The Essential Guide to Understanding Royalty Free Music for Filmmakers & Content Creators

A brief intro…

You know, I thought this topic was covered extensively online and everyone had a clear idea of what royalty free music is, however, after dipping my toe into the internet and doing some research I have found that  most of the information online is either outdated, incorrect or missing some key points and hidden clauses that everyone needs to know when dealing with royalty free music in 2018…or 2019 as that is just around the corner!

So here, I am going to create your ultimate guide to royalty free music answering questions like:

  • what is royalty free music?
  • where did it come from?
  • why you should use it.
  • what to watch out for to ensure you are getting “really” royalty free music.

If you are anything like me, you are not a fan of reading lots of complicated words when dealing with tricky subjects like music licencing, so, wherever possible I am going to use my very basic drawing skills to explain via pictures…we all like pictures, right?

One final thing to say before I dig in…

I call this the “ultimate guide to royalty free music” because I am going into depth, however, amidst all the detail there is one very important point that I want to bring to your attention and all of the filmmakers who use royalty free music, so, if you are going to scan through please at least read the paragraph marked “READ ME”

This “READ ME” section is a really important point that most blogs miss, and major production music libraries of royalty free music often omit in their information (probably because it has the potential to bring their whole music catalogs into disrepute). 

In my view, it is the elephant in the room that few is willing to talk about in the royalty free music industry so make sure you check it out in the READ ME section.

Ok, let’s get started, here is an overview of what I will be covering. Buckle up!

A Definition:

What is Royalty Free Music?

Royalty free music can be considered one of the easiest and simplest forms of music licences. Typically, it is a one stop shop for getting music for your video or online content.

After years of confusion, the music industry has finally accepted and defined this as a music licence that ticks the following boxes:

  One upfront licence payment which can cost anything from pence to thousands.

  Unlimited use of a track in your productions so you can use it once or many times in various productions.

  Global clearance so you can use it anywhere in the world – forever.

  The music is declared as “free from royalties” so there should be no hidden broadcast or performance fees further down the line. These are commonly known as performance royalties and are collected by a body called a PRO (Performance Rights Organisation).

Notice how I have put the last point in crazy red. This is not a standard and there is a lot more to say about this in the “Read Me” section as this is a dangerous point that varies dramatically across the production music industry, but I will get to this later…

In a nutshell, typically you can use royalty free music in all your video productions, multiple times, forever and only pay one upfront fee – however, Filmmaker beware…just because the music industry has finally accepted that royalty free music generally ticks the above boxes, there is no official law or international standard covering this.

Just because a website says it sells “royalty free music” it does not necessarily mean it ticks the above boxes by default so, my best advice to all filmmakers is to check the terms and conditions of all individual websites and sellers.

A History:

Why and when did royalty free music start?

Imagine it is 1999. You are filmmaker. (We didn’t have the term content creator back then!)  It is a world before YouTube and Vimeo.

Only 4.1% of the world population is online. Here in the UK, you have less than ten TV channels to watch which is broadcast to your home via radio waves from a great big transmitter (aka terrestrial TV).

You spend a fortune making a film or video content (video gear and editing was a lot more expensive in 1999) and now you need music.

You found a piece of music which is perfect, now here is a picture of all the people you need to clear music rights with!

As you can see, music licencing back then was complex. Even if you had a publisher or found a body that can handle a lot of the parties involved it was still time consuming and expensive. It really was for the elite filmmakers of the time.

Around 2001 (ish) music publishers saw the major opportunity to simplify the music licencing process. The idea of the stock music library was born and the term “production music” started being thrown around more readily.

The idea was simple, one corporate body which managed all the parties involved in the music clearing process. You just needed to ask permission of one body (the ultimate rights holder) and also ensure you were doing the right thing by the Performing Rights Organisation (PRO) and paying your broadcast / public performance royalties where necessary.

This production music template has not really changed since 2001 to the present. Here is what it looks like today.

