Last Updated on November 23, 2021 by Vasco Lourenço
If you’re interested in knowing what royalty-free music is, chances are, you’re probably a video producer wanting some music tracks on your videos, or a musician wanting to enter the market of royalty-free music.
Either way (or none of the above), I hope this article sheds some light on the subject of what is royalty-free music.
I’ve been selling stock music to stock music libraries full-time for over 2 years now and I’ve gained some knowledge about it that you might find valuable.
To start, let’s see what royalty-free music is not:
- Royalty-free music is not free.
- Royalty-free music is not copyright free.
- Royalty-free music is not even royalty-free! What? (there are different types of royalties, so bear with me)
What is Royalty Free Music?
Royalty-free music is a music track where you pay a one-time fee upfront and then use it how many times you want for as long as you like. This includes using the track on different projects.
So, if you have to purchase it, it’s not free.
A royalty-free music license comes in handy because you can use the music track on multiple projects without paying additional fees, as opposed to needle-drop licenses, where you’d have to pay a fee (royalty) each time the music is used.
You can see it as a way of simplifying the music licensing business.
The music is considered royalty-free only from the standpoint of the customer.
The composers do not renounce their music copyright. This copyright is born when the music is composed and produced. It’s an intrinsic and unavoidable relation. Each time an artist creates a piece of work, whether music, text, or painting, they naturally have the copyright to it.
This means that royalty-free music is not copyright-free.
Royalty-free music is not really royalty-free
I know this may look a bit confusing, but we have to consider different types of royalties.
There are four main types of royalties:
- Mechanical royalties. They generate income through the physical or digital distribution of copyrighted work, such as CDs, vinyl, cassettes, DVDs, and streaming services. If you buy a royalty free music track that ends up being used in the soundtrack of a documentary released on DVD, the composer shall get mechanical royalties from that DVD.
- Public performance royalties. They generate income through the live performance, whether by live musicians or recordings, of the copyrighted work. Every time the music is streamed or played in public, the composer earns their share. Performance Rights Organization (PRO) collect these royalties and then distribute them to the writer and publisher.
- Synchronization royalties. They generate income through pairing a music track with visual media. This is also called “sync.” Thus, sync licenses give the right to use copyrighted music in commercials, films, TV, radio, documentaries, video games, and online outlets. However, suppose the customer or the licensee expects to use the same track in another visual media. In that case, new royalties have to be paid.
- Print music royalties. They generate income through transcribing the copyrighted music to a print outlet like sheet music that is then distributed and sold. This is the least common way a copyright holder will receive royalties.
From these four royalty types, only the recurring synchronization royalties are renounced by the composer. The first synchronization is the upfront fee the customer pays. This is what royalty-free music is, and that's why it's so confusing for so many people.
That’s why the music can be used multiple times without recurring fees (royalties). This is an excellent business model for YouTubers, small businesses, video agencies, and other content creators in need of a soundtrack.
The composer still gets mechanical royalties, public performance royalties, and print music royalties. But none of these royalties are paid by the customer.
For instance, if a copyrighted song is played on TV, the composer is entitled to performance royalties. The network broadcast has to pay a fee to their country’s PRO. Since all Performance Rights Organizations have a way to know which PRO the composer is associated with (through a unique code), the composer can receive their performance royalties.
The only way a PRO will know if your music was broadcasted or not is if the network fills out a cue sheet. This is a very grey area, and there’s not really a reliable way of knowing whether they fill it or not.
What does Royalty-Free Music Mean?
Royalty-free music is, basically, the music you can purchase one-time-only and then use it how many times you like in several different mediums, like YouTube videos, TV shows, radio commercials, podcasts, and many other audiovisual outlets without paying recurring fees.
This way, you can be sure that you’re not messing with the law regarding using copyrighted content.
And yes, you can use royalty-free music on personal and commercial content. This means you can make money with it. The only thing you can’t do with the music track is to sell it.
Is Royalty-Free Music Free?
No, it’s not. You still have to pay an upfront one-time license fee to use a royalty-free track legally.
Nonetheless, there’s a place for free royalty-free music.
