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What is Royalty-Free Music?

| Doug Walker | November 7, 2022


Royalty-Free Music is a payment model that allows users to pay a one-time fee for a music track instead of paying fees each time the music is used. This payment gives the purchaser the right to use the track for the agreed-upon duration without any additional fees. While the artist is compensated for their work, the purchaser is not required to pay royalties every time the music is used. This is particularly advantageous when the music is used as a soundtrack for a video that may be viewed multiple times. With Royalty-Free Music, audiences can stream the video as many times as they like without the purchaser having to manage or pay additional fees.

What Are Royalties?

According to Investopedia, a royalty is: a legally binding payment made to an individual or company for the ongoing use of their assets, included copyrighted works, franchises, and natural resources. An example of royalties would be payments received by musicians when their original songs are played on the radio or television, used in movies, performed at concerts, bars and restaurants, or consumed via streaming services. In most cases, royalties are revenue generators specifically designed to compensate the owners of songs or property when they license out their assets for another party’s use.

In other words, royalty payments allow for an artist to be compensated for use of their song with each use. This reflects the nature of artistic work — it’s not like a tangible product you buy from a store. Rather, a piece of music can be enjoyed many thousands of times, in many different contexts. 

If a song blows up in popularity and is featured in many ads and on soundtracks, the artist (or copyright holder) gets compensated for those varied uses. The royalty and licensing system provides a way for artists, whose incomes can be irregular and erratic, to earn consistent financial rewards from their labors. 

What is a Copyright?

Copyright is a legal framework designed to protect the rights of artists and creators and ensure that they receive fair compensation for their work. According to the Association of Research Libraries, the US Constitution established the basis for copyright in Article I, Section 8, Clause 8. This clause grants Congress the power to promote the progress of science and useful arts by granting authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries for limited periods of time.

In today’s world, artists and musicians face changing income streams due to the evolution of technology and the marketplace. For example, the decline of CD sales and the rise of streaming services have impacted the income of many musicians. Royalties provide a crucial source of income for artists, particularly during the peak productive years of their careers. Royalties allow artists to earn income over the course of their lives and receive compensation for their work, which is consumed by audiences around the world.

The Investopedia definition of copyright is the legal right of the owner of intellectual property to reproduce their work. In other words, copyright gives the original creators of a product, and those they authorize, the exclusive right to reproduce their work. By registering their work with the US Copyright Office, artists can be assured that their rights will be protected, and they will be compensated whenever their work is used, whether it’s on the radio, in an ad, or in a movie. In summary, royalties and copyright serve to protect the rights of artists and ensure that they are compensated fairly for their work.

FAQs About Royalty-Free Music

How Can Composers Still Collect Royalties on “Royalty-Free” Music?

According to Scientific American, a royalty-free license means that “after the initial permission is secured, usually through money, additional uses can be made without payment.” It’s this one-time payment that gives purchasers the right to use a musical track multiple times. Once a purchaser has made the payment, the license (or, permission) allows them to use the track as many times as they want.

Under a royalty-free license, the composer is not getting the short end of the stick because when you purchase “royalty-free” music, the “royalty-free” designation only applies to you as the purchaser. While composers do receive royalties when their music is publicly performed, such as on television, these royalties are not paid by you. Instead, they are paid by the network that broadcasts the show, either as a featured piece or as background music. Performing Rights Organizations (PROs) such as ASCAP, BMI, SESAC, SOCAN, PRS, and others are responsible for collecting these royalties from the networks and distributing them to the music composers. Therefore, as the person who has purchased the music license, the music is indeed “royalty free” for you, however, it’s possible that some royalties may be paid to the composers by the PROs.

Is Royalty-Free Music Different From Public Domain?

Yes, royalty-free music is distinct from public-domain music. 

“Public domain” refers to music or artwork that was not copyrighted, or whose copyright has expired., the US Government copyright website, states that “as a general rule, for works created after January 1, 1978, copyright protection lasts for the life of the author plus an additional 70 years. For an anonymous work, a pseudonymous work, or a work made for hire, the copyright endures for a term of 95 years from the year of its first publication or a term of 120 years from the year of its creation, whichever expires first.”

For older works, Cornell University publishes a list of copyright terms and dates when the copyright expires. For example, works published between 1926 and 1977 without a copyright notice are in the public domain, “due to failure to comply with required formalities.” 

Copyright duration can be complicated and depends on whether the copyright has been renewed. Copyright law is actually quite controversial. The Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Law extended the length of basic copyright in a way that benefited large corporations like Disney so that their iconic creations like Mickey Mouse would not pass into the public domain, causing them substantial revenue losses. 

