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What is Royalty-Free Music? Your Comprehensive Guide

What is royalty-free music

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Royalty-free music means you pay once and use it multiple times across various mediums (depending on your license)—a cost-effective and versatile solution fitting diverse audiovisual needs.

Still confused? Keep reading.

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, this article will shed some light on the subject.

I’ve been selling stock music to music libraries since 2019, and even though I have stopped, I still earn monthly revenue from those tracks (but that’s another story).

Before that, while working as a sound engineer, I purchased royalty-free tracks for clients who needed a soundtrack for their videos.

So, backed by my experience in the area, I’ll demystify the many confusions around the term “royalty-free.”

To start, let’s see what royalty-free music is not:

  • It is not free.
  • It is not copyright-free.
  • It is not even royalty-free! What? (there are different types of royalties, so bear with me)

What is Royalty-Free Music?

With a royalty-free music license, you buy the music track once and then can use it endlessly in any of your projects.

So, if you have to purchase it, it’s not free.

home recording studio

This type of 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 customer's standpoint. 

Composers do not renounce their music’s 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 confusing, but we have to consider different types of royalties.

There are four main types of royalties:

  1. 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.
  2. 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 Organizations (PRO) collect these royalties and then distribute them to the writer and publisher.
  3. Synchronization royalties: They generate income by 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, new royalties must be paid if the customer or the licensee expects to use the same track in another visual media.
  4. Print music royalties: They generate income by transcribing the copyrighted music to a print outlet, like sheet music, which is then distributed and sold. This is the least common way a copyright holder will receive royalties.
four types of music royalties
From these four royalty types, only the recurring synchronization royalties are renounced by the composer in a royalty-free license.

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.

You can use the music track multiple times without recurring fees (royalties). This is an excellent way for YouTubers, small businesses, video agencies, and other content creators to purchase a soundtrack.

The composer still receives mechanical royalties, public performance royalties, and print music royalties, but the customer does not pay any of these royalties.

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.

A PRO will only know if your music was broadcasted 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.

Those who listen to music vs those who pay
Source: The New York Times

What does Royalty-Free Music Mean?

Royalty-free music is music you can purchase once only and then, depending on your license, use 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 ensure you’re not messing with the law regarding using copyrighted content.

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.

Why does Royalty-Free Music Matter?

Music has been and will continue to be one of the best tools available for video creators. It can add character and emotion, heighten the drama, hook viewers in, or be used as the melody for a song.

Today’s businesses are more aware of the impact that embedded music can have on their brand identity. Whether it’s creating a mood, a feeling, or a new identity, business owners are digging deep into the options to find royalty-free stock music they can use.

man mixing audio at a recording studio

It’s no easy task, though.

  • First, choices are abundant from diverse sources.
  • Second, different genres and instruments have different intended effects (feelings) on audiences.

Add to that the ability to tailor tracks for your exact needs, including length, instrumentation, phrase structure, and genre/style, and it’s easy to see why you might feel overwhelmed with all the information out there!

The best stock music sites constantly compete to improve their libraries’ quality and supply the most exciting and high-quality music.

Audiojungle royalty-free music library

On the other hand, the best professional performers, producers, and songwriters are actively looking for new opportunities, better royalties, and bigger audiences.

From small businesses and franchises to huge brands and multinational corporations—they are all looking for high-quality stock music to introduce their products, projects, or services.

Is Royalty-Free Music Free?

No, it’s not. You must still pay an upfront one-time license fee to legally use a royalty-free track.

Nonetheless, there’s a place for truly 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.

Raw Vibrations YouTube channel

People can use a tool like 4K Video Downloader to convert YouTube videos to MP3s and then use them in their own projects.

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 whether their music should be free.

Royalty-Free Vs. Copyright-Free Music

When someone creates a piece of music, they automatically own its copyright.

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 and mechanical royalties if it is used as background music on 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 can use it as they like. We can call it copyright-free or non-copyrighted music. However, recordings of public-domain music are not copyright-free.

Copyright-free music only applies to the actual musical composition after entering the public domain, not the sound recordings.

royalty-free vs copyright-free

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?

Public domain

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’s 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.

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 can be useful!

You can look for recordings of Bach Prelude in C Major on Audiojungle, purchase a royalty-free license, and use it unlimited times (this is actually my rendition of the composition).

Audiojungle Bach Prelude in C Major BWV 846

PD info states, “All sound recordings released in 1923 or later are under copyright protection 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.

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.

Royalty-Free Vs. Creative Commons licenses

Are royalty-free licenses the same as Creative Commons licenses? 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 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.

