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Royalty Free Music

John Bickerton explores the concept of royalty free music.


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John Bickerton Composer/Producer John Bickerton is Creative Director for the UniqueTracks Production Music Library. UniqueTracks licenses music for use as soundtrack in digital video productions, independent films, Flash, multimedia and PowerPoint presentations.

John writes the free monthly e-newsletter "Underscore - Secrets of Successful Soundtracks", published by UnqiueTracks.

Why I Dislike the Term "Royalty Free Music"?

The three most popular phrases used to describe the offerings of music production libraries like UniqueTracks are:

  • Royalty free music
  • Stock music
  • Buy-out music

Of the three, the most accurate, to me, is stock music because it implies a collection of media that is immediately available to be used in production creation.

However, the phrase most often used to describe our services is royalty free music. The majority of new visitors to our web site reach us through some type of search that includes the term "royalty-free". Unfortunately this term is fraught with misconceptions.

This is mainly because royalty-free music contains the word free. I get a lot of inquiries that go something like this:

  • By royalty free music, you mean 'free' music, don't you?
  • Do you know where I can get some 'free' royalty-free music?
  • Royalty free music means 'copyright free' doesn't it?

The three questions above highlight common misconceptions about what production music libraries do.

Production Music Libraries

Companies like UniqueTracks are in business to provide a fast and economical way for you to acquire the legal rights you need to use music as soundtrack in your own work. The simple online purchase of a music track immediately grants you the Synchronization and Master Use rights that you need to legally use the track in your production. Learn more about Master Use and Sync licenses.

Music licensing is really our main product. For instance, when you purchase a CD or MP3 track from UniqueTracks, you are paying for a license that grants you incredibly wide usage rights. This license comes directly from us, the publisher and owner of the recorded master tracks (some very large production music libraries are actually more like "brokers" for many different music publishers).

Public Performances and Performance Rights

When their music is used in a soundtrack for a television program, even businesses that advertise as "royalty free" music companies still require producers to file cue sheets with performance rights organizations like ASCAP, BMI and PRS so their composers and publishers can receive performance royalties (payments) from the broadcast.

How is this royalty free? Good question. The truth is, the music isn't royalty free for television broadcast use. This is usually explained in the company's license agreement (re: public performances) but it adds to the confusion surrounding this term.

The following phrases are, to me, more accurate descriptions of what a production music library really offers:

  • One-Stop Music Licensing
  • Quick and Easy Music Licensing
  • Budget Music Licensing
  • Music Licensing with Wide Usage Rights

One-Stop Music Licensing

If you've ever had the experience of licensing a popular music track, you know just how hard and expensive it can be to finally get the clearances necessary to actually use the track. You first have to locate and then negotiate Master Use rights from the record company that owns the recorded master (no easy thing for some tunes). You also have to locate and pay for a synchronization license from the music's publisher.

Quick and Easy Music Licensing

Production Music Libraries exist to simplify the process. You can obtain Master Use and Sync licenses with the simple click of a mouse.

Budget Music Licensing

Prices are targeted at smaller production companies like independent film producers, digital video and multimedia producers. Production music libraries fill the niche for media producers who want successful soundtracks but don't have million dollar budgets to acquire the latest pop tracks.

Music Licensing with wide usage rights

Once licensed, you can use the music in perpetuity with a worldwide territory right letting you sell your production across the globe with no further fees due.

I've also found that many people's perception of anything "royalty free" is of something of limited or even bad quality.

Admittedly, the royalty free music of the past did have a one-dimensional, cheesy quality to it. It mainly served the corporate video market of the late 1980s through the 1990s. The music was created mainly on synthesizers with a very upbeat feel and was incorporated into in-house presentations meant to inspire employees to better performance, to meet sales goals, etc. The musical arrangements had a lot of glitz and big electronic effects and were anything but subtle. This style really has no use for today's media producers except maybe in some odd kitschy way.

Until recently, I used to call this style the "Weather Channel Sound" because it reminded me of the musical accompaniment used by the 24-hour cable weather channel. Their music soundtracks have greatly improved though in the past few years. I've even heard Miles Davis accompanying my local forecast.

Sadly, I still do hear this overly glitzy style of music in a lot of telephone on-hold message programming. Is this supposed to make me feel good while on hold?

So, why do we use the phrase royalty free music on the UniqueTracks web site? The main reason is that it's still the most searched for phrase for our type of service. And the term does apply to some of the usage rights granted under our license agreement.

Our music is royalty free because in all cases except TV broadcast, you won't pay any further license fees once you obtain the initial license. You can sell a product, like a DVD, that incorporates our music in its soundtrack without any further financial obligation whether you sell 1 copy or 100,000 copies.

The main benefit to licensing music this way is that you have covered yourself legally – you have licensed the music and can now legally use it as part of your own work. Remember, when creating any type of media production – if you don't create the content personally or in-house, you have to license the content to be able to incorporate it into your project. This is true of photos, video footage, music or other audio. If you haven't created it in-house, you need some type of license or release to use it in your work.

Music production libraries offer fast and affordable one-stop licensing letting you get on with the creative aspects of media production.


John Bickerton (Glossary Page)

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This is the original page. An AMP (Accelerated Mobile Page) version of this page is also available for those on mobile platforms, at Royalty Free Music.


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