Types of Music Licenses: A Guide for Beginners

Music licensing can be very confusing because of the frequently used legal terms and various technical intricacies. Our easy-to-follow guide is here to walk you through different types of music licenses and everything you need to know about them.

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Types of Music Licenses

Comprehensive copyright laws are in effect to protect artists and their rights all around the world. From music compositions to paintings, copyright laws aim to make sure that no one uses an artist’s work without their explicit content. The main purpose of these laws is to ensure that artists can profit off of their work. Without copyright protection, anyone can use artworks without paying their original creator.

Under the protection of copyright laws, many artist, especially musicians receive royalties for their artworks. When a copyrighted song is used in theatre plays, films, tv shows, advertisements, podcasts, live streams, concerts, public events, social media videos like TikToks or Instagram posts, and various other media platforms, the copyright holder receives a payment also known as “royalties.” Any content creator must get explicit consent of the copyright owner and make necessary payments before using the copyrighted material in their own content. Otherwise, they violate very strict copyright laws and find themselves in some serious legal trouble.

Copyright laws apply to all types of music genres, and entirety of songs. In other words, you need to pay for any copyrighted song you want to use in your content: Even if you are going to use only a small portion. Sampling, covers, karaoke versions, re-recordings and any other derivative use of copyrighted songs require the user to make payment to and get consent of the original work.

Moreover, the use of copyrighted material necessitates payments for each and every time: You have to pay royalties for every time you use a copyrighted song. Let’s say that you used a copyrighted song in your YouTube video. You have to pay the copyright owner for each view! That is why many YouTubers and content creators opt out of using copyrighted songs. Instead, they prefer free intro music for YouTube or non copyrighted songs.

If you are a professional musician or a content creator, knowing about different types of music licenses is a must. If you know the various types of music licenses, you can identify which one serves you better. This way you can protect the rights of your songs or purchase the right licensing for the song you want to use in your content.

Due to legal details and technical language, music licensing can be very confusing. Worry not though, our detailed and accessible guide below will help you understand different types of music licenses. Start reading now to learn more!

What are the different types of music licenses?

Music licenses aim to protect the rights of musicians and ensure that they receive fair payment for their work. There are six different music license types that cover different works and associated rights:
  • Master license 
  • Public performance license
  • Theatrical license
  • Mechanical license
  • Print rights license
  • Synchronization license

A copyrighted music work can be used in many different mediums and for a wide range of purposes. For instance, a streamer can play a copyrighted song in their live stream, a YouTuber can use it in their video, a company can use it in their internal communications, a brand can use it in their advertisements, a theatre troupe can perform it on the stage, a music band can play it in their concert, a musician can rerecord and publish it in their album… Possibilities are almost endless! That is why there are different music licenses whose purpose is to offer detailed guidelines to denote how, when and by whom the song can be used. 

In general, you need the written consent of the copyright holder of the song to use it in your projects. There are two exceptions: Songs in public domain and royalty free music. 

Although the intricacies of public domain is a bit complex, a useful rule of thumb is checking the recording date of the song. If the recording is older than 100 years, you can use it freely in both your personal and commercial projects. Here you must pay attention to the specific recording you want to use. “Happy Birthday” song is, for instance, in public domain as a song but its specific recordings, such as the one by Stevie Wonder, can be subject to copyright. Which means, you can record “Happy Birthday” song yourself and publish it freely but you cannot use Stevie Wonder’s recording without the written consent of the copyright holder.

Royalty free music is, luckily, much less complicated! Let’s say that you are a YouTuber and want to create a Halloween video for your channel. You can find a Halloween royalty free music track on royalty free music archives like Snapmuse, then all you need to do is purchase the track you most liked. After you make your payment, you acquire the lifelong right to use that song. You can use it as many times as you wish in your personal projects, YouTube videos, commercial projects and much more without making additional payments. Unlike copyrighted songs, royalty free tracks don’t require you to make payments for each use, performance, or view. 

When it comes to copyrighted songs, licensing is a bit more complicated. Depending on where and when you want to use the copyrighted song, you need to pay for a different type of license as the user. As the artist, you must make sure that you know enough about the different types of licenses to protect your own work against piracy and illegal uses. Below we will explain each type of music license.

Master license: This license protects the recording of a song. It is held by the person who owns the original recording. When you purchase the master license, you can use the original recording of the song in your project but you cannot re-record the song, make a cover, publish or distribute it. 

Public performance license: This type of the license is one of the most issued and purchased one. It covers all variations of music “performance,” such as broadcasting the song. Playing the copyrighted material in your public event, store, concert and so forth requires getting the public performance license. In order to purchase public performance licenses of a copyrighted song, you need to get in touch with the copyright owner, often through performing rights organizations such as ASCAP, BMI, or SESAC. You must bear in mind that public performance license is issued on per-use basis. In other words, you need to apply for a public performance license for each time you want to play a copyrighted track.

Theatrical license: This type of music license is needed to perform a song on theatre stage. You must also bear in mind that you need to issue theatrical license for each time you want to perform that song on stage.  

Mechanical license: This license protects the rights to create and distribute physical copies of a song, such as publishing CDs or vinyls. The owner of mechanical license, often the musician, signs a deal with the recording labels for mechanical licenses. Recording labels produce physical copies, distribute and sell them. They also pay a certain amount to the owner of the song. Often, recording labels offer payment per sold copies of the song or album. 
You also need to purchase the mechanical rights license of a song if you are planning to record a cover, remix, or use samples from the song. Any musical production that changes the integrity of the artist’s composition necessitates obtaining mechanical rights.

Print rights license: If you want to print or reproduce the sheet music for a copyrighted song, you need to obtain print rights of that song. 

Synchronization license: Also known as the synch license, synchronization license is required if you want to use a copyrighted song in an audio-visual project. Once you obtained the synchronization license of a copyrighted song, you can use it in TV shows, films, series, cartoons, video games, advertisements and similar media.

How do I start music licensing?

If you want to protect your songs, you need to license your music. First step is copyrighting your lyrics and composition. After that, you need to record your song. Your recording must be in high quality. Moreover, you should edit the metadata of the recordings to include title, your name and such details. 

Once you have the copyrights and recording of the song, you can get in touch with a performance rights organization (PRO) to help you with the licensing process.

You can use free beats in your song without paying for royalties but if you want to use samples from other songs, you need to get permission of the original artist to do so. You cannot license your original tracks if you don’t pay for the royalties or get the necessary license from the owner of the samples you use.

How do you read music licensing?

If you want to know about the licensing details of a song, you can look it up on online music libraries and archives. Moreover, you can always get in touch with the copyright holder via email or professional music licensing organizations.

What is a first use license?

As the creator of the artwork, the songwriter possesses the “Right of First Use.” It means that the songwriter can determine who can record, use and release their song for the first time. In other words, the songwriter has the right to reject an artist that wants to release their song for the first time.

After the song is recorded and released by an artist, the compulsory license kicks in: Anyone who meets the conditions and makes the payment can obtain the license of a song.
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