What is Royalty Free Music and What Does It Mean? A Simple Definition

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What Is Royalty Free Music? Is It Free?

Royalty free music is not free. Let's get that out of the way. The word "free" pops up, so it's easy to assume that "Royalty Free" refers to using music without paying for it. This is not the case.

Let's start with a simple definition, and then dip into the basics of music licensing. This should help music makers and users approach the world of royalty free music with confidence and ease.

Royalty Free Music is not free. You still have to pay for it!

When a song is royalty free, it means that someone can buy it once and use it forever. One payment. One price. Done. The cost is fixed for an agreed upon term, and the music buyer doesn't have to worry about future payments related the song usage.

In other words, if someone needs background music for a YouTube video or business slideshow, they can buy a royalty free song from a music library and never pay any future royalties on it. Cool, right? Well that depends.

If a YouTube star has a viral video with your song playing in the background, you will not share in the victory dance. There is no future money to be collected.

This is unlike collecting public performance royalties through a Performing Rights Organization (BMI, ASCAP, etc.) when a song plays in the background of a TV show. Under this licensing model, a composer or songwriter could potentially earn a  steady stream of income from a single song placement. How much and for how long this money train rolls depends on several factors -- airing schedule, network, territory, audience size, etc.

But Johnny YouTube isn't paying you anymore. Bummer.

Johnny is not responsible for paying you royalties on your song, because it was purchased under a "Royalty Free" agreement.

Can I make money writing and selling Royalty Free Music?

Most definitely. Don't let the royalty free haters get in your head. They are typically grouchy songwriters and composers who are bitter about technology exposing and exploiting their craft. These are the music makers ranting on discussion forums about the demise of the music industry.

Basically, the argument goes like this:

Composer/Songwriter: "This is a race to the bottom. Selling a song for $15 is an outrage. How is a composer or songwriter supposed to make a living with royalty free music?"

Music Library: "Well, you can sell that $15 song 100 times or more. Besides, if you don't want to make $1,500 a song, then step aside and make room for someone else in line."

Above: "Free background music" and "Free music" searches per month according to Google Analytics.

Above: "Free background music" and "Free music" searches per month according to Google Analytics.

Sound a bit pessimistic, eh? Well it's the truth. Both sides have a point, but it is certainly a point people enjoy arguing over.

Royalty free music libraries currently have the competitive edge. The music buying landscape is changing, and has been since the dawn of recorded sound.

Today's music buyers are looking for background music to use in all forms of media. They don't want the hassle of royalties when purchasing a song for a company training video or corporate slideshow. Likewise, a budding YouTube contributor does not want to pay much (if anything) for music.

"Free Background Music" gets around 22,000 searches a month and "Free Music" is typed into Google around 1,000,000 times a month. These are not the queries of a market looking to pay a premium for music. YouTubers, online video editors, and the rest of the million searchers are looking for fast, cheap background music.

Royalty free music libraries keep their prices low and their demand high. Selling in bulk, catering to all clients with the click of a button, and immediate delivery has made royalty free the Amazon of the music business.

There are music makers who'd like to see royalty free music disappear. This is most likely not going to happen, so it's best to make your own decision.

Where and How To Buy Royalty Free Music

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There are a million royalty free websites to submit your music to. While most offer non-exclusive agreements, be sure to research a music library before submitting. If their last Twitter post was in 2017, they probably aren't as active as the best background music library.

One of the cheap royalty free music titans is AudioJungle. For a solid example of a company crushing it, check them out. They sell background music at and affordable price, but your song could potentially go viral there and earn you way more than a TV song placement ever could.

Pond5 is another provider of royalty free music for commercials, videos, and more. They offer an easy uploading process for contributors, and an impressive workflow for those who need to buy music quick and cheap.

Royalty-Free Stock Video at Pond5

Royalty Free Vs. Copyright Free

Royalty free music is not copyright free. If a song is sold "Royalty Free," the creator still owns the copyright. He or she is just allowing the buyer to license their copyrighted work for an agreed upon use. The copyright holder still holds the copyright and Performing Rights to the song. If it airs on television, the songwriter/composer/creator is entitled to the "back end" royalties from their PRO (ASCAP, BMI, SESAC, etc.).

What if a royalty free song airs on television?

If a song is purchased as royalty free and makes its way onto TV, the song's composer should technically be paid performance royalties like those mentioned above.

These royalties are not the responsibility of the individual who originally purchased the music. This task falls on the television network airing that song as background music. It is their job to submit a "Cue Sheet" to the necessary performing rights organizations.

What is a Music Cue Sheet?

Cue sheets outline the ownership of songs used on a TV show, commercial, promo, etc. They include any associated writers and publishers, along with their percentages of interest in the work.

Networks submit cue sheets to the PROs (ASCAP, BMI, etc.), who then use this information to pay their artists the necessary royalties.

So in plain terms, when someone buys a royalty free song, royalties may indeed be paid to the music maker, but that is not the responsibility of the music purchaser. They are "free" from the burden of ever paying a royalty.

Above: A Sample Music Cue Sheet From ASCAP. This is a composer's best friend!

Above: A Sample Music Cue Sheet From ASCAP. This is a composer's best friend!

Does RF Mean Royalty Free?

Royalty Free music is often referred to as RF music. This abbreviation will pop up on internet searches, forums, and online library lists. RF ='s Royalty Free.

Royalty Free Music Composer and Songwriter Resources

If you are looking to submit your music to a music library and still have questions, join the Modern Music Maker mailing list for updates and more info.

Another great place to start learning about being a full time music maker is Music Library Report. They offer a list of royalty free music libraries and provide a composer rating and review for each.

Have experience making money selling royalty free music? Feel free to share your thoughts below!

Dislcaimer: We are not lawyers. The above information is the opinion of Modern Music Maker and based on years of submitting music to royalty free music libraries and making money by doing so. Be sure to read contracts before submitting your music to any publishing company, music library, etc. Have a lawyer look it over if you have any hesitation or questions.