Some composers might wish to make their songs available free of charge. For example, I offer my royalty-free music for free on my YouTube channel in exchange for a mention back to my channel.
People can use a tool like 4K Video Downloader to convert the YouTube video to mp3 and then use it in their own projects.
Why would I give away my music for free like this?
Well, all my music is protected with Content ID (a digital fingerprinting system), and every time my music is used on YouTube, Facebook, or Instagram, this platform issues a copyright claim. As a result, the video will display ads, and their income is due to me.
Only customers with a license can remove the claim and monetize their video. Since I put a link on my YouTube video for people to buy the license, I’m giving them the option to use it for free or not.
I know this might be a rare situation. You most likely won’t see well-known music libraries offering only free music. So it’s all on the composer’s side to decide if their music should be free or not.
What is Copyright-Free Music?
When someone creates a piece of music, they automatically own the copyright for that music.
The composer may grant you the “right to copy” the music to use it as you like, but it doesn’t make it free of copyright. The copyright holder is still entitled to performance royalties and mechanical royalties if it ends up being used as background music in TV, radio, or a DVD release.
Public domain recordings are not copyright-free either. While the composition may be copyright-free, the actual recording (called the Master) is not.
When a music composition copyright expires, it enters the public domain, and anyone in the world can use it as they like. We can call this copyright-free or non-copyrighted music. However, recordings of public domain music are not copyright-free.
I believe copyright-free music only applies to the actual musical composition after entering the public domain, not the sound recordings.
Rule of thumb:
Royalty-free only applies to the type of license purchased by the client.
Copyright-free only applies to musical compositions that entered the public domain.
Is Public Domain Music Royalty-Free?
There’s a big difference between a musical composition and a sound recording. For example, Bach Prelude in C Major BWV 846 is in the public domain, but all its recordings are copyright protected.
Suppose you want to license a recording of András Schiff playing Bach Prelude in C Major. In that case, you’ll need the master license of the recording to use it in your video since the sound recording doesn’t belong to you.
In this case, you’d have to get that master license from ECM Recordings or whoever owns that particular recording. And for the average customer, it might not be cheap! Furthermore, royalties would be due every time you’d want to sync the music with a project. And this is not royalty-free.
If you don’t have the budget to secure a master license for András Chiff’s recording, you can play it yourself! If you can play the piano, that is…
This is where royalty-free music comes in handy!
You can look for recordings of Bach Prelude in C Major on Audiojungle, purchase a royalty-free license, and use it an unlimited number of times (this is actually my rendition of the composition).
According to PD info, “all sound recordings are under copyright protection until 2067, in the United States.”
Depending on the country’s rules, the copyright of a particular work expires about 70 years after its creator’s death, or 95 years from its publication date, in which it enters the public domain. I believe no one is willing to wait that long to use a sound recording.
While a musical composition can be copyright-free (because it’s in the public domain, or it’s licensed under CC0, a “no rights reserved” Creative Commons license), its actual sound recordings are not copyright-free and may or may not be royalty-free, depending on where you purchase it.
Is a Royalty-Free License the Same As a Creative Commons license?
No, they’re actually quite different.
A royalty-free music license grants you the right to use and re-use the music track without paying recurring fees, according to the licensing terms of that particular work. And they don’t require attribution, unlike Creative Commons licenses (except for CC0).
While royalty-free licenses allow for commercial use, some Creative Commons licenses don’t. You have to be careful when using a Creative Commons work because the scope of its use varies according to the license.
Types of Creative Commons licenses:
1. CC BY (Attribution)
It allows for distribution, remixing, adaptation, and commercial use, as long as you credit the original creator.
2. CC BY-SA (Attribution-ShareAlike)
It allows for distribution, remixing, adaptation, and commercial use, as long as you credit the original creator AND license the newly created work under the same license terms.
3. CC BY-ND (Attribution-NoDerivs)
It allows you to re-use the work for personal or commercial use but not adapt and remix it. You must also credit the creator.
4. CC BY-NC (Attribution-NonCommercial)
It allows you to use the work non-commercially, crediting the original creator. You can also adapt, remix it and make derivative works.
5. CC BY-NC-SA (Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike)
It allows for distribution, remixing, adaptation, and non-commercial use, as long as you credit the original creator AND license the newly created work under the same license terms.
