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Can You Use Royalty-Free Music for Commercial Projects?

| Michael Clute | March 3, 2022


Creators who are working on a short film they’d like to monetize, or video content creators who are making spots that have commercial potential, are often stuck with a question when it comes to music: is it possible to make use of music they’ve licensed if they’re charging advertisers or viewers? What rights and responsibilities do they have? First, a brief overview of music and copyright.

What Is Copyright?

Copyright is a system of laws that protects the rights of artists and labels, These rights holders can decide who uses their music (or other artistic creations) and on what terms. The term for copyright in the U.S. is typically 75 years. 

After a work’s copyright expires, it is said to be in the public domain, meaning no one owns its rights. 

So new works are constantly passing into the public domain, including famous novels like Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.” Some copyright owners are more assiduous about renewing copyright than others. Disney, for example, is famously defensive about its copyrighted material, even though many of its famous films are based on public-domain fairy tales. This is because it’s possible to copyright a version of a story even if the original inspiration has fallen into the public domain. Similarly, you can copyright the expression of an idea, but not an idea itself.

Copyright and Music

When it comes to music, things get more complicated. This is because many kinds of rights can be involved. Additionally, there can be multiple rights holders to a piece of music, including: 

  • The composer of the music
  • The author of the lyrics
  • The performer of the song
  • The label which released the track 

When it comes to making CDs or selling digital copies of a work, mechanical rights come into play. Mechanical rights are defined as the right to make a copy of a musical track. Performance rights come into play for live performances of songs. When a cover band does a live performance of a song, royalties must be paid by the venue to the rights holders, usually the song’s composer and the label that released it.

Copyright payments usually take the form of an upfront licensing fee and ongoing royalty payments. Royalties are residual payments that are due every time a song is played, whether live or on YouTube, on the radio, on a film or TV soundtrack, or at any one of the potentially scores of venues at which music is played. In the above example of multiple rights holders, every dollar coming in as a royalty is divided among the rights holders according to a predetermined agreement.

Rights are enforced by performance rights organizations (PROs) like ASCAP and BMI. These organizations collate self-reported accounts and make their own tallies of such sources of revenue for musicians as:

  • Live music venues
  • Soundtracks
  • TV advertisement airings
  • Satellite radio playlists
  • Gyms, restaurant and waiting room playlists, and so on

Why Do Royalties Exist?

Royalties exist because it is recognized that artists may have highs and lows in their careers, but that many people will benefit from their hit songs. 

Royalty payments can help them sustain a career. There’s also a sense of fairness at work here. Since others are benefiting from an artist’s work (for example, a movie may be more entertaining and make more money because it includes a certain song), creators should partake in that success. 

Of course, middlemen are involved, too, like record labels. But since a label (the reasoning goes) took a risk on an artistic work and helped develop an artist, it should benefit from future income streams.

What does all this mean for video content creators? It means that using copyrighted music is, in short, a headache: 

First off, you need the right permissions.

This means finding out who actually owns the rights to a composition, and to the version you wish to use. Say this is a cover version of “Love Me Tender.” You would have to contact the heirs to the author of the song, the current artist, and potentially the label, as well. Then, they have to say yes. This is far from a given as popular songs tend to be well-protected by their rights holders, who rigorously restrict use in order to maintain their prestige and ability to command high licensing fees.

Second, you may not be able to afford the fees. 

Licensing fees for popular copyrighted songs are expensive, and then there are the royalties. These, too, add up but are also unpredictable. They can be time-consuming to calculate, in addition to a burdensome expense. 

If you’re tempted to use copyrighted music without paying for it, don’t. It’s morally wrong, of course, but it can also attract heavy penalties, including fines, takedown notices, your project disappearing off YouTube, and in some extreme cases, jail time.

It may even prove impossible to upload your work in the first place, as many sites scan preemptively for copyright violations. 

Creative Commons Licenses

Creative  Commons (CC) licenses were created to make life easier in the age of internet sharing and remixing. They mostly require crediting and attribution, rather than payment. However, they are largely geared to works that are not made for commercial ends. 

If work using CC licenses switches from non-commercial to commercial use, it can end up having many restrictions attached and become almost as cumbersome as using copyrighted material. So while CC licenses have utility in some contexts, such as non-commercial artwork and remixes, they are not helpful to commercial creators.

Public Domain Music

Public domain music is problematic because much of the music listed as public domain online really is not. This could be due to mislabelling, confusion around copyright issues, or an honest mistake. For example, a classical composition may itself be in the public domain as it was composed in the 1700s, well before copyright existed. However, the recording you want to use may itself have been recorded by a famous symphony orchestra, whose performance of it was copyrighted by Sony Classical. Using that recording could put you in hot water.