So fast forward to today, it is November 2018. You have companies and individuals like me who own all rights in the music from composition, to recording to performance rights.

We have the power to do something special and simplify the music licencing system even further – so we have created “royalty free music” and have make the decision to get rid of the PRO (Performance Rights Society) by waiving our performance rights.

This makes life so much easier as now you just have one person to deal with. This is what the current royalty free music system looks like for an independent like me….so simple and easy and that is why we love it.


What to watch out for as a royalty free music user.

OK, now here is the thing you need to watch out for….so much music is labelled as royalty free music but really it is not 100% royalty free. 

A large amount of royalty free music out there is registered in the database of a PRO (Performance Rights Organisation). This a body that the composer is a member of and every time his/her music gets broadcast or performed in public the PRO should be made aware of this and the composer collects a royalty.

If music is registered in a PRO database then it is not 100% royalty free and the composer can legally claim performance royalties when their music in your content is broadcast or performed in public.

In a nutshell, the broadcaster pays this fee and you need to make sure you are not a broadcaster by checking with your nations PRO…this could be the PRS, ASCAP, BMI, SESAC, etc…. each country has their own and most of them talk to each other and share their databases internally. Your PRO will tell you if your content needs a licence.

So why are some companies selling “royalty free music” and glossing over the public performance royalty?

Some better music providers come straight out with it and tell you upfront that performance royalties are not included in their licence and still need to be paid. They might say something like this on their website – “our royalty free music does not include public performance royalties which are paid to the composer when their work is performed publicly”.

However, some companies say this on their websites – “performance royalties are not paid by you the music purchaser, they are paid by the TV network or broadcaster”.

This statement is technical true, however, in 2018, nearly 2019, this is bad advice and here is why.

It is true, the broadcaster pays the performance fees but in 2018 it is becoming less clear who the broadcaster is.

Back in the good old days, let’s say 1999, who took the responsibility of broadcaster was really clear cut and really well defined.

With typically just a few broadcasting types, namely – terrestrial TV, radio and live venues – it was really clear and really well defined who had to pay public performance royalties.  

Fast forward to 2018 and the complex world of the internet and it becomes less clear and undefined on what constitutes a broadcaster.

For example, if you own a website and you put your video directly on your own website technically you are a broadcaster as you are transmitting the signal into the world. You are the source of the broadcast.

This example should demonstrate that in this digital age the definition of a broadcaster is becoming less clear and a bit tricky. Until the performance rights agencies get really organised and create a clear list, this is all a bit confusing.

The best advice is to check with your local PRO to confirm if you are a “broadcaster” or not.

This world is changing, and it is unclear how the PRO’s are going to navigate the murky waters of the internet regarding royalty collection in the not too distant future.

How can some music companies sell “100% royalty free music”, fail to tell us that it is subject to performance royalties and no-one cares?

The current process to pay performance royalties in the UK is to fill out a form called a cue sheet and tell your local PRO (performing rights organisation) that you broadcast the work. These forms must be filled out with all the correct information and submitted to the PRO for the composer to get paid.

I am not sure “honesty box” is the right term, but from my experience this is what it feels like.

If you don’t tell anyone or declare your broadcasting, it is unlikely that the music PRO police will come knocking as they don’t know that you are using music that is subject to a PRO fee and currently they do not have the administration power to trace or track you down.

Hence, companies are using the high google ranking term “royalty free music” to get music buyers in the door but  glossing over the fact that their music is PRO registered as often this is complex to explain to a content creator or filmmaker who just wants legal, no fuss music.

Once you start talking about PRO fees the music selling process sounds fussy and most filmmakers just move on. 

So, how do you protect yourself? How can you be sure you are buying truly royalty free music?

Ask your music supplier the following question:

Your music supplier as the body who has the rights to administer a music licence will know the answer. It should be a simple – yes or no.

