What is Royalty-Free Music and How Does it Work?

the grand piano

What is royalty-free music?

Royalty-free music is music that you can buy ONCE and use it FOREVER, for any project, without any additional fees. Although it sounds like a great deal, there are a lot of those who still get confused with its very concept.

For some people, the idea of royalty-free music is complicated. After all, with so many kinds of licenses on the market, it’s almost too difficult to find the proper one right away. Some have doubts if they can use it for free or commercially. Meanwhile, others consider its restrictions or if there’s a need to pay anything to get the copyright.

In this article, we will try to dismiss all misconceptions and explain what royalty-free music is about. Even more, we’ll also give the answers to some of the most frequently asked questions, too.

What does royalty-free music mean?

In a nutshell, royalty-free music is an economical solution that lets you legally add high-quality music tracks to your project. You only need to pay for the music once and use it without any additional fees. When you buy a royalty-free music track, you get a royalty-free music license that in most cases allows you to use it for both non-commercial and commercial projects. However, each royalty-free music provider has its own royalty-free licenses, which has different limitations.

The most important condition that you need to consider is that you can’t resell or distribute isolated music tracks, and you can’t sell or distribute projects if the primary value of these projects is the music track itself.

How does royalty-free music work?

So that you can start using any royalty-free music track, you need to choose and buy a suitable license that’ll give you all the necessary rights to use the music for your project. Although there are royalty-free music tracks that come for free, some are only available in the public domain, which means that everyone can use them. Meanwhile, other free music tracks are under a Creative Commons license or without any license at all.

So, before using any royalty-free music, you need to do the following steps:

  • Determine the projects that you’ll use it with, for example, a wedding video, training video, slideshow, online video for YouTube, commercials for radio and T.V., social media, etc.
  • Find out all the project usage conditions such as the territory, number of projects, audience, downloads, copies.
  • Determine the ways that you can use it, such as for broadcasting online, radio, or television.

Can you use royalty-free music commercially?

If you want to use the music for commercial purposes such as monetization of online video, advertising on radio, or T.V., it’s highly advisable to buy a license which will be proof that you have the legal right to use it and will protect you from any claims coming from third parties.

Meanwhile, some authors allow others to use their music for free in online videos, even when using it for monetization, as long as you specify the author’s name in the description of the video or put a link to their website, social media pages, or social network profile. It’s a critical provision included in the Creative Commons license options.

But if you’re planning to use the music track for non-commercial purposes, such as an educational project, family home video, or any other online video without monetization, you can use the royalty-free music that does not require you to buy a license like Creative Commons or Public Domain.

Is royalty-free music copyrighted?

In most cases, yes. Copyright appears automatically at the moment of creation of the musical composition and belongs to the author (or authors if it was made by a team), and also copyright appears automatically when the audio recording is made, that copyright refers to the record itself and belongs to the person which made it. Therefore, in fact, any music track consists of at least two stages, and each is protected by copyright.

However, there are rare cases when artists deliberately hide their authorship and dedicate their music to the public domain. Thus, waiving all their claims to the music entirely. On the other hand, it’s a wholly different case for classical music tracks. Most classical music pieces are in the public domain as a musical composition. But if there are any audio recordings, then there’s a chance that they have copyright protection. So, if you want to use a classical music track which record is not marked as public domain, it is most likely not copyright-free. In other words, 99% of the royalty-free music that you see on the market has copyright protection, even if the distributors call it as copyright-free music, or no copyright music, or uncopyrighted music.

Then, why do authors call their music copyright-free even when it’s not?

Well, they probably assume that if their music isn’t registered on any music recognition system such as YouTube Content ID – it automatically means that their music is copyright-free and you will not have any copyright claims when you use it in online videos. In fact, this music is still protected by copyright.

Different kinds of free royalty-free music

As mentioned earlier, there are a few options to help you use royalty-free music for free even commercially. The first one is by looking for royalty-free music in the Public Domain, while the other is by looking for royalty-free music covered by Creative Commons licenses.

Public Domain

A music track is considered to be a piece of public domain music if it’s not protected by copyright and therefore gives other people the privilege to use it without permission or without the need to pay its original author. Often, music composition could be in the public domain, but the music recording of the same music composition has copyrights and an excellent example of it are classical music.

For example, Mozart created a musical composition available in the public domain. And if a music producer today would use Mozart’s piece to arrange and record a music track, he’ll own the copyright for the recording. Therefore, he could claim the rights for the recording that he made and earn a profit from it. So, be very careful, especially if you’re planning to use public domain music for commercial purposes. Try to find the author of the recording and ask for his permission to use the music track for your business or even non-commercial projects.

Having access to public domain music tracks is a practical choice for those who still don’t have the budget to buy a license. For example, you’re a student and want to create a portfolio of your work. Using a background music track in your online resume can significantly enhance its overall look and can even make it easier for your future employer to remember you.

