There’s a lot of confusion that surrounds the term “royalty-free music”.

The confusion is understandable.

Royalty-free music is…

NOT free.

It’s not copyright-free either.

And you’re still entitled to performance royalties when your music is licensed royalty-free.

So…. if nothing about royalty-free music is free and the songwriter still gets royalties, what on earth is royalty-free music?!

What is Royalty-Free Music?

Music is said to be royalty-free when a customer….

  • Only has to pay ONE synchronization license fee.
  • Gets to use the song anywhere.
  • Keep it forever.
  • And re-use it in multiple projects at no extra cost, ie “royalty-free”.
Royalty-Free Illustration by SafeMusicList.com

We’ll see later that there are limits to what someone can do when they purchase a royalty-free license.

But overall, that’s what royalty-free music is all about: a one-time synchronization fee that gives a lot of freedom to the person paying it.

Royalty-free music does NOT mean that the music is free.

It does NOT mean that the artists have renounced their music copyrights.

And it does NOT mean that the customer shouldn’t fill out cue sheets or that songwriters won’t get paid performance royalties down the line by their Performance Rights Organization.

It just means that the person purchasing the license will only pay once.

The music is royalty-free from the customer’s point of view.

Because they will not be subject to additional “synchronization royalties” based on usage.

This is in contrast to the more traditional needledrop license.

When the music is NOT royalty-free, the customer has to pay additional licensing fees every time the music is used.

That is, every time the (metaphorical) needle drops (on the imaginary vinyl).

For the person buying the license, royalty-free music is much more convenient because they can pay one synchronization fee upfront and be done with it.

They don’t have to budget anything else or worry about the music being used more often or longer than planned.

For the music producer selling the license, royalty-free music has pros and cons.

On the one hand, it brings prices down, meaning you need to make more sales to earn the same income.

On the other hand, it makes the customer happy and increases the demand for music.

In the long run, it makes sense to make the customer happy.

As the music industry continues to evolve and change rapidly, our job is to adapt and continue to serve our audience as best we can.

Are You Still Entitled to Music Royalties if You License Your Music Royalty-Free?

Yes, absolutely.

The “royalty” in royalty-free music refers to the synchronization royalties/fees that the customer would have to pay every time the music is used under a traditional needledrop license.

When you license your music royalty-free, you are giving up on potential synchronization fees, due by the customer for every additional use of your song.

However, you are still the copyright owner of your composition and sound recording.

As such, every time your song is played in public, on TV for example, you will be entitled to performance royalties.

These will be paid by your Performance Rights Organization, not the customer.

The only thing the customer has to do is fill out paperwork and send it to the PRO when your song is used on TV.

That’s why I wrote above that royalty-free music is actually free of royalties from the point of view of the customer purchasing the license.

You still get paid mechanical and performance royalties by collection agencies.

But the customer doesn’t owe you anything more than the one-time synchronization fee.

Is Royalty-Free Music Free Music?

Absolutely not!

Free music would mean giving away your music.

In the context of sync licensing, it would mean allowing someone to use your music in their production without any form of financial compensation.

This is not what royalty-free music is about.

When a music supervisor licenses royalty-free music, they still need to pay for the license.

Is Royalty-Free the Same as Copyright Free?

No, no, no!

If you license your music royalty-free, you are authorizing the customer to use your song in their audio or audiovisual project in exchange for a synchronization fee.

You are NOT giving away your copyrights.

The music is still yours.

Depending on how the song is used, you will still be entitled to performance and mechanical royalties on both the sound recording and the underlying composition.

It’s just that these royalties are not due by the customer.

Is Public Domain Music Automatically Royalty-Free?

Nope.

Let’s say a filmmaker wants to use Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata in her movie.

She has a few options.

Option A

She records the piece herself because she’s a great pianist and gets a kick out of it and it’s her movie anyway so she can do what she wants!

In that case, she doesn’t need to purchase any license to use the sound recording of that composition in her movie because:

1- She owns the copyright to the sound recording since she recorded it herself.

2- The underlying composition is in the public domain so she doesn’t need authorization from anyone to use it.

Option B

She wants to license a recording of Daniel Barenboim playing the Moonlight Sonata.

In that case, she needs a master use license to use that sound recording in her movie because the sound recording doesn’t belong to her.

Depending on the recording she wants to use, she’ll have to get that master use license from EMI or Deutsche Grammophon or DECCA or whoever owns that particular sound recording.

Since Beethoven’s work is in the public domain, she won’t need a synchronization license for the composition.

Option 3

Her piano skills are