What is Royalty-Free Music? Music Licensing 101

May 17, 2019 6 min read

As a video creator, you will at some point have pondered the question, what is royalty free music? Finding the perfect piece of music for your project is not just about matching the right mood, but also what licenses are needed for you to include the track legally.

Royalty free music means paying a one-time fee for the privilege of using someone else’s copyrighted material in your own work. It’s much safer and advantageous to use royalty free music whenever possible because of how cost-effective it can be. Fortunately, it’s widely available for all types of all musical genres. You will find a vast number of results when searching for it online, including the Motion Array library.

Alternatively, by using unlicensed music, you could adversely affect the commercial potential of your films and face other penalties. We might live in an age where everything is readily available at the touch of a button — but it’s essential that you understand this legal requirement and a bit about copyright law!

While “royalty free music” can be misleading, we hope this breakdown will help eliminate some previous misconceptions you might have and clearly outline how it differs from other music licensing models. So, let’s explore the royalty free music meaning and the alternatives!

Part 1: Music Royalties Definition: What Does it Mean to Pay Royalties?

To understand the royalty free music definition, we have to start with what royalties are.

Every time a piece of music is used in a movie, TV show, public performance, radio segment, and more, royalties are paid to the owner of the track. This is the same situation as when the music is purchased for private use. Part of the price you pay for your downloads or physical copies goes to the author. As it should!

With everything from the corporate videos you make for clients to your YouTube channel uploads, the owners of the music you use are entitled to financial recognition. The ‘owner’ of the music can include the composer, the record label, and the artist management. Copyright can also be sold or passed on if, for example, the original owner has died.

Things would get very expensive if you had to pay those fees every time the video you made was watched!

Right Based Licensing Fees

Under the ‘rights managed’ structure of licensing, you have to pay for the exact usage of every copyrighted piece of music that can be heard in your audiovisual productions. This explains why some musicians can earn a healthy income from having their songs licensed for use in commercials.

For example, each broadcast of an ad that includes their track would likely entitle them to payment. Especially, if it costs more to cover usage in international territories or extended windows of time during which the music can still be used.

This model is clearly beyond the means of most people outside the biggest production studios, which is where royalty free music steps in.

Royalty Free Licensing Fees

With royalty free music, you only need to purchase a license once for the rights to use the track. So, you don’t need to pay a royalty rate each time your film is viewed online or publicly broadcast globally.

So the term ‘royalty free music’ really refers to the fact you generally won’t be subject to ongoing royalty payments for the lifespan of your video.

Part 2: Using Royalty Free Music Legally

With the definition of royalties out of the way, it’s time to turn to the best practices for using royalty free music legally in your creative works.

First of all, it’s important to understand there are some variations on the rights afforded to you when using royalty free music. One is to pay close attention to the terms of use, the other is how live performances are treated differently.

Review the Terms of Use

Let’s say you’re producing a customer testimonial video for a client, you’ve shot your footage (which naturally, looks fantastic), and you want to reflect the glowing praise from the interviewees with some suitably upbeat music.

When you find the ideal royalty free track, your license will either allow you to use the track repeatedly across various projects in perpetuity or will only cover the film you specify at point of purchase.

You may need to extend the license if the original broadcast model is changed, say from only being on a company website and then moving to a streaming platform like YouTube, or even to television or cinema screenings in an advertising campaign.

You may be limited within the commercial use of the track. If you’re producing an instructional series of fitness videos, you then want to them sell to consumers, ensure your license allows for copies of the music to be used indirectly commercial projects.  

Live Performances

Things get a little more complicated as one caveat to this system comes to live performance and public broadcast mentioned above.

An everyday example of a ‘live performance’ would be the owner of a restaurant playing commercial music during opening hours. By rights, they should be signed up with a Performing Rights Organizations (PRO) to cover these performances of recorded tracks. In these cases, royalties are collected on behalf of composers by PRO.

Groups such as ASCAP,  PRS, and SOCAN work to enforce licensing rules and gather the funds from networks and broadcasters for each time copyrighted music is played. In these cases, you as the video creator and music purchaser would not be subject to the additional costs.

Part 3: Tips When Searching for Royalty Free Music

When you start looking for your next piece of perfect music, it helps to understand a couple of other points.

Stock Music ≠ Royalty Free Music

Okay, here’s another tip that adds to all of the information you need to be aware of. Royalty free music isn’t necessarily stock music. Yep, that’s right.

The term ‘stock music’ relates to a library of tracks that have previously been created to be freely licensed to anyone willing to pay. Stock music can be found across several online providers but can also vary in quality — both in technical terms and musical accomplishment.

Broadly, ‘stock music’ means any music not specially composed for a specific project, such as a film score or TV program theme.

Royalty Free Music ≠ Copyright Free

Copyright-free music is another term you will encounter. What this means is the original composition has fallen into the public domain and is free to be recorded and performed by anyone, without money being paid.

However, it does not necessarily mean that the specific version you find online is free from copyright, as the recording itself counts as authored work. Rather, the safest option would be to make your own original recording of a copyright-free musical piece.

Royalty Free Music ≠ Genre

Likewise, royalty free music is not a genre of music in and of itself. Instead, you can find stock music libraries full of recognizable genres like pop, electronica, jazz, country, and even heavy metal. Others may have a section for corporate music, bundling together business-friendly tracks from across different genres.

While the varying nature of the quality can put people off from searching for music in this way, it’s important to remember that the larger library providers will vet the contributions from artists, and the quality of a piece of music will possibly be reflected in its popularity amongst users and subsequent search prominence.  

Part 4: How Much Should You Pay?

Free

How much you spend on royalty free music can depend on your sources. Some can be found for free, meaning there is nothing to pay at the point of access or for ongoing usage.

However, one thing to consider is that a track might be free because of the previously mentioned quality issues. There are plenty of good quality completely free pieces of music. You just need to be willing to put in the time to look (or listen)!

Average Rates

The average cost of a single track on royalty free music sites is $30-60, although it can run into the $100s. As a bonus, some tracks will come packaged with different length versions, short stings, and even a choice of file formats (.wav, .mp3).  

Subscription Model

Other platforms offer subscription services, giving access to vast libraries in which the individual tracks are all downloadable at no extra charge. This is ideal if you work across many types of videos and have clients with varying taste, style, and corporate image.

You can get unlimited downloads of royalty-free music and more from Motion Array starting at $16/month*. Learn more about getting a membership here!

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Overall, royalty free music offers video producers a hassle-free means of using music in film and video projects. There’s no negotiation needed with artists over usage rights and no concerns over rising costs as the number of views or plays your piece receives. The music will not cost you more money the more popular your video becomes.

Hopefully, our exploration into the question of what is royalty free music has provided reassurances as well as inspiration. The biggest benefit of using royalty-free music means you can sit back and enjoy the process of browsing 100,000s of tracks available to you to find your next perfect piece of music.

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