The Types of Music Licenses Out There

Picking music for your project is as exciting a part of the creative process as the others. But to do this, it helps to have a savvy knowledge of the different types of music licenses out there. 

Types of Music Licenses

The Types of Music Licenses Out There

Picking music for your project is as exciting a part of the creative process as the others. But to do this, it helps to have a savvy knowledge of the different types of music licenses out there. 

Types of Music Licenses

The Types of Music Licenses Out There

Types of Music Licenses


The different types of music licenses vary in both price and range of options
The free options through public domain and Creative Commons are more economical but offer little range
Royalty-free services offer greater range with higher costs. For the best selection at a great cost, Artlist stands head and shoulders above them all
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Picking music for your project is as exciting a part of the creative process as the others. But to do this, it helps to have a savvy knowledge of the different types of music licenses out there. Licensing refers to the terms under which you have permission to use the music, and they vary in degree and price. For copyright licensing, these are pieces that are still owned and require a fee. For non-copyright licensing, they are open for public consumption. In this article, we’ll go over the different types of music licenses and how you, as the creator, can use this information to make your creative decisions.

Free public domain

Public domain music refers to music that is not regulated by intellectual property laws and is available for anyone’s use. Essentially, it’s copyright-free music. This music can be quite old if the music copyright license has expired if it is the case. In the United States and the EU, music enters the public domain 70 years after the creator’s death or 95 years after its publication (anyone who wants to use Gershwin’s Rapsody in Blue, have at it). Canada requires that 50 years pass before a work enters its public domain, so depending on where you are, the rules could apply differently.

Music can also enter the public domain if those who owned the rights put it there (more on that later) or no rights existed before. The latter typically happens with music made before copyright laws, in the time before licensed music. Sometimes artists will gift their music to the public, but the options are scarce, and you’re unlikely to have a lot of great choices. Nonetheless, with a tight budget, you can find some compositions on an open-source website or elsewhere. The biggest upside is that you won’t have to worry that anyone will come knocking on your door for payment!

Creative Commons

creative commons licenses

Image by progressor from Pixabay

In addition to the public domain license, Creative Commons is another way to find free types of music licenses. Initially founded as a non-profit to promote education, it has broadened to become a place where creative works (such as music) are available to the commons (such as yourself) for free. This works by artists setting conditions such as credit attribution or non-commercial use on the music they offer, rather than no copyright license agreement at all. Creative Commons is a way that you can download music for videos or get background music for videos.

There are 6 different types of Creative Commons copyright licenses. The most permissive requires only attribution (CC BY), while the most restrictive requires attribution and forbids to use the music for commercial use or to make any change to the original piece (CC BY-NC-ND).

Public performance license


A public performance license is a type of music license that allows you to play the recorded music in public. The venue may be a club, concert or restaurant, but can also be applied as a music streaming license. The types of online formatting could be through music streaming services or YouTube, and obtaining such a license waives the public performance rights of the songwriters. For access to public performance licenses, contact the agencies that handle such licensing (ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC).

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YouTube music license

A YouTube music license is different from a public performance license in that the copyright owner has allowed their music to be used in exchange for a cut of the revenue generated on YouTube. Not only is this type of music license accessible, but it’s a way to avoid copyright on YouTube. It’s one of the few music streaming licenses that do!

The bonus to this type of music license is that if you generate enough ad revenue on the back end, you can pay for the right to use the piece of music later. Doing so requires less up-front costs for your YouTube music license and allows you to make payments when the money comes in. You’ll want to make sure you’re in compliance with all the rules, or else you could be in danger of a copyright strike. Be sure to look up the FAQs on the main website for all your YouTube music rights.

Needle drop

A needle-drop license would allow content creators to use a segment of music for their work. The name comes from the adage that you need a new license each time the “needle drops,” as it would have in vinyl days, and transfers the master license to the user of the music. Needle drops mean that you would need a new license for each time you use the piece of music in a video. If you use the same piece at different points in your finished product, using a sync license is more practical.


Last but certainly not least, the royalty-free license requires a one-off payment for using a piece of music as many times as you want. While in the early days, the model of this type of license was per song, Artlist’s emergence shifted the industry to work with a subscription-based model.

Although the royalty-free license (generally) doesn’t require recurring payments, not all royalty-free licenses were created equal. Whereas some platforms charge for each use (still happens) or limit the number of projects you can use the music on, as an Artlist user, you can use music as often as you want in projects as diverse as infomercials, music videos or feature films. Plus, once you use a song in a project as a paid subscriber, that content is covered forever, even after your subscription expired.

All this flexibility comes at the very affordable price of $16.60 per month ($199US billed annually) for music only, $25 per month ($299 billed annually) for music and sound effects or $12 per month ($149 billed annually) for sound effects only. When you take into account the universal license and unlimited use, an Artlist subscription gives creators the most value for their money.

With a library of more than 12,000 songs that grows daily and an uncompromising music quality standard, using Artlist songs will undoubtedly elevate your project’s production value. Not only that, the user-friendly interface will save you endless hours you might have spent searching on public domain or Creative Commons or even other platforms for the right piece of music.

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Jonathan Mateer is a writer based in California. Currently attending UC Berkeley, he covers topics such as filmmaking, storytelling, politics and culture.

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