How To Use Royalty Free Music Professionally On YouTube

How To Use Royalty Free Music Professionally On YouTube

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Proper use of music and sound can make or break your video or film production. However, for those who use YouTube in a professional way, using the right type of music in your productions can make all the difference between a happy and a grumpy client.

Back in March 2007, a few months after Google purchased YouTube, the search giant was confronted with a lawsuit from Viacom, seeking $1bn in damages, claiming that the site violated copyrights by allowing users to upload content from Viacom sources (both music and videos). A juicy detail to this court case was that Viacom was among the bidders for YouTube. If you can’t buy them, sue them, the argument must have been. Nonetheless, the entertainment giant lost the case in June 2010. Little more than a year later, following a four-year battle, Google also reached an agreement with music publishers. In the end, the bet that Google took in buying YouTube and believing in their business model, is starting to pay off. If you can’t beat them, join them, so the saying still goes…

Since YouTube was sold to Google, the site has developed a system that helps flag copyright violations when videos are posted. This YouTube Content Management System – or Content ID – works on the basis of digital fingerprinting technology (sourced from various suppliers including Audible Magic and further developed in-house). YouTube partners (typically media companies with copyright assets) can upload digital fingerprints of their copyrighted assets to YouTube which are compared against content uploaded by users. When the system finds a match, it flags the content with a copyright notice and gives the copyright holder the following three options:

  • Track
    This option tracks the number of views the video generates.
  • Block
    Blocks the video from the site or silences the audio portion. Example here; here is the same video uploaded to Vimeo with sound.
  • Monetize
    Places ads against the content, with a revenue split between Google and the copyright holder. Example here; features all forms of YouTube ads.

Most partners elect the third option these days: nearly 2 billion videos are monetized every week on the site, as reported here on ReelSEO. In fact, the various advertising options YouTube provides based on the matches from Content ID, form the core of Google’s business model for the site. It keeps everyone happy, right? Users continue to have a free upload, while advertisers get their share of attention and rights holders (and Google) get their share of revenue. Although 94 of AdAge’s top 100 advertisers have run campaigns on YouTube, brand owners that upload videos themselves to YouTube can be confronted with ads from third parties as well – including competitors (!)

Ads!? Help…!

The only sure way to prevent ads from appearing on top of your own content is by simply not including any copyrighted material in your videos (music and/or visuals such as movie trailers) – it’s as simple as that.

As most brand owners will tend to create original video content, the issue mostly lies with the music. Not including any music in your video production, however, is the other extreme. Proper use of music can turn a tedious talking heads video into a sparkling piece of work. Choosing the right kind of music in practice is easier said than done – you have to tread the waters of copyrighted material carefully.

First of all, there are two kinds of rights that need to be taken into account: the production rights (master and synchronisation) and the performance rights (publishing the video with integrated music).

As video producer, you are responsible for payment of royalties for the master and synchronisation rights of the music in your productions. Your client is responsible for the performance rights. This system works great for traditional media such as television. If your ad contains music, the copyright holder gets a revenue share of the advertising revenue generated by the station. Taking the same video to YouTube may lead to unexpected results. Being a video producer myself, I often advice my clients against the use of copyrighted (read: popular) music in their productions. It is very hard to prevent ads from appearing if your video contains a score with music from the charts.

Regardless of whether the client actually pays the PRO for use of the music (brand owners don’t have to, since YouTube has arrangements with PROs), they could still be confronted with ads appearing around their content, thanks to YouTube’s Content ID system kicking in. Although YouTube does offer a solution for partners to block content from specific domains (e.g. CBS preventing ads from ABC), no comparable functions exist for owners of branded channels. Sure, you can file a request for resolving a copyright issue, but this is cumbersome and your request may simply be ignored by the copyright holder.

So the best solution is to go with royalty free stock music or production music.

Royalty Free Music?

Although there are bucket-loads of sites with royalty free music, they are rarely truly royalty free. It is certainly free of royalties for the producer but the composer still gets his fair share. Therefore it is vital to carefully read the licenses they provide.

Most providers only include royalty payments for the production part of the equation (typically called production music), not the performance rights. A small portion of these sites, including those run by Partners in Rhyme in contrast, provide a full license. Says Mark Lewis, owner of Partners in Rhyme:

The business model is pretty simple. We sell a license to use the music available in our catalog. The license is worldwide and good for as as many projects as the customer wants to use the music on. We send 50% of each paid license fee directly to the composer who created the music. We also take $1.00 from each sale on and give it to a different charity every month.