Creative Commons Licenses

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, credited to the original creator. You can also adapt, remix, 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.

Royalty Free vs Creative Commons

Another essential aspect separating royalty-free 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.

Audiojungle Music Standard License
Audiojungle Music Broadcast 1 Million License
Audiojungle Music Mass Reproduction License
Audiojungle Music Broadcast 10 Million License
Audiojungle Music Broadcast & Film License

All prices shown are chosen by the composer.

Audiojungle has five different types of royalty-free licenses:

  1. Music Standard License
  2. Music Broadcast 1 Million
  3. Music Mass Reproduction
  4. Music Broadcast (10 Million)
  5. 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 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 tracks how clients use the music after purchasing it. Nonetheless, it’s always safer for the customer to follow the rules.

Pond5 has only three licenses. However, its use on single products is unclear, as you have to read through their licensing agreement. Similar to Audiojungle, the composer tags the price, but only for the Individual License.

Pond5 Licenses

What Are the Best Royalty-Free Music Sites?

On the internet, there are practically millions of royalty-free audio songs. It can be difficult to find the ideal music track. Knowing where to get the best royalty-free music, on the other hand, might alleviate that strain.

Free songs are available on several royalty-free music websites under a Creative Commons license.

Two examples are the YouTube Audio Library and the Free Music Archive. Creative Commons music is a simple way to license music for free, with the only caveat being that you pay attention to the licensing terms.

Below, I selected four of the top royalty-free music libraries for you to get started.

Audiojungle

Audiojungle royalty-free music library

Audiojungle, famous among royalty-free music libraries, is home to a vast array of styles in its approximately 1.9 million tracks and sound effects.

Created by Australian company Envato, it’s a platform where stock audio producers and composers collaboratively review and approve compositions. Do remember to examine the applicable license before a purchase.

Pond5

Pond5 Royalty Free Music

Having started as a stock video marketplace, Pond5 is now a rich resource for creatives that spans numerous categories, including music tracks, sound effects, photos, and videos.

With more than one million royalty-free tracks, the company promises you’ll find what you need. In addition to offering tiered licenses for music use, Pond5 offers a monthly membership that grants access to its distinctive library.

Envato Elements

Envato Elements Royalty Free Music

If you need lots of resources, Envato Elements is an excellent value subscription service with over 650,000 music tracks and over 53 million images and videos.

Composers can earn very little per download, but the sheer number of customers is very attractive. It is also a great companion to Audiojungle for those with ongoing project needs.

PremiumBeat

PremiumBeat Royalty Free Music

PremiumBeat is the leader in high-quality, exclusive music. They are owned by Shutterstock, the largest, most trusted stock footage resource on the planet, and the same principles that have made them successful there are found here in their music.

They put quality above all else and believe that is what sets them apart. You can search by tracks, genres, moods, and even BPM. Finally, you get easy licensing—they offer both subscriptions and single licenses for all of their tunes.

No, royalty-free music is not the same as copyright-free music.

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).

Is royalty-free music copyrighted?

Yes, it is.

When a piece of music is created, its composer automatically owns its copyright. 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 genre. In fact, it encompasses every style imaginable, from classical to metal to pop to world music.

Instead, “royalty-free” is a specific license type for commercial use (like TV shows, corporate videos, radio commercials, websites, etc.).

It is 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, on your smartphone, etc.).

Is royalty-free music the same as stock music?

No, it is not. Royalty-free refers to the license type, whereas stock music refers to tracks already created and waiting for someone to purchase them in music libraries.

Although we could say that royalty-free and stock music are the same thing, technically speaking, they’re not.

As opposed to “custom made” music, where a composer makes 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, production, or library music, the composer 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 sound 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, 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

The confusion surrounding the term “royalty-free music” is understandable.

Royalty-free music isn’t free or copyright-free, and you’re still entitled to performance royalties when your song is licensed royalty-free.

Music is royalty-free when customers can use the song anywhere they want, keep it forever, and reuse 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 it’s free for consumers or that musicians have relinquished all copyrights.

The key takeaway is that royalty-free is a type of license used for commercial use.

Each royalty-free music site has its own licenses, so read them carefully before purchasing a music track.

I hope this article clears all of your doubts concerning royalty-free music. Did I miss something? Let me know in the comment section below.

Vaslou is a passionate digital creator and blogger who loves to explore unique paths to generate online income. He’s also a musician, always looking for exciting paths to articulate his inventive spirit in the musical realm. When he’s not at work on his online endeavors, Vasco loves to delve into spiritual realms to become a better version of himself.

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