On the other hand, the chances of collecting rights on music tracks posted in the public domain are what drives companies to invest their money in producing classical music CD’s to take full advantage of it. Even internet companies do the same money-making techniques by selling licenses of recorded classical music for various projects.

Creative Commons

Most people consider Creative Commons to be one of the best ways to find copyrighted works that you can use for any of your projects. It gives its composers the chance to share their work without relinquishing their license or copyright for their works. At the same time, it also allows the public to use the composers’ works no matter what the circumstances may be without having to pay for its license or worry about its royalties.

Although the Creative Commons license may sound like an excellent choice, there are still a few things that you need to know about this type of license, especially a few of its requirements.

A few crucial things that you need to know about using Creative Commons is that it requires giving appropriate credit to its composer. Doing so will help protect the creator’s license from getting revoked by the Creative Commons licensor. Thirdly, there are six Creative License applied globally. And last, once the license is granted, it won’t get revoked as long as you use the license correctly.

Attribution, Non-Commercial

As far as Creative Commons licenses go, this license is by far one of the trickiest. Under the Creative Commons license, it defines commercial as primarily meant to gain monetary value. Ever since the permissions were made, there wasn’t any existing concept of social media sharing like we do today. Now, anything that you share on social media can be a commercial advantage to many businesses alike. That’s why it’s crucial to share your work or distribute it in a non-commercial manner. You can do it by providing attribution and sharing your work in a non-commercial way. You can also start with licensing your new work, too. Understanding this type of Creative Commons license can be confusing.

So, to make it much easier for you, here are a few things that you need to remember:

  • Attribution – You need to acknowledge their work or remark it to the author or artist who made it. It means that you must name everyone who worked on the project and credit them. So, if the track has the name of all the people who worked for the project, it means that you need to acknowledge everyone’s contributions by putting them in the credits.
  • Changing the original work in a non-commercial manner- Making changes to the original work is possible. You can change the melody or even alter the tone itself. But you need to make sure that you do it in a non-commercial manner. It means that you can’t ask people to pay for your work. It’s crucial, especially if you’re a web designer who has an existing project with a client. It’s also applicable for people who want to use it for their YouTube channels, too. Anything that will result in monetary gains will become a violation of the license, which will cause you to lose your rights to it.
  • Sharing the new work in a non-commercial way- For obvious reasons, you can’t charge anyone for any of your finished work. But there are gray areas around it which can be a problem if you need to deal with it on an individual basis. Certain scenarios asking for donations or adding it on websites that have paid business relationships are only a few of the situations that can cause problems in the long run. The difficulty lies beneath the definition of what commercial works really mean. Although one creator may see it as an act of distributing work in a commercial way, others may not see it in the same light.
  • Getting a license for your new work- Although you can’t sell your new project, you can always attach any Creative Commons license to protect your work. Doing so will allow others to use your project for either commercial or non-commercial purposes. Although it may sound absurd to most people, others do share their works for everyone to use. In return, they only ask to get credited for their work.

Attribution, Non-commercial, and Share-Alike

When it comes to this type of Creative Commons license, you need to license your new work as either non-commercial or commercial. Together with the “Share Alike” license, you can’t provide a different license to your original work than you had on your ongoing work. Hence, the term itself. So, if you started your license with an “Attribution, Non-Commercial,” you need to get a similar license for your new work. It also shows the idea of fairness that this type of license holds for everyone.

Attribution, Non-Commercial, No Derivatives

Having this license grants you the rights to share the work. However, you need to provide its writer and creator with the appropriate credit to acquire the license. Also, you can’t make any changes to the work in any way and distribute it for commercial gains. If you’ll use a music track labeled as attribution, non-commercial, no derivatives, it’s best to take note of all the details associated with the track and credit it at the end of the video.

Public domain

Contrary to popular belief, Creative Commons also works with music found in the public domain. There are times when a creator wants their compositions made available without any restrictions. At times like this, adding “CCO” or “CCZero” designation will allow the writer’s work to be available without any copyright descriptions. Using Public Domain designation will allow your work to be available for various uses because it doesn’t have any copyright to restrict it.

Royalty-free music registered with a P.R.O.

