"Royalty Free" And Other Terms Entrepreneurs Are Too Embarrassed To Ask About 1238 words · 6 minute read

Licensing music like a badass means you have to learn the languages of sync licensing and music publishing. For those new to the rodeo, learning the language can be a bit daunting. Recognizing this, our goal is to reduce the amount your forehead crinkles in confusion as you’re trying to find music for your projects. So, here are a few more terms that you may have been too embarrassed to ask about while in conversation with a savvy licensor.

Royalty Free

I started writing about this term and I paused. I realized that, beneath the umbrella of music licensing, this phrase is very confusing.

Music licensing companies cleverly applied the term to the business, probably because of the allure of the word “free” that rests comfortably within “royalty free music.” But the term “royalty free,” as it pertains to licensing for video, originates from a different kind of “licensing” use.

When is “Royalty Free” applicable? Story time!

Imagine Jan, a 32-year-old bubbly brunette who owns a thriving yoga studio in Albuquerque. She’s as smart as she is flexible. As a savvy music licensor, she’s done her fair share of music licensing to support her business.

Jan finds music for a video she creates to show aspiring yoga practitioners how to properly execute “cat,” “cobra,” and “down dog.” She licenses meditative music, then places the video on YouTube. Jan purchases a sync license from a music licensing company that states they are royalty free.


Media: Web

Territory: Worldwide

Usage: Background Instrumental

Term: Perpetual

In this scenario, there are no royalties involved in her use. Jan’s simply paying an “upfront” fee to clear both sides of the copyright; then, she is able to use the music according to the terms above. “Royalty Free,” while it looks appealing, has no bearing on her license.

Now, let’s look at a case when it does matter.

Instead of creating a video to upload to YouTube, Jan is now creating a yoga workout DVD. Jan returns to the online music licensing company that states they are royalty free.


Media: DVD/Reproduction

Territory: North America

Usage: Background Instrumental

Term: Perpetual

This time, it is indeed important that the music is royalty free. She is now duplicating copies of her DVD. Without the music being royalty free, she would have to pay a mechanical use royalty for each copy created. Which would suck for Jan.

The duplication of media containing music is where “royalty free” is relevant. If you’re securing a basic sync license, without duplicating the content or selling of physical or digital copies, then “royalty free” actually has no relevance. That’s the case for most people seeking to license music.

Don’t be allured by the term “royalty free” when it does not apply to the kind of license you need. “Royalty free” music can often be low quality music (low quality not in terms of audio quality, but in terms of authenticity and emotional impact). It can be bologna instead of succulent Boar’s Head, cured ham.

If you’re reproducing copies of media for sale or distribution, then by all means, knock yourself out. Royalty-free is your friend. If not, then don’t drink the kool-aid.


Uh, clearance of what?

Clearance can be a confusing term, because it’s a term that can shift from a noun to a verb at a moment’s notice.

Can you clear this for me? We don’t have the clearance on this one yet? Is this song pre-cleared? Hey, can you perform a clearance on this track?

Let’s “clear up” what exactly it means to perform a clearance.

The word clearance describes the process of securing the rights to use a piece of music in a specific manner.

If you hope to license a song, you must clear, or get permission to use the song from those who own that song. To clear the song means to obtain clearance.

A pre-cleared track (which is very good for you because it saves you precious time) means that a party has already gone through the trouble of clearing the use of a piece of music. They’ve struck an agreement with all of the rights holders and have secured the right to enter into a sync license. The negotiation has already happened, and all you have to do is sign a license and pay your dough.

Performing a clearance usually entails working with someone with great insight and understanding of music rights and publishing. This guru finds those who own or control the music desired and negotiates a fee to use that music.

It’s usually a pain in the ass, too. And the bigger the artist and song, the bigger the pain in the aforementioned ass. Just something to keep in mind when you’re in desperate need of a Bon Jovi hit.


Now that you have a solid grasp of “Clearance,” rights will be a piece of cake.

Rights? Opposite of left? Opposite of wrong? The people who own a song own two parts, or sides, of a recording: the master and the publishing.

Because they own and control those sides of the song you need, when receiving their permission, you are given the “right” to use that music according to the terms agreed upon by you and those who control.

Clearing a song means you are given the right to use that song in a particular manner.

The phrase, “We don’t have the rights for that,” is something heard frequently in the music licensing world. It’s said when a licensee does not have permission to use a piece a music in a certain way, or in a certain location, or at a certain period in time.

Once a deal is struck with a rights holder and clearance is given, a licensee must use that music according to the rights agreed upon. For example:


Media: Television

Territory: Asia

Usage: Vocal

Term: 8 months

After 8 months, you no longer have the right to use that music. You don’t have the right to air your commercial in New York. You don’t have the right to place your ad on YouTube after you’re finished airing it on TV. You can’t change your mind and use the instrumental version. You must work within the rights parameters that you’ve agreed to.

Rights are often a dreadful part of music licensing. Many brands, agencies, and studios underestimate their need, don’t strategize long term, or don’t have the budget, and end up short of all the rights they truly need. To continue using the music, they have to go back to the parties who own the music and renegotiate, which can be more expensive.

Make sure you have the rights you need.

Every industry has a language, and success as a content creator who utilizes music partly comes down to your ability to speak the language of music licensing.

With this kind of information, we hope to lower the height of your raised eyebrow of curiosity, and give you the tools to comprehend more of the beast that is music licensing and publishing.

Are there other annoying and perplexing industry or publishing terms that are mosquito bites on your brain? Let us know in the comment section and we’ll blog about them. Because a better educated you is a happier you. And a happier you is a happier Music Dealers.

By: Christopher Rucks, Music Dealers

Photo credit: Andrea Parris-Geyer

Photo credit: Amanda Halprin

Photo credit: Michael Pereckas