Music Publishing and Licensing Blog

Royalty Free Music – definition and common usage

Some, but not all, music libraries use the term Royalty Free or Royalty-Free to describe the kind of licensing terms they offer with their stock music services. Though the term is broadly used and exact usage varies from one music library to the next, we’ll explore the background of this term and how its definition and various usage (applications) came about and are most commonly being used.

Royalty free music intro & background

There are many applications for which music must be licensed, such as for use in film, radio, tv or multimedia production, but the traditional payment structure in which a royalty was charged for each usage was often found to be cumbersome or more costly. Hence, royalty-free music libraries originally addressed this by offering music which could be purchased (in most cases) for a one-time fee and then be used by the purchaser as many times as needed.

For example, if a piece of royalty-free music were purchased to be used on a multimedia DVD project, it would not matter if 10 or 1,000 DVDs were produced – the purchase fee would be exactly the same.

Some limitations, restrictions got added

However, buyers of royalty-free music have discovered this is now often not the case. Several independent libraries were bought out by larger businesses that have altered the basic meaning of the term. For example, the royalty-free music license at SmartSound states “You must obtain a “mechanical” license for replication of quantities in excess of 10,000 units.”

Over time a number of companies have sharply restricted the number of copies that may be manufactured without additional fees coming due, generally under five thousand units. While others allow “Free” usage only for productions that will be aired on broadcast stations that pay BMI/ASCAP/SESAC royalty fees, and the producer is required to regularly file cue sheets reporting the broadcasts.

Productions aired in venues not licensed (or subscribing) to such agreements, or shown in other public venues, such as motion pictures in theaters, may be required to pay other additional fees.

Notes on cue sheets

Note: There are no costs associated with turning in cue sheets, but it assures that the composers and publishers are getting their fair share of the fees which the broadcasters have already paid to the performance rights societies such as ASCAP, BMI  or SESAC, etc. In this way, cue sheets play a vital role in allowing Royalty Free Music Libraries to keep their prices as low as they actually appear.

The performance royalties factor

Also, although royalty free music is royalty free to the purchaser, producers/composers may still receive royalties from broadcasting radio or television stations via their Performance Rights Organization, for example, the PRS in the UK or ASCAP or BMI in the USA.

In the case of performance royalties as described above, the broadcasters such as ABC, NBC and The Discovery Channel pay an annual licensing fee to ASCAP and BMI (Performing Rights Societies) for the right to broadcast music on their networks. Producers are required to turn in cue sheets to the performance rights societies so that the music usage can be tracked properly and performance royalties can be dispersed accordingly to the proper composers and music publishers.

Other variations of royalty free music

Some royalty-free music libraries also use a microstock model in which individual composers retain their copyright and are paid a portion of each sale, while others, like Getty Images, buy the copyright directly from the composers for a flat fee, and then resell the tracks as their own.

Definition similar to buyout or lifetime synchronization music

Royalty Free Music, also known as buyout music or lifetime synchronization music, bascially means music that has a single or one-time licensing fee. Once this fee has been paid, the licensor is granted the ability to synchronize that music with their audio and/or video productions an unlimited number of times without additional synchronization fees, though some limitations may apply, which again, varies from library to library.  So in general, the most common application is that the licensor has a Lifetime License to synchronize that music with their productions.

This is the principle difference between Royalty Free Music and what is frequently referred to as Needle Drop Music, or Rights Managed Music. Under the Needle Drop licensing model, the licensor would be charged a synchronization fee each time they used a piece of music. For example, if they used a song at the beginning and at the end of the same video, that would incur two “needle drop” fees (or synch fees).

Summary of main principals behind royalty free music

The basic idea with Royalty Free music is that it helps buyers save money, and streamline much of the paperwork, calculation of fees, subsequent reporting and additional payments. In terms of business structure and buyer convenience, it can be compared to Blanket Licensing, which gives music producers and buyers access to many songs (tracks/recordings) for single or multiple project uses. The difference is in the library’s license terms which may include some restrictions or limitations, but otherwise gives buyers access to one or more songs (as offered) at a flat-rate for use in one or multiple projects as needed.

So, even though Royalty Free Music is the commonly accepted term for the lifetime synchronization concept, you can now see that the term is not an entirely accurate or standardized term. In the best case, its exact definition and intended usage can vary widely, but regardless there is always a fee paid (directly or indirectly) with the grant of any such music license.

About music publishers using the LicenseQuote platform service

Please note that LicenseQuote is not a music publisher or library, but an ecommerce and marketing service provider to many independent music creators, publishers, labels, catalogs and libraries that each determine their own standard and custom licensing profiles, contract terms and rates. If you are shopping from any LicenseQuote powered stores, you will be dealing directly with the music creators, owners and publishers who will provide you with the most competitive pricing and terms based on the nature of their catalog, standard pricing and inquiries that you make. Please be sure to read their licensing descriptions and associated terms to understand what your costs and rights will include for the kind of music license usage you need.

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