6. CC BY-NC-ND (Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs)
It only allows you to share non-commercially the work with others, without changing them in any way. It’s the most restrictive of all licenses.
7. CC0 (No Rights Reserved)
It allows you to do whatever you feel like! Basically, this is the same as being in the public domain.
Another essential aspect separating royalty-free licenses from Creative Commons licenses is that royalty-free licenses are not transferrable. They can only be used by the licensor, although they’re also non-exclusive, which means others can purchase the same license as you.
What Are the Different Types of Royalty-Free Licenses?
Each stock music library has its own set of licenses.
To keep things short, I’m going to give you an example of Audiojungle’s different types of royalty-free licenses.
All prices shown are chosen by the composer.
Audiojungle has 5 different types of royalty-free licenses:
- Music Standard License
- Music Broadcast 1 Million
- Music Mass Reproduction
- Music Broadcast (10 Million)
- Music Broadcast & Film
And as you can see, royalty-free music is not free. It also follows specific rules according to the license purchased.
Usually, customers who purchase royalty-free music can use it on multiple projects. However, Audiojungle states explicitly that it can only be used in one end product, regardless of the license chosen.
This means that the customer can use the track on multiple mediums, like YouTube videos, Instagram stories, commercials, advertising, and streaming platforms, but only if it relates to one project.
However, I don’t know how a library like Audiojungle audits and keeps track of how the music is used after it is purchased. That’s something I’d like to know. Nonetheless, it’s always safer for the customer to follow the rules.
Pond5 has only 3 licenses. However, its use on single products is unclear, as you have to read through their licensing agreement. Similar to Audiojungle, the price is tagged by the composer, but only for the Individual License.
What Are the Best Royalty-Free Music Sites?
There are literally millions of royalty-free music tracks on the internet. Finding the right music track can be a bit of a headache. However, knowing where to get the best royalty-free music can relieve that burden.
Some royalty-free music sites offer free tracks under a creative commons license. The YouTube Audio Library and Free Music Archive are two examples of that. Creative commons music is an easy way of licensing music for free, and the only thing you need to be careful about is paying attention to the licensing conditions.
Below, I selected four of the top royalty-free music libraries for you to get started.
Audiojungle is one of the most widely known royalty-free music libraries. With over 1.700.00 tracks and sound effects, you can find almost any style you can think of.
Founded by the Australian company Envato, a giant digital marketplace that also offers video footage, website and graphic templates, photos, add-ons, and more, Audiojungle stands as one of the top preferred libraries for stock music composers.
Audiojungle music tracks are quality-checked and approved by a community of composers and authors on the platform. Thanks to their forum, it’s a vast community where customers can directly message the composers and where communication flows.
Don’t forget to check the license that applies to you before purchasing an item, as it dictates how you can use it.
Initially created to sell stock video footage, it later expanded its assets to music tracks, sound effects, photos, After Effects templates, illustrations, and more.
With about 1 million music tracks, rest assured you can get what you’re looking for, be it corporate videos, wedding videos, trailer music, or even music for children.
Similar to Audiojungle, Pond5 offers single licenses in different tiers. But it also provides a monthly membership that enables you to 10 downloads a month from a selection of 153.000 music tracks and stock videos.
Envato Elements works with an unlimited download subscription. You get the whole package with no restrictions for a monthly fee of $16.50 (if billed yearly).
You can choose from more than 650.000 music tracks to more than 53 million photographs. Yes, you read that right! 53 million!
With unlimited downloads, composers earn less than if their tracks were purchased individually. At the same time, they have more chances of their tracks being downloaded, which increases commissions. In the end, it’s always a numbers game.
A YouTube content creator looking for a royalty-free music library and other assets requiring a commercial license for his video marketing project might find Envato Elements very useful.
If you have projects that require investment on a monthly basis, you might consider a subscription library like Envato Elements. If not, stick with its older brother, Audiojungle.
PremiumBeat is an exclusive music library offering high-end music productions. Its parent company, Shutterstock, is one of the biggest licensing libraries and has been providing stock images since 2003. The company grew and started to add footage, music, social media templates, and more, to its catalog.