I like this approach for the following reasons:

  • First and foremost because it’s simple: you get full resolution stereo WAV files, no cue sheets to fill out, no hassles and no surprises down the line.
  • Second, I want to be assured that my clients will not get any ads placed against their videos.
  • Third, I like their business model and the fees are very acceptable (anywhere between $25 and $75 per track), which allows me to use it in multiple projects (for example when I’m creating a web-series which uses the same music).
  • Fourth, many tracks come in edit packages, including loops, stingers and alternative versions: perfect for matching the audio score to the visuals.
  • With approximately 30-40 songs sold each day, Mark Lewis says he makes about $600,000 in revenue each year, of which composers receive nearly half. So, fifth, knowing that the creators see a fair portion of the revenue, it feels good too.

Other royalty free providers use a somewhat different approach, which usually ends up being either more costly and/or without ad-free warranties:

  • focuses on production music and requires the user to fill in cue sheets, so you only pay the responsible PRO (in this case Stemra) for the synchronisation rights. Since Musicdirector does not monetize the content it represents on YouTube, you should not expect to see ads around the content on YouTube. However, since the labels they represent may choose to do so, you have no guarantee that ads will not appear. Above all, the current payment scheme with Stemra can be costly – for small productions (upto €5000) you pay €60 per 30 seconds of music usage. If you have an edit of 4 minutes with a full music score, this means €480 in music fees. This does not match with the general trend that brands want more video at lower prices (most of my productions are between €1000 and €2500).
  • Audio Network PLC (my second option for larger productions) provides high quality content and does not require users to fill in cue sheets. The site uses an all-you-can-eat buffet-style approach: for each new production you can opt to pay a fixed license fee of 195 pounds sterling (295 for broadcast advertising) and download/use as many tracks as you like. For heavy-users an annual fee of 2000 pounds sterling for unlimited music use is also available. However, each time the music is used in a ‘new’ production you need to acquire a new license (and download the tracks again). Above all, the catalog is monetized on YouTube (performance rights), meaning that you may get ads. However, being the copyright owner and thus YouTube Partner, Audio Network is the beneficiary of that monetization option – and hence controls which videos get served with advertising. If you want your videos to be ad-free, special clearances can be given.
  • TRXMusic from TopFormat controls its own catalog and adds 15-18 freshly themed Audio CDs each year. TRXMusic does not rely on PROs to collect the synch rights to the music, but they are represented by PROs for the performance rights, mainly for broadcast purposes (TV and Radio). Currently, their catalogue is not monetized on YouTube. However, you need to be a heavy user of their production music, since they use an annual subscription model (approximately €2.500+), not a pay-per-download model. But – this does give you full access to the entire catalog.

As I said before, there are thousands of royalty-free music or production music providers. Most use a combination of either of the above business models, only few are as truly royalty free as It is a matter of weighing advantages versus disadvantages.
An example of a recent production that uses music from

The only downside to not using music you already know from the charts, is that you have to spend time sourcing it. To solve this issue, most royalty free music sites use extensive search algorhythms to help you. This is why I like the themed approach from TRXMusic. I frequently re-visit the sites I use to check for new content and usually charge my clients a small fee for finding the right kind of music to their production. Knowing that they won’t get any ads through Content ID on YouTube prevends me from having a happy client turned into a grumpy one.

Post-scriptum: JewelBeat

After I posted this article, I received an e-mail from Shirley at JewelBeat, who pointed me to the revolutionary approach this site takes in their offer of production music. Made-in-mind with the independent YouTube content producer, JewelBeat offers individual tracks from $0.99 per download – guaranteed without ads on YouTube (as a YouTube partner you can monetize your original work yourself without having to share the revenue with JewelBeat) and available for use on multiple projects.

“We do not monetize our music on YouTube”, says Shirley. “Our customers can use our music to fully monetize their videos on YouTube. We have good traction with YouTube content producers with our affordable pricing, good selection and simple licensing terms. I really don’t see many Youtube content producers being able to afford the current price of traditional royalty free music as most do not make enough to justify the purchase. JewelBeat is really a good fit especially for online video producers.”

The unbeatable price of $0.99 per track is for a standard license, which includes generous license terms for single use on any kind of project – either personal or commercial. If you need broader coverage, you can opt for the extended license, which goes for $19.00 and includes multiple users/sites/countries. You can also choose to purchase tracks in a selected genre on a memory stick for $99 + $99 per year (called the JewelStick), a selection of their 100 best selling albums on a JewelDisk Mini ($399 + $399 per year) or the full library on a JewelDisk Maxi ($999 + $999 per year), which consists of 35.000 tracks.

Although I haven’t looked/listened to the library in detail, there seem to be some promising tracks. I will certainly keep them bookmarked.


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