You have a great idea for a podcast, and maybe you’ve already put the hard work in. You’ve scripted it, recorded vocals, and maybe done an interview. All it needs now is some music for the intro and outro, and it’s good to go.
But how do you include it without treading on the toes of rights holders and causing yourself potential legal headaches? In this article, you’ll find out that it’s not just possible, but that it’s possible with excellent-quality music as well.
Music: An Essential Component of Podcasts
First off, you’re right in thinking your podcast needs music.
Music is critical in helping to lend pace, emotion, and excitement to any podcast, and you know yours won’t feel complete without it.
In fact, there’s fascinating research showing that music strengthens social bonds and empathy. Since most people listen to podcasts thinking of the hosts as their friends, you’re right in thinking that music is an essential component of any podcast.
It’s hard to just listen to wall-to-wall conversations, so music also acts as a necessary palate cleanser, while also helping to direct audiences’ attention to what you think is important in your podcast.
How to Use Music in a Podcast
Creatively, music can be used in podcasts in any number of ways.
It can be used as intro or outro music, it can bridge gaps between segments, it can play lightly underneath patter to make it feel like it’s moving more quickly. It can be used for fictional podcasts to take up a lot of the weight of their suspense, tension, or emotional color. It can enhance a sense of comedy (or any desired tone) and also help put an audience in a particular time or place. Through a sense of familiarity, it can also simply help audiences feel more at home.
At the same time, you’ve probably heard some of the nightmare stories involving music and copyrights. Those are the creative aspects of using music in a podcast, but you need to understand the legalities as well.
Negative Consequences to Using Music Without Permission
Large fines, takedown notices from YouTube, and public shaming are some of the consequences of using music without proper permission that most of us have heard of.
By now, you may have a long list of anxious (and completely reasonable) questions, like:
- How can I use copyrighted music in my podcast legally?
- How do I avoid copyright infringement in my podcast?
- Do you need permission to use a song in a podcast?
- How do you ask for permission to use a song?
In this article, we’re going to set some of your fears at rest by showing you how to use music in a podcast legally.
Rest assured, you can find excellent-quality music that’s yours to use, without worrying about any future ramifications, claims, or lawsuits.
What Is a Copyright?
First, a simple explanation of what a copyright is: A copyright allows creators (or rights holders, in the case of record companies) to determine how their creative work gets used. Movies, books, and other expressions of ideas (though not the ideas themselves) can be copyrighted for fixed terms. The term is usually 75 years, but there are exceptions — for example, if someone has “dedicated” their work to the public domain, that means they relinquish all rights to it. Works in the public domain can be used by anyone (but belong to no one).
Works also enter the public domain when their copyright owners neglect to renew the copyright. The public domain also includes works that come from a time before copyright laws were codified in their current form.
Copyright laws protect musicians in a number of ways, covering both the underlying musical work and the sound recording of said work as a performance. It’s possible to separate these rights, which is why you may be used to hearing cover versions of your favorite songs in movie soundtracks and in commercials. This split happens because, say, it’s impossible to get the rights to a song written and performed by the Beatles, but it may be more affordable to use a cover version by a less prominent recording artist. But even cover versions of popular songs are beyond the means of most podcasters.
When it comes to using copyrighted music, you can reach out to the rights holder and get permission — but most musicians rely on their music to make a living, so it’s unlikely that this will be free. You can license it, but that will mean sticking to the terms laid out in your licensing agreement (more on this later).
Some podcasters wonder whether they can get away with “fair use,” which can allow for using audio clips in podcast contexts like music reviews, for example. But “fair use” is open to interpretation, and chances are that using any length of a copyrighted music clip in a podcast in a meaningful way will not fall under the fair-use doctrine, and it would leave you open to legal action. This has, in fact, happened to many hip-hop musicians who’ve tried to sample popular hits — only to find themselves the target of lawsuits and heavy fines.
Is Copyrighted Music Off-Limits?
You might be wondering, “Can I use commercial music in my podcast?” Meaning music that’s copyrighted or exists under a commercial system. The answer is — you can, if the copyright holder grants you permission.
Songs by big bands like Coldplay or U2 are — sorry — probably not going to be available to you, for reasons of cost and exclusivity. Those bands’ rights managers reserve their songs for big commercials and soundtracks. It would definitely be a mistake to try to use one of their songs in your podcast.
When it comes to smaller bands, even if you get permission, you will need to pay them royalties. Royalties are ongoing residual payments for using a copyrighted creative work. Every time Warner Bros. sells a soundtrack album, or a popular song is played on the radio, or a song is featured in a commercial, royalties are owed to the rights holder.
Keeping track of these royalties is not only potentially expensive (and an unpredictable expense, at that, since royalties are related to how many downloads and streams your podcast gets). It can also be difficult and time-consuming, and it’s the last thing that a podcast creator wants to spend their time on.
