Music for Podcasts and Other Projects

For this week’s topic of discussion, I’m going to tackle an issue that comes up frequently in my audio production work. It’s something that applies to podcasts, radio commercials, and other various promo work. It’s music – how to choose it, how to work with it, and how to make sure you’re staying on the right side of the law.

First of all, let’s start with a little primer on what you can and can’t do with music. And before I continue, I must stress that I am NOT a lawyer and this is not legal advice. My lawyer told me to say that.

Anyway. Long story short: if you do not own the rights to a piece of music, and you do not have express permission from the rights holder, you cannot legally use it in your work. Apparently, there are exceptions, like you can use a small part of the music, or a parody is okay…I don’t know about any of these. Since I’m making money off my productions, and they end up representing not only me, but my CLIENTS as well, I’m only interested in making sure that I’m playing very safely by the rules.

That said, there are, broadly, three types of music that you can consider: protected music, royalty-free, and public domain. I won’t look at the most protected type of music, which covers basically everything you hear on the radio, because honestly, it’s complicated and I don’t understand it. But for what I do, I don’t need to. If you want to read more on it for yourself, I suggest heading over to the Harry Fox Agency’s website and look through their material. You might want to find a comfy chair and cuppa tea first, though!

What I will concentrate on are royalty-free music and public domain music. The term “Royalty-Free” can be confusing because it feels like you should be getting something for free, but in reality, a royalty-free track will probably cost you some money. What you’re actually buying with a royalty-free track is the music itself, but also a LICENSE, which allows you to play that music for a pre-defined set of circumstances. The “royalty-free” part means that you only have to pay the once, rather than a recurring small royalty for each play of the track. The rights to royalty-free music are still retained by the creator or owner. By contrast, public domain music is music that has been specially given over to the public domain, and the rights are owned by no one. Public domain music is generally available for free on the web, although you might find the quality is not as good as a royalty-free track.

So let’s dive a little deeper into royalty-free. Remember how I said you’re actually purchasing a license to use whatever track you buy? Make sure that you read that license carefully before buying. They don’t always cover what you think they do, and often, there’s quite a big grey area, especially when it comes to online usage and podcasting. For example, I buy a lot of my music from AudioJungle. They have several tiers of licenses for music. The standard license covers most of what I do, and a track with a standard license runs about $20. But if I use that track for broadcast use (for instance a radio ad), that can jump as high as $152, and if I want to use it in a feature film…that license jumps again to over $300. Now, you can argue whether anyone will be paying any particular attention to your tiny project, you could fudge it or play ignorant…But I have two reasons you really don’t want to do that:

  1. It’s super-unprofessional and clients WILL think less of you if you cut corners in that way, and
  2. The artists who create the music you’re using do it to earn a living. You should not profit off their hard work without proper credit, end of.

Of course, AudioJungle isn’t the only place offering royalty-free music. There are other websites, and you can even buy whole albums of royalty-free music…but in all cases, do make sure that you read the fine print of the license so you know what you are and aren’t allowed to do.

Now. What if you don’t want to, or can’t afford to, purchase a royalty-free track? Public domain may be a solution for you. One really great resource for public domain music is Collated by Kevin MacLeod – a prolific public domain artist – there are literally hundreds of public domain tracks ranging in length and style, and all completely free with no attribution for all uses including commercial. The only drawback to going public domain is that sometimes they’re not as high quality as you’d like; for instance, relying on synth sounds instead of real instruments or higher-end synthesizers.

There’s one more type of music that I didn’t mention, and that’s because it requires attribution, which isn’t feasible in most audio projects unless they’re accompanied by print. You might hear about Creative Commons licenses; there are different tiers of Creative Commons, but the most common one is free with attribution. In this case, you just need to be sure that you credit the rights holder (in the format of their choosing) when you distribute their track.

So you can see why music selection is one of the most common topics I get asked about by clients. It can get into slightly murky territory, but this should give you a good start.

Before I wrap up for this week, I do also want to mention that while music selection can be a challenge, there are at least a couple of companies who are trying to make it easier, specifically for podcasters. There’s, which is using a subscription model to give podcasters unlimited music for a monthly fee – that’s launching soon. And of course, I can’t forget Anchor, which uses a whizzy little bit of Apple Music integration to bring full commercial tracks into your station – even if they can’t go out on a published podcast.