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

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?


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 not what they used to be and she doesn’t have the budget to secure a master use license for Bareboim’s recording.

No problem!

She can look for recordings of the Sonata in music libraries.

If she likes this piano version on Pond5, she’ll be able to purchase a royalty-free license and enjoy unlimited use of the recording.

But if she prefers the guitar version on APM Music, she’ll have to purchase a needledrop license and pay additional fees if she wants to use the same recording in another project.

Remember…. “royalty-free” refers to the type of license that is purchased by the customer, not the performance royalties due to the songwriter when a song is played in public.

Where Does the Confusion Come From?


When we think of “music royalties”, us songwriters tend to think of our backend performance royalties.

So it makes sense that when we hear “royalty-free”, we think we’re giving up on those royalties.

On top of that, we don’t really think of synchronization fees as royalties.

So even if a needledrop license agreement requires the customer to pay additional fees each time they use our song, we don’t really view these additional fees as royalties.

And we don’t realize that those royalties are the one that we give up on when we license our songs royalty-free.

Different Types of Music Libraries

What are Stock Music Libraries?

Stock music refers to music that has been written specifically for use in audio and audio visual projects like podcasts, corporate videos, films and TV shows.

It’s the same thing as production music.

By default, stock music libraries and production music libraries (same thing) offer:

  • a catalogue of production music that’s already in stock, as opposed to custom audio that is produced for a specific project;
  • under a needledrop license agreement, whereby the customer pays additional synchronization fees every time they use a song.

Here’s a sneak peek of APM Music’s needledrop agreement to give you an idea of how things work.

APM Music Needledrop Agreement

APM Music Needledrop Agreement accessed September 3rd, 2019

In the example above, paragraph 1 means that the customer can synchronize any song that’s in the music library’s catalogue.

Paragraph 2 explains that the customer has to notify the library every time they use one of their songs so that the library can provide a non-exclusive license for that track and invoice based on a price list active at the time of synchronization.

Paragraph 3 reminds us that the customer will not be purchasing a license for an indefinite amount of time.

Examples of stock music libraries include:

Note that some production music libraries like JinglePunks will also offer custom audio services in case their customers can’t find what they’re looking for in the stock music library.

What are Royalty-Free Libraries?

Royalty-free libraries are stock music libraries that have chosen to make their production music available to license for a one-time synchronization fee.

Just like stock music libraries, they offer a catalogue of music that’s already in stock.

Contrary to regular stock music libraries, however, they do NOT offer a needledrop agreement.

Instead, a customer can license a song for a one-time fee and doesn’t have to inform the library of how many times or how long it has used the song.

Examples of royalty-free music libraries include:

The synchronization fee will vary depending on the type and size of a project.

But the price of royalty-free music will usually be tiny compared to the overall budget and potential commercial impact of the project….

As mentioned above, making your music available in a royalty-free library does not mean that you will not get paid performance royalties down the line, if your song is used in a TV show for example.

If a music supervisor purchases a royalty-free license for one of your tracks and uses it on their TV show, they still need to fill out a cue sheet and file it with a PRO.

And you are still entitled to performance royalties – paid out by your PRO – when that TV show is broadcasted with your song in it.

— Royalty-Free vs PRO-Free —

Some music libraries mean something different when they pitch royalty-free music.

In the case of Partners in Rhyme, they offer:

  • royalty-free license agreements where the customer only has to pay a one-time fee to use the song; AND
  • a catalogue of music that has not been registered with a PRO, meaning the customer doesn’t have to worry about filing a cue sheet if they use the song in a production.

So they are offering PRO-free music under royalty-free license agreements.

I like that they use the expression “truly royalty-free” and make the information easily available on their website but bear in mind that not all libraries are as crystal clear when it comes to definitions.

Some libraries use terms incorrectly and it’s always a good idea to double-check with them that you understand what they mean before you grant them the right to license your songs.

What are Buy-Out Music Libraries?