Copyright for such lucrative creations can last a long time. According to Wikipedia, if a work is considered a “work for hire,” copyright persists for 120 years after creation or 95 years after publication, whichever is shorter. Works published before January 1, 1926, entered the public domain on January 1, 2021. This includes such classic novels as The Great Gatsby and such classic songs as Always by Irving Berlin. (Duke University Law School has a comprehensive page of such works). In theory, most works will pass into the public domain at some point.

Does Royalty-Free Mean No Copyright?

“‌Royalty-free” does not mean “no copyright.” Rather, it means that copyright issues are being handled when purchasers pay their licensing fee to a royalty-free music company. The composer’s rights are being respected and they are being paid. Purchasers just don’t have to figure it all out by themselves, and one blanket payment covers them. The copyright is still being respected. The publishing rights are likely still held by the song’s composer, who has worked out a deal with the royalty-free licensing company.

What are the Penalties for Using Copyrighted Music Without Authorization?

Sometimes, in spite of the potential penalties, creators are tempted to use copyrighted music without appropriate permissions. This would be a mistake. Copyright law is complicated and onerous.

According to Purdue University, using copyrighted material without permission can result in the following legal penalties:

  • Infringer pays the actual dollar amount of damages and profits.
  • The law provides a range from $200 to $150,000 for each work infringed.
  • Infringer pays for all attorneys’ fees and court costs.
  • The Court can issue an injunction to stop the infringing acts.
  • The Court can impound the illegal works.
  • The infringer can go to jail.

These are all severe penalties. It’s important to proceed with caution when using music found online without obvious provenance. If a piece of music is not available under a royalty-free license, content creators should be wary. 

Copyright can be controversial — for example, as in this article on the Yale Library blog, it has been used to sue rappers and hip-hop artists who have used earlier preexisting songs in a parodic or mashup manner. And there are “fair use” exceptions. But most creators want to avoid the chance of legal action or avoidable headaches. On the whole, creators are far better off using a royalty-free music service. 

Why Not Just Rely on Public Domain Music? 

At the other end of the spectrum, content creators might want to save money and rely solely on public-domain music. After all, not paying anything sounds better than paying a fee, right? Relying on public-domain music can prove complicated for many reasons. Some of these are:

Separated Rights

In music, performance rights and publishing rights are often separated. So while a particular piece of music itself may have fallen into the public domain owing to its vintage, the performance of it that a producer wishes to use may be copyrighted by the artist. An obvious example would be the national anthem — sung by Lady Gaga. This can lead to the same issues as using any copyrighted music without proper permissions. 

Is The Music Truly Public Domain?

Music may be listed online as “public domain” in error. When you come upon tracks online, their information is not always complete. A track may turn out to have rights holders, after all, who are determined to enforce their rights, which won’t be revealed till months down the track, when videos are taken off YouTube or a letter threatening legal action arrives.

It May Simply Not be Right

If it’s in the public domain, the track in question is probably old. The recording may not be in the best condition, and it may not sync up with the desired message or tone of a video. (For a professional presentation, old-timey polka music or a scratchy blues recording from the 1920s may not have the vibe being aimed for). 

Royalty-free music is contemporary and often made with today’s end uses in mind. It is available in styles more relevant to current needs (like Powerpoint presentations and video ads) than music from the 1920s, no matter how beautiful that music may be.

Public Domain Research Can Be Time-Consuming

Public domain options are limited in nature and require you to comb the internet. Generally speaking, public-domain music sites are not particularly well-organized, curated, or labeled. Finding royalty-free music on a dedicated site is easier and more efficient.

Can Royalty-Free Music Be Used In Commercial Projects?

Yes, it can. In fact, royalty-free music is particularly geared for usage in commercial projects. If you are making a movie and want to charge people to download or stream it, purchasing a royalty-free music track allows you to use it in your movie without any further limitations or payments. 

A royalty-free licensing agreement may have specific limitations, and many sites offer payment tiers, so you should always read the terms and conditions. But in general royalty-free music is perfect for commercial projects. It allows creators to budget simply for music, while also allowing for an artist to receive a welcome one-off payment. It also allows for multiple uses. A project may start as a school project or a festival short but receive offers for commercial licensing. A royalty-free license for music means not worrying about changing the kind of license for a creative work (which is a headache, if the rights were secured to a popular song but only for festival usage).

When is Music Royalty-Free?

Music is royalty-free when it’s licensed under a royalty-free license agreement. It doesn’t matter how the track is initially produced, but typically a composer will come to an agreement with a royalty-free licensing company, which then allows creators to pay a one-off licensing fee in exchange for the rights to use the song in perpetuity.

