you find a piece of music suited to your needs at a license fee of $19.99 at one library, or you can meet your same requirements at another library for twice that price.

The musical piece's pricing is irrelevant; instead, the licensing model dictates whether a fee is charged or not.

Typically, music made available under a Royalty Free model is made as affordable for people to use as possible. 

  • Royalty-Free music is not a specific type or genre of music 

Royalty-free music is not a music genre in itself, such as Heavy Metal or Classical music is a genre. Royalty-free music can be or include music from any music genre or type.

For example, suppose you filter royalty-free music for a specific instrument such as "synth".

In that case, the results can return music from multiple genres such as Synth Pop or Electronic Dance music. 

Royalty-Free music means that the music is licensed for commercial use under a particular type of music licensing model.

In turn, commercial use means that the music is not only used in a private setting such as your car or home.

In contrast, private use is the right of music usage that comes when a CD is purchased or when a track is downloaded — it does not afford the user with a right to broadcast that music on a public website or on television. 

  • Royalty-Free music is not "Royalty-Free" 

Here is where things can seemingly become a bit more confusing. As a rule, Royalty-Free music is not licensed to be performed in a public setting, such as on television.

Public performance royalties are separate fees paid to music composers when their music is made available to a broader audience outside of private usage. 

However, these specific royalties are not paid by you as the buyer of the music. They should be paid by the relevant platform that is broadcasting the music, such as the broadcast network showing the show featuring the music as either background music or as a featured piece of music.

There are various performing rights organizations, like ASCAP, that get paid by networks and are responsible for distributing performance royalties to the owners of the music. 

To summarize 

Royalty-free music is not free. It is merely free of royalties and not cost-free. There could be a monetary cost for the license to use the music or a non-monetary cost of crediting a music owner.

Almost all music pieces are copyrighted, and the question that needs to be answered when it comes to the "royalty-free" concept is what the music will be used for, i.e., private, educational, or commercial use.

Music classified as royalty-free can be used on public sites such as YouTube, but then a legal sync license needs to be obtained. 

The concept of Royalty-Free Music offers users an easy and simple solution where they can easily pay a once-off up-front fee for the right to use a specific piece of music.