The Top 3 Music Licensing Terms You Can’t Ignore

Disclaimer. My podcast Crossing the 180 was at one point co-sponsored by Triple Scoop Music and at another time The Music Bed, and I have a custom collection on TSM. With that said, the purpose of this article is not to promote any one service, but to objectively cover the main differences in license terms that are important for filmmakers and photographers to consider when picking music to legally use in their productions. There are “gotchas” you may encounter if you don’t read the fine print. I will refrain from using names of premium services because I’m sure over time some of their terms will change and I don’t want to have to update this blog post every other month to keep up. It’s up to you to take this information, apply it to the services you’re considering, and make the best judgment.

Music Droid by The Smurf on Flickr

Last year saw a dramatic turn of events for the film and video industry, particularly weddings and events. For the first time wedding videographers were sued by major record companies for the use of popular songs. Naturally, given these circumstances, small business photographers and videographers who need music for their productions will be investing more time and money in picking music from those premium services that provide quality music at a relatively affordable price (relative that is to what they would normally have to pay for acquiring the proper music licensing rights for videos). I have a growing list of such services on my blog post about legally using music in your video productions. Just go to

There are so many factors to keep in mind when picking music for your productions. You had better know the license terms of any respective service, or you could find yourself in the same position you were in when you just used a song from you iTunes list. You should read the entire license agreement for any service you use, but there are three key parameters you cannot afford to gloss over when looking at licenses for use in film and video productions:

  • Term of Use. This is simply how many times you can use a song and/or for how long you can continue to use a song. One year? Two years? Five years? Indefinitely? This is very important. I once didn’t read the license for a song used thinking the term was indefinite. I then got an email a year later that I needed to pay for another year of use. The vendor from whom I purchased the license offered great customer service and considering the circumstances, I am happy how it was handled. It was my fault for not reading the license agreement. But I may have made a different choice had a known about the year limit.
  • Production Type. This is one of the most important areas you need to consider. What kind of projects can you use the song in? Just about all the premium services allow for use in personal events like weddings, bar/bat mitzvahs, etc. Where it becomes tricky is if you want to use the songs for commercial use. I think just about all of them allow for use in creating videos for your own business (e.g. you want to make a promo video for your service). But some do not allow you to use the songs in commercial productions for other businesses. Some will allow for use in small businesses and/or non-profits as long as the videos you’re producing are not broadcast. But once you start looking at broadcast use (i.e. on national television, in movie theaters, or radio) then you may need to get a special license. The same goes for If you need a song for a short film, an online video series, a feature, a TV show, etc.
  • Distribution Formats. For many of you, this will be most important. In what formats can you distribute the song and for how long? (e.g. DVDs, online, digital download, etc.) It was online use of popular music that lead to the aforementioned lawsuits. If you’re making videos for your wedding and event clients, you will most likely want to put your best videos online. Some services have indefinite online use. Once you’ve used the song, it can stay online indefinitely. (Note: just because once you use a song it can be online indefinitely, you may still have a limited amount of time and/or productions in which you can use a song in the first place. That goes back to term of use). Some services have a limited time you can use the song online. It will be up to you to make sure you take down any videos you’ve put online using a song whose license term lapses, unless of course you re-up the license. Check to see if the service will send you an e-mail notification about license expiration dates. Some of you put up dozens of videos a year. It can become a logistical nightmare trying to keep track of the ones you need to bring down. An email notification will help with that. If you need to create DVDs, what is the limit? If you want to make 20 DVDs for family and friends, does your license allow for that? If you need to make an event DVD for 500 families, will you need to pay more money (most likely). Don’t assume you can put that video on a DVD or as many DVDs as you like. Read the fine print.

All-Powerful Alternatives

There are some alternatives to the music licensing services that give you almost full reign in how and how long  you can use a song. There are three I want to point out.

  • Canned Music. This is the traditional royalty-free programs that video producers have used for years. Digital Juice had been one of the most popular sources for such music with hundreds, if not thousands of tunes you can create with their StackTraxx and Music Box libraries. As of this writing though, it would appear they are retiring these products.
  • DIY Products. Programs like SmartSound’s SonicFire Pro or Apple’s GarageBand or LogicPro include royalty-free audio clips, loops and music synthesizing features that allow you to “compose” your own tunes. Depending on the project, this could be all you need.
  • This is the website of film composer Kevin MacLeod. I’ve written about his site a few times. He has over 2,000 songs for which he grants FULL rights to use in any medium. You can use his music for film, features, TV shows, commercials, weddings, slideshows, etc. No payment is required, but a minimum $5 donation is requested. It’s worth more than that.

The downside to these solutions (and the need for the premium services) is that the music tends to be all instrumental and artistically not at the level where many producers require. I contend that if you take the time to search the libraries, and are creative, you could use a lot of this music in more ways than you might expect. It just takes the extra time. Also, is it absolutely necessary to layer your production end to end with premium songs. If you’re editing a cocktail hour segment of a wedding video, do you really need a premium song, or will a nice, smooth-jazz instrumental from a royalty-free library do the job? Save the premium stuff for the really key chapters in your video.

Go with Your Muse

In the end, you have to go with your muse. Despite my aforementioned relationships, I will always pick a song that I feel best fits the project at hand, regardless of where I find it. I’ve used songs from nearly a half-dozen different sources over the years, and I will continue to find the right song. You should do the same. And if cost is an issue, do I really need to tell you to build the cost of the licenses into your fee? I hope not.

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