Alternatively, you can learn more about this world by going direct to the website of your national PRO body but for specific track questions, always start with your music supplier. 

Just to point out, all the music for sale on is PRO free. You will not need to pay any further fees or performance royalties.


Common misconceptions about royalty free music.

There is a lot of ideas, myths and misconceptions around royalty free music. Here is the most common and the corresponding truth:

“Royalty Free Music is Free”  – This is not true.

Royalty free music costs whatever the seller is asking for. This could be free, pounds, hundreds of pounds or thousands. It is basic supply and demand.

“Royalty Free Music is Poor Quality” – This is not true.

All production music quality depends on the skills of the composer and music producer be it royalty free music, stock production music or film score commissions. Most royalty free music has superb audio quality.

“Royalty Free Music excludes the right to broadcast or host online” – This is not true.

With all royalty free music, like all production music stock libraries, check the terms and conditions of usage with your seller.

Check that what you need the music for is covered in the licence agreement of the music you are buying.

For clarity, I can confirm that all royalty free music sold by includes the right to broadcast and host online.

“Royalty Free Music is Copyright Free Music”  – This is not true.

With royalty free music you are paying an upfront fee to licence the music for use in your own content.

The copyright ownership is retained by the composer.

Only a track labelled as “copyright free music” is copyright free.  Even then be cautious – here is why:

All music has copyright. Here in the UK the second you put pen to paper on a song you own the copyright. (Proving it is the hard bit!)

Of all the common music licencing terms “copyright free music” is my least favorite.

Be very wary when dealing with this term and check everything. Often it is a buzz word put on websites by marketing folk to make easy sales, but the music is rarely copyright free.

So, there you have it, the past 10 years has produced a flurry of new music licensing options due to the explosion of online content.

The term “royalty free music” has risen to the top as it is the simplest option to licence music for your content.

However, there is still some confusion regarding royalty free music and public performance royalties and how they work together.

This is still one very grey area which is causing major headaches for filmmakers and content creators because often it is not explained or just ignored by some production music libraries.

In a nutshell, if a song is broadcast or performed in public, (film festival, pub, supermarket etc) the composer is entitled to a public performance royalty. These are collected from broadcasters by a PRO (Performing Rights Organisation) and distributed to the composer.

Some royalty free music suppliers offer music that is called “100% royalty free”, yet their music is still subject to these public performance royalties.

Filmmakers and content creators need to watch out for this and double check with their music supplier if they need to pay any possible PRO (Performance Rights Organisation) fees.

Some composers, like me, have chosen to waive their public performance royalty and therefore in libraries like Louise Byrne Music you don’t need to pay any PRO (Performance Rights Organisation) fees….it is truly royalty free.

At the end of the day the best policy is to take responsibility for the music you are licencing yourself. Don’t make assumptions. Ask your music supplier as many questions as necessary to ensure you are happy and your music licence legally covers everything that you need it to.

Keep a record of all correspondence with your music supplier in the event that problems arise in the future, so you have a point of reference and you can sort out any issues quickly – no one wants conflict.

The best music libraries will provide you with comprehensive licence contracts and although these may seem daunting and scary always remember that the best music libraries care as much about your content as you do.

If your content looks and sounds great, their music looks and sounds good. If your content goes viral and you have included a link to their music in your content, their music goes viral. We are on the same team!

So, remember, the best advice, is to check all terms of the licence with your music supplier and ask a million questions.  Never assume that royalty free music is free from performance royalties without double checking with your supplier.

On a personal note, I always welcome questions from my music users so you if you need any clarity about the licence I offer or how you can use my music, please don’t hesitate to contact me.

I hope this has helped you understand the principle of royalty free music, what it is and what to watch out for.

If you found it useful, please share or feel free to comment or ask further questions in the comments below.

Thanks for stopping by and don’t forget to sign up for free royalty free music, offers, promotions and lots of advice on how to create the best sound in your content.

Chat later,


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