How Does Creative Commons Work?

We live in a world full of remixes, sampling, and creative borrowing. Creative Commons licenses offer several different “layers,” but they are all aimed at making it easier to use others’ creative material with appropriate attribution. They recognize that many artists, particularly in the early stages of their career, want their work above all to get out there. But on the internet, as work gets shared and forwarded it’s easy for attribution to be lost. 

Creative Commons licenses are mostly aimed at rectifying this. They do not do away with ownership. Rather, they make ownership easier to trace. There are six different tiers of Creative Commons licenses, ranging in degree of strictness.

The most permissive Creative Commons license allows others to “distribute, remix, adapt, and build upon your work, even commercially,  as long as they credit you for the original creation.” Others allow various degrees of control, like allowing work to be shared but not changed, or shared but only for noncommercial projects. 

The topic of rights and the internet is a fraught one — remember the classic refrain, “information wants to be free”? Well, information is not usually free, whether we are paying for it with money or by sharing data (willingly or not). Creative Commons licenses are one way to balance the needs of creators for acknowledgment with the desire to collaborate with other artists. 

One problem with Creative Commons licenses, as this scholarly article makes plain, is that not many people understand them. They can be open to the exploitation of creators and can be a pain for users to decipher. They also make it difficult to switch categories, for those who wish to make them either more or less permissive or if creators want to try and turn a profit from their work.

Creative Commons vs Royalty-Free Music

There are very few actually “copyright-free” tracks out there. Often, when people say they have found copyright-free music, they really mean they are using Creative Commons-licensed music. These tracks have limitations on their use, depending on which level of Creative Commons license the creator has taken out.

As mentioned above, these limitations can become burdensome later in the life cycle of an ad or presentation or if a creator wants to change the usage of their track — if they decide they’d like to start charging people to watch your short film, for example.

Royalty-free music offers a simpler path for creators than tracks licensed under Creative Commons. 

Once royalty-free music has been paid for according to the terms of the license, it’s the purchaser’s to use forever. By contrast, Creative Commons licenses can come with conditions that constrain future use. If a content creator suddenly gets an email from Creative Commons about improper use, it can not only be unpleasant, it can mean having to remove music from that video, pay an unexpected licensing fee, or have work disappear from YouTube or Vimeo (as in Imogen Heap’s example, above).

Royalty-free music allows upfront payment, exact knowledge of costs, and provides peace of mind as it relates to future usage. 

Royalty-Free Music vs Needle Drop Licenses

The term, “needle drop license” comes from the old days of vinyl records. When the needle dropped, the track would play. A needle drop license means that a producer would have to pay for every time they used a clip from a song, even two different parts of the song in the same ad. As this article explains, needle drop licenses are almost like renting a song every time it is invoked. These are very cumbersome and difficult for a content creator to use. Producers are advised to steer clear of them in favor of royalty-free licenses, which offer a straightforward, one-off license fee and maximize creative and financial freedom.

How Do Royalty-Free Music Companies Find Music?

Royalty-free music allows composers to be paid in a straightforward way — a boon for creators. Many composers rely on royalty-free music companies for their income. They compose music as they always do, creating tracks that evoke different moods, are in different genres, and have different instrumentation. These tracks might just be simple percussion beat tracks, or they could be more cinematic and immersive. Composers enjoy the creative freedom of coming up with tracks for royalty-free music libraries, and often use royalty-free companies’ catalogs as places to park music they have come up with but for which they have no obvious context (until a content creator provides one). 

The music is high quality and comes in a variety of styles. Royalty-free music is often composed by top-tier composers who have worked in film, TV, and advertising. Composers themselves submit their music to companies, as it’s a great way for them to get paid and find an audience. Their music often then ends up in reality shows, on ads, and in short films.

Can Royalty-Free Tracks Be Used on YouTube?

Yes, Royalty-Free tracks can be used on YouTube. In fact, Royalty-Free Music is a popular choice for YouTube creators who want to add background music to their videos without worrying about copyright claims or paying hefty licensing fees.

However, it’s important to note that not all Royalty-Free Music is created equal. Some Royalty-Free Music licenses may have specific terms and conditions that restrict their use on certain platforms or in certain types of content. For example, some licenses may only allow the music to be used in personal or non-commercial projects, while others may require attribution or credit to the artist.

It’s important to read the license agreement carefully before using any Royalty-Free Music track on YouTube. Additionally, it’s important to make sure that the Royalty-Free Music you are using is not infringing on someone else’s copyright. Using copyrighted music without permission on YouTube can result in legal action, demonetization, or even having your channel suspended.

