As a voiceover actor, I’ve found many uses for royalty-free music. From incorporating them into files for clients who need my voice plus music for telephone answering services, to eLearning module intros and extros, to bumpers, stingers and intro/extros for podcasts I’m hired to voice. For these uses and to fill out the soundscape of narrated videos I produce for myself and in voiceover demos I produce for others, I’m an avid user of royalty-free music. If you’d like to use some for your projects, here’s what you need to know.
What is Royalty-Free vs Public Domain/Creative Commons Music?
So let’s start with some definitions. What exactly is royalty-free music and how does it differ from Public Domain and Creative Commons works?
First, royalty-free music can be confusing at first read, but it doesn’t mean that the music is free. What it does mean is that you won’t pay royalties each time you use it. You’ll pay a one-time licensing fee for access to the music and then you can use it, however (with some limitations) and whenever you want to, forever. Some licensing agreements have limitations (i.e. paid advertising), so you need to know your use.
Different from royalty-free music, public domain, and creative commons works are free, with some nuance between the two. Using public domain music doesn’t require permission from the creator of the work, while creative commons often involve permission or attribution (more on this in a moment). You’ll want to be sure to pay attention to these permission requirements to avoid any legal issues.
Public Domain/Creative Commons Sources of Music
Let’s explore a couple of great public domain and creative commons sources for music you can use in your projects.
First, the biggest collection of videos, YouTube, is also the second largest search engine in general. So it’s a great place to start your search for public domain and creative commons music. There are many curated playlists that you can scroll through to look for free music for your project.
The Free Music Archive is also a source of public domain, creative commons (and royalty-free) music. When an artist decides to share their music on FMA, they do it with provisions. Creative commons licenses are designed to “fit on top of” traditional copyrights. Meaning the creator doesn’t give up their copyright when they allow you to use their music for free. So when you download music from FMA, you need to pay attention to the designations which tell you how you can use the music. And again, ALL of them require you give credit to (attribute) the creator.
For example, let’s say the music has a CC BY-ND: Attribution-NoDerivatives license. This license allows for redistribution, commercial and non-commercial, as long as it is passed along unchanged and in whole, and creators must be credited. This means you cannot put this song in a video or other derivative work. If you remix, transform, or build upon the material, you may not distribute, publish, share, or post the modified material. Syncing a track to video/moving images constitutes a derivative work, which is prohibited by this license. More permissions must be obtained directly from the artist. And you must give them credit when you redistribute their music (which is all you’re allowed to do with this license).
See how important it can be to pay attention to the license? Because even posting on your personal social media “for fun” breaks the license described if you’ve changed the music in any way (or added your voice or visuals on top of it). Helpfully, FMA provides a license guide that briefly explains the different licensing models.
A couple of other good sources of free music are Musopen which focuses on classical music and
Free Sound which is just what it sounds like, a collection of tens of thousands of sounds that users have uploaded that have been downloaded millions of times. In every case, you need to pay close attention to the licensing agreements.
Royalty Free Sources of Music
Just like with creative commons, royalty-free doesn’t mean copyright free. And in this case, it also doesn’t mean free to access. Often you need a paid subscription and are regularly restricted to non-commercial use only. Royalty-free means a licensing agreement has been reached between composers and the market housing the music and offering it to subscribers for a fee.
It reminds me of when I was the music director of (two) radio station(s) and twice annually, we had to track the music we played in two to four week periods. Alongside the name and composer of each song, we filled in copyright info so that data could be sorted regarding how much rights holders would get paid in royalties for usage. ASCAP is the organization that tracks that. Terrestrial stations (and now streaming services and YouTube) buy a licence from them to play and air (musical) content.
Here are some great sources of royalty-free music to check out:
Bensound is a film score composer in France who’s been creating sound beds for 10+ years. He has both a free license and 3 paid license subscription offerings. In every case, there are limitations to how you can use his music, but he provides a handy chart for you to see what each type of licensing provides.
Premium beat has curated lists of music, some subscription choices and a licensing chart as does Epidemic Sound. And with Audioblocks (now part of Storyblocks), you can search by music genre, instrument, temp, duration, moods) and find about 80,000 tracks for $100/year for an individual.
Audio jungle is part of the Envato marketplace, one of the earlier sources (established 2006) and offers unlimited downloads with a subscription that starts at around $17/month. MixKit is also available with an Envato Elements subscription and has millions of creative sound assets.
ZapSplat, which is a source for sounds (as you might guess from the name) and music and has free and paid subscription offerings with attribution requirements that can be lifted at higher subscription levels.
And Pond5 allows you to pay per track for music, and provides some level of indemnification for each of their Licensing offerings.
Of course, the other route you can go is to work with musicians directly. Every sound engineer friends and colleagues of mine are also composers. Depending on the project and its use, you can work with them directly to prepare a song or jingle for a product or project. I am putting the finishing touches on a project in which I hired a sound engineer buddy to create a song and related intros and extros as part of a children’s eLearning production package. I sang lead vocals, he provided the backup and the clients loved the finished product.