There is as much confusion around the term “buy-out” as there is around “royalty-free” music.

In the context of music libraries, “buy-out music” is usually the same thing as royalty-free music.

The library makes their tracks available to license for a one-time “buy-out” transaction, a one-time synchronization fee.

However, “buy-out” can also mean something completely different in the music industry.

When someone wants to “buy out” your music, they often mean they want to purchase the copyrights to your music.

That has got nothing to do with needledrop or royalty-free or even licensing for that matter.

Why would someone want to purchase the copyrights to one of your songs?

Well, to make money of course 😉

They like your song and see commercial potential in it.

So they agree to pay you a fee in exchange for the transfer of your music copyrights to them.

People who buy out song copyrights will hit and miss. Not all their investments will pay off.

But, if someone wants to pay you to give up your copyrights, it means they’re pretty confident they can recoup their money and make a profit in the long run.

By licensing the composition to another recording artist or by placing the song in a big budget advertising campaign for example.

Remember, if someone buys you out of your copyrights, the composition and sound recordings are theirs.

THEY will be entitled to all future earnings and royalties related to that music.

The only thing you get is the fee they agree to pay you in exchange for your copyrights.

So you better get that negotiation right 😉

In theory, it’d be less risky for them to open a music library, sign your music without paying any upfront fee, acting as a your publisher and seeing how your music performs.

However, representing someone else’s song involves a lot of paperwork and hassle.

It’s more straight-forward to sign a transfer of ownership contract that guarantees they can do whatever they like with the music.

Note that while transfer of copyright ownership is possible in US laws, some countries refer to an author’s “moral rights” and state that these rights cannot be waived.


Making Sure Everybody’s on the Same Page

Ok, so far we’ve established that different people use the same words to mean different things.

That’s a problem.

So what do you do?

Well….. if there’s ONE thing I want you to take away from this post, it’s the following….

Before you agree to work with a music library, make sure you understand what they mean when they use certain words.

Make sure you are BOTH on the same page.

How do you do that?

1- You ask them to clarify the terms of your contract with them.

Preferably in writing.

Why in writing?

Because it’s easier to notice when something isn’t quite clear.

When you talk to someone, it’s easy to get the feeling that you’re on the same page.

Because there’s a good vibe, they’re smiling or whatever.

In writing, it’s black and white.

You can take your time and reflect on what the other person is saying without having to ask them to repeat what they just said.

If something isn’t clear, it’ll usually pop out.

Asking your questions in writing will also force you to:

  • sit down and second-guess what you thought you knew and what you’re not clear about,
  • phrase your questions clearly, and
  • present them in a logical order.

The more you do this, the better you will be at reading contracts and identifying vague zones.

Vague zones are where potential issues go to hide 😉

2- Look at how the library explains what they do to their customers.

The key here is that you want to understand WHAT the library is selling to their customers and HOW they’re selling it.

For example, if they position themselves as a royalty-free music library, check out their FAQ page.

How do they explain the term “royalty-free” to their customers?

WHAT are they selling?

Are they selling regular stock music like PremiumBeat or PRO-free music like Partners in Rhyme?

HOW are they selling it?

Are they offering a royalty-free contract like PremiumBeat or a needledrop licensing agreement like APM Music?

— Stuff You Need to Clarify Before You Sign —

WHAT is the product that the library is advertising?

For example, is it stock music, custom audio, music that’s not registered with a PRO?

HOW is the library selling the product?

Are customers paying a subscription fee for unlimited use of unlimited tracks?

Are they licensing individual songs under a needledrop agreement?

Are they paying a one-time synchronization fee only?

HOW MUCH will you make with each sale?

Do the music copyrights still belong to you if you sign with the library?

Will you be entitled to performance royalties down the line?

What’s your share of revenues when the library sells a license or a subscription?

Key Takeaways

Words can be misleading….

Definitions related to royalty-free music

Don’t be afraid to ask questions.

Clarify what someone means before you agree a deal.

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