Music licensing can be a daunting proposition for the uninitiated producer, editor or business owner. With a growing number of options when it comes to music libraries, as well as an ever-expanding list of platforms and mediums on which the finished video can be viewed, it’s easy to feel overloaded with information.
Let me start by clarifying the focus of this article: if you think music licensing is an unnecessary formality and that you can get away with using whatever music you want (major label or otherwise,) I’m not speaking to you. You’re clearly not a professional and the information contained in this post won’t help you. Let me be clear: if you are being paid for your work and it is being shown anywhere publicly, be it online, at an event or tradeshow, or broadcast on television, then music licensing is not an optional step in the post-production process. If you’re using music you didn’t produce in-house, to not license that music is to steal it from the artist and to open yourself up to legal consequences that put you, your client and your business at serious risk. This cannot be overstated. License your music and keep your license paperwork on file and well organized.
This post really isn’t about major record label music either, as that’s an entirely different set of highly complicated and expensive steps. If you’re trying to license a Kendrick Lamar track (and you’ve got a pile of money to make it happen) then you really should be using some of that cash to hire a professional music supervisor who has experience with the relationships, procedures and paperwork you’ll need to get the deal done.
What I’d like to focus on here is mostly commercial and corporate work that requires high-quality music, but music that doesn’t create the budget and logistical implications of dealing with a major record label. That’s where stock music libraries come in. As I said above, there are TONS of options out there and we’ve used a number of them over the years. For simplicity’s sake, I’m going to boil things down to the two we use most frequently: Pond5 and Killer Tracks, as well as touching briefly on YouTube’s new Music Library service which we’ve just started to play with recently. I’m also going to use the analogy of buying an airline ticket since I think it’s something just about every reader can relate to. Simply put, Pond5 is “Economy Class” – it will get you where you need to go at a relatively affordable rate and offers no frills. Killer Tracks, on the other hand, is a “First Class” ticket on an international flight – if you have the money, there really is no comparison to the experience, the quality of service and the product itself. Both options are equally useful in the right situation, it all depends on the needs and the budget of the project. Let’s examine each in detail:
Economy Class: Pond5
Pond5 offers not only royalty free production music, but has also expanded to provide sound effects, stock footage, After Effects templates and even 3D models. It’s a great site and improving all the time, but today I’m just going to focus on what they bring to the table as far as production music. The biggest advantage of using Pond5 is the pricing and the extremely simple licensing model: once you purchase a track, you own the rights to use it in your project on any platform, in perpetuity. This makes Pond5 especially useful if the client isn’t sure exactly what they want to do with the finished product, or if they want to show it at multiple events, or, if it’s a commercial, run it for multiple 13-week broadcast cycles without drastically increasing the budget. The quality of the music on Pond5 is a mixed bag: there’s plenty of good stuff to be found, but also some pretty basic and fairly repetitive loops. The search functionality is decent, letting you filter by style as well as price and duration. I’ve also had good luck searching by artist once I find a high quality track that I like. You can create “lightboxes” of tracks you like for a particular project and send watermarked versions to your client for approval before you purchase. Most tracks are between $10 – $75 for a blanket license and can be downloaded in either high quality .wav or .mp3 format. If you need solid production music at a reasonable price, Pond5 is a great option. We use their library frequently for low to medium budget projects.
First Class: Killer Tracks
Killer Tracks truly is the Cadillac of production music libraries. Their tracks are high-quality, commercial-grade compositions from professional ASCAP and BMI producers, and come with various edits and tags for each song, giving you extra flexibility in your edit to customize for length. The robust search functionality is what really sets Killer Tracks apart from the competition, with an incredibly deep level of targeting to help you find exactly what you need to fit the needs of your project, which is particularly impressive given the massive and varied amount of music available through their service. Beyond that, their customer service is truly unparalleled. If I have a question about anything at all, it’s not uncommon to get a response to an email to my account rep within minutes. As with a first class airline ticket, this premium quality and service also comes with a premium price tag.
The licensing model for Killer Tracks is quite a bit more complicated than Pond5. In order to access their library, you must submit an application, pay a fee (most of which you can put toward your first track license) and put down a credit card to process future payments. The good thing about this is that, once you’ve been approved, you have unfettered access to the full library. The tracks aren’t watermarked and you’re able to download anything on the site at full quality, which is great for auditioning tracks for clients and testing them out in your timeline. With Killer Tracks, you pay based on two considerations: how many times a piece of music is used within a single video (called “laserdrops”) and how the final completed video is exhibited. For a simple example, when we complete our new 2016 Show Reel later this month, we’ll pay for an internet blanket license that lets us post the video online as many times as we want (that’s right, you even need to pay to license the music in your reel – trust me, it’s important). If we start and stop the piece twice within the reel, we’d need to pay for two “laserdrops”. If we then wanted to later show the reel at a live event, we’d need to pay for an additional live performance license based on the number of attendees and the number of times the video was shown. Where things get the most complicated is for broadcast and radio, as that pricing depends on the market(s) where the piece is going to be running, as well as the number of 13-week cycles in the media buy. Thankfully Killer Tracks’ staff is incredibly helpful and will assist you in navigating the paperwork and payments if you’ve never done it before. Another thing to note is that if you’ve got versioning for a commercial (multiple end tags for A-B split testing, or multiple languages for different markets) you’ll pay a lower “tag” rate for the additional versions rather than paying for an additional full license. I know it probably sounds complicated, but once you get used to it, it’s well worth the extra effort to have top quality music in your production, as long as the budget allows.
The New Guy: YouTube Audio Library
Recently, YouTube has gotten into the royalty-free music game with over 900 tracks, many by major artists, that are 100% free to use. Some require artist attribution if they are posted online and obviously 900 tracks isn’t a huge amount compared to other libraries, but it’s definitely a very cool, new option when you’re looking for affordable professional music for your project. We’ve tested it out a handful of times, but I’m by no means an expert on what they have to offer.
Obviously the budget of your particular project will determine which option you choose when licensing music, but the most important takeaway is that it’s a crucial part of the process that can’t be overlooked. With some research and testing, you’ll be able to find the option that’s right for you. As discussed above, it’s nice to have at least a couple different tiers of pricing so you’ll know exactly where to look to find music that fits your budget.
Do you have a music library or service you love that I didn’t mention? Let us know in the comments below. As always, thanks for reading!