What is Royalty Free Music?

In today's complex media landscape, there are plenty of misconceptions about royalty free music. Often, people assume the term means that they can use the music for any purpose, free of charge. We admit, "royalty free" does sound a little confusing, and it's hard not to get excited with the word "free" in the title. So what is royalty free music, really?

Royalty Free Music Isn't Free

When you buy a gallon of fat free milk, you pay around $3 for milk that does not contain fat, and you can drink it at your leisure. In a similar sense, when you purchase the right to use royalty free music, you pay a flat fee and can use the music as many times as you like. If you end up using the recording for a feature film, you won't need to pay extra when it plays on cable TV in a few years, or when it eventually streams on Netflix. Just pay one fee, and the music license is yours. 

Royalty Free Music Has Copyright Owners

Another common misconception is that royalty free music exists in the public domain, or is meant to be a gift for the people. In fact, anyone who writes a piece of music is the de facto copyright holder, which means they're allowed to set the ground rules for licensing. They may choose to give out their music for free, offer it on a per-use royalty basis, or sell it at a flat fee. The last option is "royalty free", but unless the songwriter has signed an overriding contract with a record label, they still own the copyright.   

Royalty Free Music Is Highly Eclectic

Just like stock music, royalty free music often has a negative connotation associated with cheesy soundtracks and elevator playlists, but it's not justified. In truth, royalty free music spans every genre, and tracks can range from world-class orchestras to bedroom singer/songwriters. Any song can use a royalty free licensing model, no matter how good or bad it is, and the licensing fee is decided by the copyright owner.  

Royalty Free Music and Stock Music Are Not the Same

However, stock music is not necessarily royalty free, and vice versa. Typically offered in massive music libraries, stock music is a convenient way to quickly search for and license a song for a specific purpose. The music isn't made for a particular album, movie, or commercial, though, which distinguishes it from custom-made music. Just like stock photography or video, stock music is designed to be licensed and used on a regular basis.

A stock music library may adopt a royalty free licensing model, but they can also employ a rights managed model instead, which charges the licensee every time they use the song. When music is dubbed "royalty free", it only refers to the licensing. 

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