Is There Royalty-Free “Soundalike” Music?

If creators are looking for a vast epic track that feels like the Star Wars or Lord of the Rings soundtrack, they are going to have a hard time getting the rights to that track. This is one context in which royalty-free music can come in especially handy: royalty-free music is composed quite often to echo and evoke the world’s most popular genres and composers. 

Many sites allow users to find tracks by genre and tone. The tracks’ very titles often also hint at their musical influences, making it easy to audition tracks and find the right one, easily. 

How Do Creators Find Royalty-Free Tracks?

The best source is a royalty-free music company that can be used as a one-stop shop. Some companies offer the choice of purchasing tracks or subscribing to the site to access all its tracks on a monthly or annual basis. Either way, once the licensing fee has been paid, creators have access to those tracks in perpetuity. It’s better to go through a reputable site rather than just comb the web. This will ensure that the legalities are taken care of and creators can focus on the creative aspects of your work. 

Can Royalty-Free Tracks be Licensed for Specific Purposes?

Yes. Most people want to license tracks for uses that are as broad as possible. But if creators want to save money, they can sometimes license royalty-free music for specific uses only — for the web alone, for example. That being said, most enjoy the peace of mind of licensing a track for all purposes and forever.

Is Royalty-Free Music High Quality?

Yes, royalty-free music can be of very high quality! “Stock music,” per Wikipedia, refers to “any recorded music that can be licensed to customers for use in film, television, radio and other media.” Music from a stock music library has a mixed reputation, but even this is mostly dated. Additionally, stock music is not synonymous with royalty-free music. 

Home music production has become a lot more sophisticated, and there are now talented musicians and composers all over the world creating cool tracks. The explosion in visual content production at individual and corporate levels also means there is a much greater demand for a supply of high-quality music to choose from. Competition is now intense. With the pandemic, there have been even more creators and composers sitting in home studios putting out great quality music. 

While royalty-free music itself can be of high quality, there is an art in how you use it. Creators should become comfortable with the creative use of royalty-free works. For example, editing and careful mixing can make royalty-free music feel bespoke and fresh in a project. The good news is that the raw material is out there to support creators’ work at the highest level.

How To Know if a Song is Royalty-Free

The best way to tell if a song is royalty-free is by finding it on a site dedicated to royalty-free music. If there is no clear, straightforward licensing guide on the site, then it’s really a matter of trusting the internet, which, as we know, is not always a good policy. Royalty-free music sites like Tunestock offer great tracks organized in ways that make it easy to find the track that just works for any particular project.

Do You Have to Pay for Royalty-Free Music?

Yes, royalty-free music has to be paid for. As explained above, that’s part of the definition of royalty-free music: you pay for a license once and then the music can be used in perpetuity. The plus is that it only has to be paid for once, rather than every time it’s used (e.g., every time someone streams your video on YouTube). 

Royalty-free license fees are typically affordable. The simplicity of the model, as well as the quality of the music, make it an appealing option for content creators of all budget levels.

Is Buyout Music Different from Royalty-Free Music?

Buyout music is the same thing as royalty-free music; the terms are interchangeable. This is because, with their one-time payment, purchasers are buying out the rights to use a musical track forever.

Can Creators Use Royalty-Free Music for Different Purposes?

Yes. If a creator buys a royalty-free license for a musical track, they have the right to use it  for any number of purposes, including:

  • YouTube Videos
  • Short films
  • Presentations
  • Instagram posts
  • Twitch streams

It is important to check the details of the license you have purchased, which may have certain usage limitations. 

Royalty-Free Music Conclusions

Music can play a vital role in creating an emotional connection and setting the tone for any presentation, film, or video. However, navigating the complex world of music rights and copyright can be overwhelming for independent content creators. The risk of using copyrighted music without permission can lead to legal issues and creative roadblocks. Public domain and copyright-free options seem like helpful solutions, but they often come with their own limitations.

Thankfully, royalty-free music provides a practical solution for content creators. Royalty-free music allows creators to pay a one-time fee for the perpetual use of a musical track in any number of projects. This freedom is empowering, as it allows creators to focus on their creative vision without worrying about legal and budgetary headaches.

One of the best ways to access high-quality royalty-free licensed music is through a reputable company like Tunestock. With a diverse production music library of royalty-free music tracks available for licensing across various media platforms, Tunestock takes care of the legal aspects of music licensing. Content creators can be confident in using royalty-free music without infringing on copyright laws, allowing them to focus on their creative mission and vision. With the convenience and affordability of royalty-free music, content creators can enjoy a seamless and worry-free experience.

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