Royalty-Free Music

Royalty-free music is created under a specific kind of copyright agreement that allows you to use it for an upfront fee (usually a modest one). Tracks can typically be bought as a one-off, or on an annual subscription basis. The best quality of royalty-free music from a financial perspective is that royalty-free music only requires one upfront fee, rather than the payment of ongoing royalties. 

That makes royalty-free music an appealing proposition. It’s also a lot less time-consuming as you can just go to a royalty-free music library and find the track that works for your needs. Additionally, royalty-free music is:

  • High Quality. Royalty-free music is made by composers who have created music for film, TV, and commercials and has probably been used by some of your favorite brands. Unlike much public domain music, it’s recorded under excellent conditions so the recordings are clear and professional-sounding.
  • Created With the Needs of Creators in Mind. Royalty-free music is made specifically to provide high-quality music for such diverse but familiar genres as marketing presentations, meditation videos, web commercials, and other 21st-century uses. If someone finds classical music on a royalty-free site, they can rest assured that performance of it has been created under royalty-free licensing rules. That will save creators time when they’re looking for a track that’s right for their project, which they’re unlikely to find by just combing the internet. 
  • Most stock music libraries offer tracks that are searchable by handy categories: instrumentation, genre, emotional tone, and tempo. That also makes it easier for creators to find the right track for their projects. Whether they’re looking for royalty-free Christmas music for commercial use, royalty-free classical music for commercial use, royalty-free meditation music for commercial use, or royalty-free music in any other genre, they’ll be able to find it and, more importantly, use it.
  • Some royalty-free music tracks are created to evoke popular composers and film scores, but at a fraction of the cost of the real ones (which are also likely unattainable). Search “Tarantino” on a royalty-free music library and creators will probably turn up some fun 60s surf rock or trumpets.

It’s always possible to hire a composer and musicians and create music as a work for hire which the production owns (royalties would still be paid if the project were aired on TV,  but not by the production company). But most independent media producers don’t have access to musicians who can produce high-quality music that fits their exact needs and can be created in a flash.

So, Can You Use Royalty-Free Music for Commercial Use?

Yes, you absolutely can use royalty-free music for commercial use. 

Once licensees pay the upfront licensing fee, they can use royalty-free music in any content they like, and as many times as they like. That includes:

  • Web commercials
  • On a soundtrack to a film being sold or otherwise monetized
  • Meditation videos being sold
  • Corporate videos made for profit
  • YouTube videos and indeed on all social media platforms, such as Instagram and TikTok
  • As background music for online courses or tutorials

(Sometimes people call royalty-free music copyright-free. That’s incorrect. It is copyrighted, but artists work with royalty-free music companies so they are fairly compensated by those companies).

To reiterate, licensing royalty-free music means content creators pay upfront for the right to use copyrighted music. 

The rights holder is agreeing to license it to you to use according to the terms of the license. The person licensing it doesn’t have to pay ongoing royalties. 

Artists are fairly compensated, and all relevant laws are obeyed, so creators who use royalty-free music on their commercial projects won’t receive a shock in the form of an email from Creative Commons or a rights holder. (It’s not exactly the same, but when the band, The Verve, used a sample from a version of a Rolling Stones song, they were stuck in legal purgatory for years).

If the project that licensed the royalty-free track ends up on broadcast TV, for example, the artist behind it will receive royalties. These royalties will be paid, though, by the network, not by the creator. 

Under a royalty-free license, once the upfront license fee has been paid, the track can be used forever and in any number of contexts. So producers working on a series of meditation videos, for example, could use the same track as intro or background music in each without having to pay a separate license fee for each. 

Royalty-free licenses are non-exclusive, which means that other media producers can use these tracks, which is one of the reasons why licensing fees are usually quite low, whether on a one-off basis or based on an annual subscription fee.  Even large media companies and brands make use of royalty-free music as part of their overall strategy. They, too, appreciate its flexibility and quality.

Also, unlike Creative Commons licensing, royalty-free licenses work if a project’s status changes. For example, it may start as a school project or a festival short but then receive offers for commercial broadcasting or YouTube monetization. A royalty-free license for its music means it can make this transition without any headaches.

Can Royalty-Free Music Be Edited?

Yes, royalty-free music can be edited to suit the needs of a specific project. It can also be looped and its volume mixed so that it works with dialogue or as background music, as needed. Once licensed, users are free to use all or just part of a track.

What Are The Best Royalty-Free Music Sites?

Some of the most popular choices of sites offering royalty-free music for commercial use are:

  • StockMusic
  • PremiumBeat
  • Soundotcom
  • PacDV
  • Purple Planet Music

There are many others online. Search music for tracks that seem appealing. Each site also has a slightly different contract for licensees, so it’s worth reading the fine print (some don’t allow for tracks to be edited beyond recognition, for example).

Royalty-Free Music: Final Thoughts

Royalty-free music is a financial and creative boon to media creators who want to commercialize their work. If you want to know more, reach out to Tunestock, a leading royalty-free music site.

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