So you can certainly look up who owns the rights to a song — likely split between the label, the composer, and possibly the artist who performed it — and write them a letter asking for permission to use their song. But even if permission is granted, which is far from certain, you will have to keep track of the royalties and pay them, meticulously, or you’ll find yourself in hot water.
Some podcasters compose and perform music themselves, which makes life easy (other than finding recording facilities and musicians). Now you might be wondering, “Can I play music on my podcast?” And the answer is — if you can make it yourself, by all means, do so. But not everyone has that skill.
What’s left when your budget is limited, you can’t afford most copyrighted music, and you want to stay squarely within the realm of the law?
You may be wondering, “What about music that’s not copyrighted and is in the public domain? Why not just use that?”
Issues With Public-Domain Music
You should be aware that there are many potential issues that arise with “public domain” music, too. One problem with “public domain” works on the internet is that they may be mislabeled as such.
This could happen in two ways:
- They could actually be copyrighted compositions that have washed around the internet and been mislabeled.
- As rights can be split between underlying rights and performance rights, their underlying composition may not be copyrighted (e.g., a piece of classical music), but their performance may have been recently recorded and, in fact, fall under a copyright by Sony Classical or another large corporation.
In this case, all the penalties stemming from using copyrighted music without permission could still come into play.
There are also potential issues with the recording quality of public-domain music, not to mention that as a podcaster you’re probably looking for something that feels fresh and contemporary, rather than the kind of vintage genre that falls into the public domain, like Dixieland jazz or operetta. One of the uses of music in podcasts is setting a tone, so you want to find a fresh piece of music that suits your genre and subject matter, not just something that happens to be available.
That’s OK — because there are still excellent options available.
How to Use Music in a Podcast: Royalty-Free Music
Royalty-free music is copyrighted music, and it requires a license to use. However (and this is a big however), royalty-free music is licensed under a system that allows users to pay a one-off fee, rather than ongoing royalties.
Under the royalty-free system, once you pay the fee, you can use the licensed track as many times as you like, without paying any residuals.
Royalty-free music is completely legal and, indeed, a great way for musicians to make a living from their creative work. Many musicians like composing for the royalty-free model because it gives them another creative outlet.
And from a podcaster’s point of view, royalty-free music is a simple and elegant solution to finding music for intros, outros, the background, and transition moments.
Under the royalty-free license, you can use the music however you like. You can:
- Cut it down for length
- Reuse it
- Loop it
- Mix it so that it works with your project’s needs
And you can do all of this without paying additional fees. You just can’t alter the track beyond recognition under most royalty-free contracts.
Importantly, you can use it across related podcasts or vlogs, all without paying additional fees or royalties. Theme songs are a great way to tie different shows together, and with royalty-free music, you can do that without paying additional fees.
Other Advantages of Royalty-Free Music
- Royalty-free music is recorded to conform to contemporary standards of quality — whereas even if so-called public-domain music is actually in the public domain, it could be taken from old, scratchy recordings.
- Royalty-free music is often composed with the needs of contemporary podcasters in mind, which can make it easy for you to find a composition that fits the exact specifications of your podcast. If you’re working on a science-fiction podcast, you probably want something that feels techno-inflected and modern — it’s unlikely that you would find something like that in the public domain.
- Above all, royalty-free music makes life simple. The costs are low and straightforward. So you can focus on your creative mission and relax when it comes to music rights and other potential headaches.
- Royalty-free music can be composed to sound similar to a popular current or classic composition. So although Coldplay or your favorite Ennio Morricone track may be off-limits to you, compositions may be available that have similar instrumentation and emotional tones.
The variety and quality of royalty-free music, as well as its cost-effectiveness, make it the podcaster’s friend.
Additionally, the best royalty-free music sites, like Stockmusic.net, allow you to search by instrumentation, genre, and tempo so you can find the right fit for your project.
Royalty-Free Music: A Cost-Effective, Legal Solution
If you’re still on the fence, remember the power that music lends to a podcast, and how it can add an emotional heft to what might be an otherwise dry discussion. Think about your favorite podcast — whether it’s This American Life, Radiolab, My Favorite Murder, or any other — and how much it’s supported by the use of subtle but effective music. Royalty-free music can give your podcast the same power and listenability.
On Stockmusic.net, individual tracks can be licensed for a flat fee of $39.95. You can also buy a subscription plan for $16.67 per month, which allows you to use an unlimited number of musical tracks and sound effects.
There’s a large library of music to choose from, in an array of popular genres, all of the highest quality. You can find music on Stockmusic.net that sounds like your favorite composers and is exactly right for your podcast’s desired tone.
And to top it all off, you won’t get sued!