How To License Royalty Free Music and Sound Effects

by Productiontrax

Once you’ve found the best piece of production music for your project, you’ll need to license it in order to legally use it. This article will walk you through the different types of music licenses, and what you’ll need to look for when licensing royalty free music or sound effects for your project.

Types of Music Licenses

Note: we won’t cover Grand Rights here, which is what you’ll need for performing a musical theater piece on stage. Whoops, guess we just did.

Royalty free does not mean copyright free

First, some important clarification. It is a common misconception that royalty free music is free from any type of copyright protection. In fact, all music has a copyright that protects the creator, and allows them to decide if and how to exploit it in the marketplace. Royalty free music, then, means that you do not you need to pay the composer every time you use the music.

Synchronization Licenses

A synchronization license, or sync license, allows you to use a piece of music alongside another piece of media -- or, in-sync. Historically, this has specifically meant being able to use music with visuals or film, making this the defacto license for composers to provide those looking to use their music as a film or video soundtrack.

However, many production music libraries have a broader interpretation of this, taking into account the evolving interactive media and multimedia landscape. It is common, therefore, to find sync licenses that cover a wide range of mediums, including internet, games, products, mobile apps, podcasts and other timed-relation uses.

A synchronization license, however, covers the composition only. That means, if you have a sync license, you still need to figure out how to perform or record the piece yourself. To use the original recording by the artist, or another sound recording of the song you want to use recorded by someone else, you’ll need a master use license.

Master Use Licenses

A master use license covers the use of a particular sound recording. This is because copyright law provides separate copyright protections for a composition (the written idea or conceptualization of the song) and a recording of that composition (the recorded performance in an audio format).

Usually, because most film producers can’t really use a composition without its recording, most music licensing packages for film include a master use license and a synchronization license rolled into one.

Even so, it is important to remember this distinction. Consider the following scenario: you want to use a modern jazz artist’s instrumental version of an old Elvis song. That’s a problem! In this case, the modern artist’s recording is protected by a separate copyright than the original Elvis song, but, in order to use this recording in timed-relation, you need a license for both -- a master use license for the recording, and a synchronization license for the original composition.

So complicated! But there’s more.

Public Performance Licenses

Every piece of music ever created has an element of copyright called the right to publicly perform. This essentially allows the creator of the music to collect a fee every time their music is performed in front of people.

Public performance used to be about stage performances. Whenever a piece was performed in concert or theater, the composer would get a cut of ticket sales. Today, this encompases television broadcasts, feature films played in theaters, restaurants, radio, and the internet, among others. Basically, if people can hear it, that right to publicly perform belongs to the composer.

This is where Public Performance Rights societies come in to play. These organizations, like ASCAP or BMI in the US (there are hundreds worldwide), collect license fees from theaters, restaurants, and broadcast networks that allow these venues to play the music of the composers they represent. They then pay composers a royalty from those license fees each time their composition is played. Note that, while a music library can grant you a right to publicly perform a piece of music, only the composer and their performing rights society can license a venue.

Mechanical Licenses

A mechanical license allows you to make a recording of a composition and distribute copies. If you’re a musician who wants to make a cover version of someone else’s song, you’ll need a mechanical license to create your own recording. Note that obtaining a mechanical license does not grant you compositional rights to your recording -- so if you're an artist you can’t issue a synch license for your recording without clearance from the underlying song’s publisher.

Generally speaking, unless you’re in the business of recording and distributing your version of someone else’s song, a mechanical license is not normally required for using music in a film or television project. If you decide to create a soundtrack album, then you’ll definitely need Master Use and Mechanical rights for any piece you use.

Since this is not a common use of stock music, most royalty free music libraries don’t provide mechanical licensing per se, other than authorizing a certain number of copies that you are allowed to make using the songs. In fact, most music libraries require additional permission to use tracks in an audio-only manner.

Reference Chart Music License Types

Use a musical composition in timed-relation with another medium. Usually film or video.
Grand Rights
The right to perform a piece of musical theater on stage.
Public Performance Rights
The right to perform, broadcast, or stream a piece of music in public.
Master Use
The right to use a particular audio recording.
Mechanical Rights
The right to create and distribute an audio recording of someone else’s musical composition.

Benefits of Royalty Free Music Licenses

It’s clear that music licensing can get really complicated really fast. One of the best reasons to use stock music is that you don’t have to personally deal with the intricacies of using music legally. Let’s look at some of the main benefits of royalty free music from a licensing standpoint:

Stock Music is Affordable

Because of the sheer complexity involved, traditional music licensing is expensive. Publishers often charge a premium for well-known artists. Add in per-use fees (needledrop) and residual royalty payments, and your budget may not be quite enough to license all the music you need for your project.

Royalty free music, on the other hand, is affordable. For just a one-time payment, your continued use of the track is covered for the life of the project. There are no on-going charges, and most music libraries will allow you to use the same track in the same project more than once without requiring extra licensing.

Licensing Royalty Free Music is Usually Simple

Traditional music licensing is so complicated that you may need to hire a lawyer to help you navigate the contracts. Royalty free music libraries have take a lot of this work on for you, so that you all you need to do is make sure the one license you purchase is good for your project.

So how do you know if you’ve found the best stock music license for your project?

What to look for in a royalty free license

There are many kinds of stock music licenses out there. When shopping around, make sure you examine the fine print to make sure you are getting the legal protection you need, and the right amount of coverage for your project. A royalty free music library like Productiontrax will check all the boxes below.


The first aspect to look at would be the term, or time-frame covered by the license. Obviously, the longer the better. Look for licenses that cover your project in perpetuity, which means that you’re covered for the life of the music’s copyright. The last thing you want is to find a great piece of stock music only to discover that you have to renew your license every few years.

Quantity and Mediums Covered

Ensure the royalty free music library that you are using covers you in all mediums (now and future!). This will enable you to take advantage of changes in technology, and not have to go back for a new license when you decide to turn your video into an interactive game.

One common pitfall of several stock music licenses exhibit is that they place limits on the number of copies you can make. Many libraries will even limit you to a different quantity based on the type of license. Instead, opt for stock music that you can use without a quantity limitation.

Commercial Use & Monetization

This one is really important if you plan on making any money with your film or video project. You’ll need commercial use rights for most common scenarios, especially if you intend on monetizing your video on YouTube. Commercial use licenses will cover all sorts of public performance scenarios as well, such as television broadcast, live events, and theatrical performance.

Ease of Purchase

Last but not least, make sure the process for purchasing the stock music is simple. Find a royalty free music library that makes it easy for you to select the type of license you need, and doesn’t lock you in with extra commitments or subscriptions.

License Royalty Free Music for your next project.
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