A royalty-free music track registered with a Performance Rights Organization (P.R.O.) means that the performing rights are not covered and demand an additional license from a P.R.O. But what does this truly mean, and who should get worried about it?:

Let’s get into more detail as you read along:

  • If you’re going to broadcast your project on national television or radio, then there’s nothing to worry about, especially when you’re using P.R.O.-registered royalty-free music. That’s because most national broadcasters such as radio stations and T.V. network already has an existing blanket P.R.O. License.
  • A similar case applies if you’re going to use it at events like concerts and trade shows, too, since most established venues like stadium arenas and convention centers also have a blanket P.R.O. License.
  • There also shouldn’t be any problem if you’ll use it on your streaming videos, such as on YouTube, too. It’s because streaming services like YouTube also have a blanket P.R.O. License for all contents uploaded on their platform.
  • Using it on specific projects like games, apps, DVDs, or even playing it at private events also won’t constitute any violations, too.
  • But if you’re going to broadcast P.R.O. music in your business venues like a restaurant, hotel, or a store, then you need an additional license for public performance. That’s because various countries and P.R.O.s have their rules and criteria. So, if you’re unsure whether your project can use it or not, it’s best to get in touch with your local P.R.O. or music rights specialist for more information. You can get a local P.R.O. within your area or contact a company that’ll help you get the music and license for public performance in your place.

In the United States alone, the law allows businesses of a specific size (stores under 2,000 square feet, restaurants, or bars under 3,750 square feet) to play music from a radio or television. The law also allows the use of other household devices similar to it without requiring any license. Just ensure that you have fewer than six speakers when you play it while earning any money by charging your customers.

What is the Performance Rights Organization or P.R.O.?

Most often, P.R.O. is a non-commercial organization, which functions as an administrator to a crucial part of music copyrighting called Performing Rights. It includes the right to publicly use the music for performance and use it for broadcasting on the radio, T.V., or online streaming. It also gives you the freedom to play it in public spaces like stores, malls, supermarkets, restaurants, or theatres.

P.R.O also helps composers, songwriters, songwriters, and publishers to get royalties from different institutions for using their music publicly. But before it happens, songwriters, composers, and publishers should first become members of the P.R.O. Also, they need to register their music track and provide the rights of the P.R.O. to help them on their behalf.

Almost every country has its official P.R.O. And composers only need to register with their country’s official P.R.O. to get the proper rights. The primary P.R.O.’s in the United States are ASCAP, SESAC, and BMI. Meanwhile, Canada has SOCAN, United Kingdom has PRS, and Australia has APRA. Most of these institutions have connections to one another and cooperates to ensure that everyone manages their performing rights globally.

One of the primary responsibilities of the P.R.O. is to guarantee that all venues have the right license to play the music publicly. They also ensure that all public performance royalties get collected correctly, and track those who haven’t paid yet. They also make sure that every person who was a part of the composition gets accurately paid for each instance. So, to ensure that it happens, they create a list of all the music played and the venue that it happened. The list also includes information for each payment for every artist that they represent.

The artist has the option to choose the P.R.O. that’ll represent them. Although all organizations offer similar services to ensure that every member gets an equal amount of compensation, the difference lies in the details. Every service that each organization provides is different, especially when it comes to benefits. Others even offer workshops and discounts, too.

P.R.O. Licenses commonly get distributed as a blanket license. It means that they cover the performance rights for the P.R.O. music track that a person chooses to broadcast or perform.

To put it simply, if a radio station or TV channels plan to use the music legally in any of their programs or advertisements, they must make an agreement with the P.R.O. The contract will contain the information about the fixed amount of royalties that they’ll pay for all the music that they used during a specific period.

The report will also contain information about the music used during the event, such as the music track and the location that they used it. It’ll also include the number of times that they used it, as well as the owner to the rights of the music track. Once they’ve made the report, the P.R.O then distributes all royalties to the composers, songwriters, and publishers evenly.

10 Tips for choosing between the royalty-free music for videos

1. Decide the suitable role music for the video

Some background music has specially designed tempo and melody meant to provide a sub-perceptual lift. Meanwhile, other songwriters create music that unleashes energy. That’s why when choosing a music track, you need to find out what sort of music you’re creating and the role that it’ll play to the scene:

  • If it’s a demo or an explainer video, then you need to use subtle music so that your audience can focus on the discussion.
  • Story or live-action videos use clear music to explain and advance the story plot.
  • The announcement, advertisement, or promotional videos use dramatic music tracks to help evoke the emotions of their viewers.

Meanwhile, for those who work for a streaming music app and making a video, music can be a central feature. You can use the right kind of music to help make everything look cohesive. On the other hand, those who are working in a B2B tech company needs an even tempo on their presentation. Doing so helps catch the interest of their audience as they try to explain a complex topic. Those who are working for non-profit organizations can use songs with melancholic tone to convey the gravity of their message.

2. Find out the most appropriate music genre for your videos

Finding the right music track from a wide selection of music can be tedious. So, to help you with the process, here are a few of the different genres often used for business:

  • Cinematic: Big, comprehensive, superb, triumphant.
  • Corporate: Engaging, modest, welcoming
  • Ambient: Peaceful, calm, collected
  • Acoustic: Empathetic, appreciation, melancholic at times
  • Comedic: Amusing, bubbly, exciting, lively
  • Electronic: Creative, inquiring, intellectual
  • Hip Hop: Fast, sharp, bold, fearless
  • Rock: Rough, raw, strong
  • Funk: Different, unapologetic, lively, vivacious

Unsure which genre will fit in your video? Go to SoundHills Music Library and download the best music soundtrack for your project! Listen to the previous while watching your video or even as you read your script. It’ll help you understand what fits and what doesn’t once you’re done listening.

