What is Royalty Free music?

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[updated May 2nd 2023]

As a long time producer and publisher of royalty free music, I’ve gathered a fair bit of experience and knowledge in the field. I have released over 1000 royalty free tracks, with my music licensed by individuals and organisations of all sizes. Royalty free music licensing has been an excellent source of income.

It’s surprising how much inaccurate information and general assumptions there are on this topic. This probably arises from ‘Royalty Free’ being a relatively new subject in the music licensing scene. There are also numerous licenses a royalty free artist can release music under.

How does music licensing work when royalties are involved?

Traditionally, labels/publishers own the copyright of a track. They would license the track with a fee and collection of royalties each time the track is played or used. This tends to be a fairly costly and time consuming experience for licensees. The label or publisher would take a percentage of the payment, and the rest would make its way to the artist.

Music that is released royalty free, however, incurs no recurring royalty fees for the licensee. Artists do not receive royalty payments from these tracks. This can obviously be attractive to organisations or individuals trying to complete a project with a smaller budget. In a world where content rules, this is an increasing stream of revenue for independent artists.

So it’s important to really straighten out the meaning and implications for both artists and licensees when looking to buy a license for royalty free music.

Does Royalty Free mean copyright free?

That’s a big NO! Copyright free indicates that there is no copyright holder to a piece of work and it can be used as pleased with no legal implications. Royalty free music still has a copyright holder (the creator), but their music incurs no royalty payments with commercial use. Use still has to be cleared with the copyright holder. Abusing royalty free music by assuming there’s no copyright can create expensive legal issues – it’s really not worth it.

Genuine copyright free material either means ownership of copyright has expired, or an artist has chosen to release work under a CCO (Creative Commons) license. This allows any and all use of their work, commercial or otherwise, without even attributing the creator. More on CC licenses later.

So how can you tell if a a track is royalty free? This can be more tricky to determine than you think! I’ve found that even some artists are not sure if their work is royalty free or which license their music is released under!

For example, an artist may release their music through a digital distributor to  stream on Spotify and Apple Music. The artist still owns the copyright for the track,  streaming the track through Spotify or YT incurs royalty payments, but the track is not registered with any collection agency (like PRS). Is the track on Spotify considered royalty free?



Is music on Spotify Royalty Free?

In the above example, yes. If the creator still owns the copyright to their track, and it’s not registered with a collection agency, they are able to license the track as they please. The only problem in this example is that if a content creator wanted to license a track that was on Spotify for their YouTube channel, the video would draw a copyright strike. This would then have to be cleared by the artist as legitimate and cleared use of their music. Still royalty free, but definitely a bit bothersome and time consuming for the licensee.

Are Royalty Free tracks free to use?

The most common licenses that artists are using currently to release royalty free music are Creative Commons licenses.



The different Creative Commons Licenses

There are 6 main CC licenses that allow different levels of use. I really recommend reading through all their descriptions.

Creative Commons music releases are free to download and share as they are. Depending on the license, however, you may not be able use the music in derivative or commercial projects without permission from the copyright holder. You may also be required to pay a license fee to clear perpetual use of a track.

Music released under CC licenses are always royalty free. An artist cannot release a track to the public royalty free and also register that same track with a collecting agency. This will incur royalty payments, therefore conflicting with the royalty free CC license. Once a track is released to the public domain on a certain CC License, that license is perpetual and will remain.

Does this limit the creator’s options for selling music licenses?

Not at all. The copyright holder, as owner of the piece, still has the ability to license their music as they please. They have the right to sell a commercial license for someone to use their music for a project. Remember, traditionally, a creator of a piece will exclusively give copyright over to a label or publisher.

Therefore not only do CC licenses enable independent artists to publish music as they please (such as on the Free Music Archive), they also enable licensees to find cheap or free to license music with no royalty payments incurred.

Personally, I release music on the most restrictive CC license BY NC ND 4.0, which means my music can’t be used in any derivative or commercial projects without further license or permission. I then sell licenses and subscriptions clearing perpetual use through my music licensing website www.ketsa.uk.

How artists are taking control of their music releases

Other independent artists are taking advantage of the royalty free music licensing market to set up websites similar to Independent Music Licensing Collective.

Scott Holmes: scottholmesmusic.com

Maarten Schellekens: evocativesoundtrack.com

Daniel Birch: danielbirchmusic.com



Independent artist Scott Holmes

This can be an attractive business model for an independent artist, as once set up it can create an ongoing passive income from their music. But we’ll dive more into this in the next post.

So obviously the best choice for a licensee is to license music that is guaranteed royalty free, whereby they’d receive no legal issues or copyright strikes.

To this end, there are numerous sites now offering this royalty free music licensing service. Each will have their positives and negatives, and really it depends on the project and the type of music needed that might determine which a licensee might subscribe to.

In another post, we’ll talk more about finding royalty free music for backing tracks to projects, as well as ways licensees and independent artists can forge a symbiotic working relationship.

Check out the 100% Royalty Free IMLC Library



Independent, london-based producer and IMLC co-founder Ketsa is a giant of the Creative Commons music scene. His music has been used for a Volvo TV advert, and promotional campaigns by Greenpeace, Audi, Riachuelo, Grance Ormonde and films by the National Geographic, The UN, The Atlantic, Forbes and many many more. As head of Artist Services at the IMLC, Ketsa is fully committed to educating creators on the benefits of royalty free music licensing with his Empowered Independents YouTube series.

Empowered Independents