PremiumBeat requires that its composers be exclusive, meaning they can’t upload the music to other libraries, as opposed to Audiojungle and Pond5 (although these also have an exclusive contract).
They only select composers they feel are top-notch premium composers and producers. This makes it very hard for beginners, but it also guarantees you’ll only get high-quality from them.
PremiumBeat offers two business models:
- monthly subscription ($64.95/mo for 5 standard licenses)
- single purchase with two types of licenses: standard license ($49) & premium license ($199)
If quality is your priority, PremiumBeat is a perfect choice.
Royalty Free-Music FAQs
Here are some of the most common questions people ask about royalty-free music.
Is royalty-free the same as copyright-free?
In a nutshell, royalty-free refers to the type of license purchased, and copyright-free refers to the expired copyright of a musical composition (not the sound recording).
So, royalty-free music is not the same as copyright-free music.
Does the term “royalty” means “copyright”? No.
Is royalty-free music copyrighted?
Yes, it is.
When a piece of music is created, its composer automatically owns the copyright to that piece. He may grant you the “right to copy” the work unlimited times for different purposes. However, this doesn’t mean the music is free from copyright.
The composer may still get royalties from the public performances of his music. This is only possible because he owns the copyright to his work.
Is royalty-free music a specific music genre?
Royalty-free music is not a music genre. In fact, it ranges from every music style you can think of, from classical to metal to pop to world music. You name it.
Instead, “royalty-free” is a specific license type for commercial use (like TV shows, corporate videos, radio commercials, websites, etc.). Not to be confused with private use, like the rights you get when you pay and download an album from iTunes or purchase a CD (and listen at home, in the car, smartphone, etc.).
Is royalty-free music the same as stock music?
No, it is not.
Stock music comes from stock music libraries, where music is already created and uploaded for prospective clients.
As opposed to “custom made” music, where a composer makes a piece of specific music for a specific project, such as a commercial or a film, stock music is already there (it’s in stock). It was not made for one particular purpose. The client just needs to browse the whole collection and find what best suits his project.
With stock music, production music, or library music, the composer just composes what they enjoy the most.
The majority of stock music libraries license their music on a royalty-free basis. However, some stock libraries, like Westar Music, offer their music with a Rights Managed model or “pay as you go” type of licensing.
What is the quality of royalty-free music?
Many people like to call royalty-free music “cheap music,” or “canned music.” I used to call it that too.
The truth is that it can be cheap music, but it can actually be quite the opposite also.
Usually, exclusive high-end libraries like PremiumBeat, offer excellent quality music. Not everyone is accepted to enter their roster of composers.
On the other hand, audio libraries like Pond5 accept pretty much anyone, as long as they have a good quality sounding recording and make music that fits their commercial needs. Such libraries usually have more than a million tracks. If you go and listen to many of those tracks, you might find some that sound cheap!
However, on PremiumBeat and other high-end libraries, I believe you can’t find “cheap-sounding” music. And the price reflects that.
Furthermore, in these much broader libraries like Pond5, composers can price their tracks, and you can find tracks from as low as $5 to as high as $99 for the most economical license.
Conclusion: What is Royalty-Free Music?
The confusion surrounding the term “royalty-free music” is understandable.
Royalty-free music isn’t free, it’s not copyright-free either, and you’re still entitled to performance royalties when your song is licensed royalty-free.
Music is said to be royalty-free when a customer can use the song anywhere they want, keep it forever, and re-use it in multiple projects at no extra cost. That’s what royalty-free music means.
But there are limits on what someone can do with this type of license—it doesn’t mean that music is free or that artists have renounced their rights to control how their work gets used.
In other words, royalty-free music doesn’t mean that it’s free for consumers or that musicians have relinquished all copyrights.
The key takeaway here is that royalty-free is a type of license used for commercial use. Each royalty-free music site has its own set of licenses, so read them carefully before purchasing a music track.
I hope this article cleared all of your doubts regarding royalty-free music. Did I miss something? Let me know in the comment section down below.
You might also be interested in:
- What is stock music?
- How to sell stock music to stock music libraries
- How I make money from YouTube without making videos
- Best free stock video websites
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