3. Using music track intros and outros as bookends

A bookend is a short snippet of music that lasts for three to five seconds. It usually gets paired with a text or animation that tells if the video is starting or is on pause. It also indicates the length of your video, as it can mean the beginning or the ending for each chapter.

Meanwhile, some use it to help viewers tune in and focus on the discussion. That’s because as soon as the video ends, the music track provides them with a feeling of completion. Bookends can also be a great way to build your brand. If you’re making a video series and you include the series name and its logo to the bookend, it’ll make it easier for other people to recognize your brand.

4. Use Reference Music

There are times when you already have a particular song that’s stuck in your head that you can’t get off no matter how hard you try. If that’s the case, then try using it as a guide. You can listen to it on YouTube and try to find songs that share a resemblance. You can compare its speed, progression, rhythm, key, or even instrumentation to make it easier. There are a lot of songs that you can find on the internet that share a similar progression and key. All you need to do is find which ones will work best.

5. Determine your budget

You need to set up the right budget for every project. If you’re planning to set up something small, then look for music tracks with a Creative Common License. It means that it’s free to use and with a few minor caveats. Using tracks like these can get the job done while providing you with several options.

Meanwhile, if your budget is at a minimum, then try to spare at least $10 and $100 for a royalty-free track from a music library. Although it may seem a lot, getting your tracks from a music library can give you higher quality music than the one that you get from Creative Commons. Usually, they’re also closer to what you want, too.

On the other hand, those with a much higher budget can pay for $300 to $1,000 for excellent custom music. Using a music track meant especially for your project is an excellent idea, especially when you’re planning to reuse it with other videos or audio presentations. Using the same music track on all your demonstrations will soon become associated with your brand. Thus, making it easier for people to recognize you.

6. Consider getting a composer

If you want to have a custom music track, working with composers can help you get the precise kind of music that you want. They can help you interpret your ideas through music and even give you great opinions to help you with making your audience feel what you want them to feel in each scene.

An original score also creates a sense of cohesiveness throughout the entire series. So, if people hear these tones, they’ll recognize your brand and help you earn more mindshare, especially when they scroll past it from their social media feed.

You can find amazing composers online or by looking through the “Artist” section in almost every music library. There are also several artists out there who work with audio creation agencies who can help you with your plans. Searching for it on the internet is an easier and faster way to find the best composers that you can collaborate with for your audio or video presentation.

7. Choose music that communicates with your audience

When dealing with a specific target market based on your audience’s age, preferences, and affiliations, you need to be very particular about your choice of music. You need to know what they want and see which music tracks will fit their taste. If your audience is working professionals in the business industry, it’s best to use music tracks with corporate tones. You can also consider music rock, or ambient music, too. But if your target audience is a bit younger, then hip hop or indie rock will do. The younger generation also prefers electronica and dance music, depending on the video that you want to make.

If you’re doubtful about your choices, then you can look at other videos that target the same demographic as a guide. Doing so will make it much easier for you to find music that’ll fit well with your target audience.

8. Think about the role of tone and frequency

If you’re making a video that centers around communication and speeches, you need to avoid music that has the same notes and tones as the human voice. You can often distinguish these music tracks if they’re using guitar, cello, violin, and viola as part of their score. Doing so will make it easier for you to let your audience hears your voice when you speak.

If you need to convey emotional scenes, you need to pick tracks that use simple melodies as well as chord progressions that continuously repeat. But if you need to choose something that will go well with the human voice, then go for bass or ambient music to create the perfect scene.

For videos that convey happiness or a “you can do it” attitude, midrange to high frequencies work best. Ukulele or higher notes on guitar can adequately express those emotions in your videos. Other options are violin, bells and glockenspiel, and piccolo. You can also use trumpets or the higher notes on the harp.

9. Pace yourself

Letting the music pause in the middle of the video can grab your viewer’s attention. So, try to use these breaks to emphasize a specific moment, for example, a big reveal. It also works best when your music track has a consistent rhythm so that you’ll know when it’s time to pause.

10. Using off-limits well-known music

There are times when you need a music track that everyone knows, like the music theme from Star Wars, but don’t have enough funds to get its license. In this scenario, there are only very few options available for you: you can either find a track that’s similar to the famous one or look for older records that have the same effect but is in the public domain.

In some countries that signed the Berne Convention, copyrights expire 50 or 70 years after its creator dies. Once that happens, their work will become free to use. All the well-known classical composers such as Bach and Beethoven’s works fall in this category, as well as the other works recorded in the United States before 1950.