Using Royalty-Free Music in your Voice Over Production

Why Use Royalty-Free Music?

Music is everywhere. Whether you’re working on a website, podcast or even a PowerPoint presentation, everything seems that much better if it includes some music.

But where does all this music come from? Sure, it seems like there’s a limitless supply — everywhere you turn there are new opportunities to hear and download all kinds of tracks.

The question is, how much of that music can you legally use?

The Royalty Machine

The music industry is a very complicated machine with many players who are all vying for a piece of the musical money pie. A single piece of music might be tied to several revenue streams, with many groups collecting a fee for its use. For this reason, it can be very time-consuming and expensive to gain the rights to use a musical composition in a commercial application.

We’ll define commercial music as the use of music in a public setting, or the use of music to aid in product or service promotions. When you buy a song from iTunes, for instance, your license covers personal listening. Personal use is just that: for listening to. Personally. Adding a track to a podcast that’s getting hundreds or thousands of hits is not personal use. If you do so, you’re putting yourself on the hook for all kinds of fees and/or royalties.

There are several fees that are associated with commercial audio. All of these fees are mandatory if you want to use music commercially. The following royalty fees must be purchased for every musical track:

  • Mechanical rights
  • Public performance royalties
  • Synchronization and transcription rights
  • Publishing rights
  • Neighboring rights
  • Master use rights

That single iTunes track you bought for $.99 could end up costing thousands of dollars for a simple use. In fact, popular music tracks have been known to cost in the million-dollar range for the use of one single song for a very limited time.

Stock music catalogs have helped to simplify the purchase of music for commercial applications because they let you pay a single entity for all of the fees, rights, and royalties associated with a song. Some stock music libraries are called royalty-free, because most of the rights, fees and royalties are bought in a single, one-time purchase.

While stock audio and royalty-free audio are not new concepts, there are still some misconceptions about what exactly stock audio is, specifically in relation to royalty-free music.

Royalty-Free Music

So what is royalty-free music? This should be a simple concept; for example a royalty-free photo is a photo you can use for an indeterminate length of time at a single purchase price. This is the model of iStockphoto.

While you would think that royalty-free music is an equally simple concept, it is not. In fact most royalty-free music is subject to one or more royalties.

Try an Internet search for “royalty-free music” and there will be no lack of results — but be warned; music purchased from the vast majority of royalty-free music sites actually does require royalties. In fact, almost all royalty-free music sites have an FAQ with this question — “What is royalty-free music?” They do this because they don’t include performance royalties or often mechanical licenses in the cost of the track. Many royalty-free audio sites say that the music may be subject to performance royalties, or will require cue sheets to be filled (so artists can get their royalties), or that physical copies of the song cannot be made (DVDs, toys, etc).

If you are looking to purchase royalty-free audio, you should be looking to see if their audio is truly royalty-free. For instance, if any of their artists belong to a performing rights organization then their audio collection cannot be considered royalty-free, because performance royalties must be collected on that audio for any public use of the music.

The iStock standard audio collection is one of the only truly royalty-free collections in the world. That is the reason that we do not accept members of any performing rights organizations into our collection. It is important to us that we offer a royalty-free audio collection that actually ensures our buyers will never have to pay a royalty fee.

Some broadcasters are used to paying millions in performance royalty fees in the form of a yearly subscription. These broadcasters aren’t required to pay for each use since they pay annually. For them, purchasing from a collection that doesn’t include performance royalties is a viable solution. But what about a small business’s phone hold music, a small restaurant’s background music, a podcaster, or independent filmmaker? For many people it is simply not financially viable to be paying millions in performance royalties. The performance royalties on a music track’s single use could prove to be several times more expensive than the compositions original cost.

But I Won’t Get Caught

Maybe you’re thinking to yourself, “Who’s going to know?” Who’s going to find out? Why should I even worry about it? After all, no one’s caught me yet.

Try this: type “ASCAP sues” into Google. The search will reveal hundreds of situations where (often unknowingly) a piece of music was used without paying performance royalties. American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) has gone as far as threatening to sue the Girl Scouts for singing campfire songs. The bottom line is that if you need music, and you do not want to pay re-occurring performance royalty fees, then iStock audio is one of the very few safe choices for quality commercial audio.



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