Music Licensing 101: What Podcasters Need to Know

22 Oct 2020

Article by: Bob Frymire, APM Music Key Account Director

In this article:

  • Quality Music: Why It Matters
  • Is it vetted? Indemnity and more
  • Easy access and equitable rates
  • Build a relationship (instead of just doing a deal)


Music in Podcasts: Where do you start?


Are you looking for a theme? Something to build the sonic identity of your show? Music can enhance podcasts by creating that recognition and/or mood. Those in turn will elevate your content. There are many sources of music available out there, and you have to determine what type of music or genre will serve you best.

By law, all copyrighted music is considered intellectual property. You must get the rights to synchronize it into your recorded program. This can include music from an artist that you might be doing a story about — you still need permission! If you are promoting an artist, most labels, managers, and publishers will welcome the publicity and probably allow this. To be safe, make sure you get permission in writing.


What about costs, why invest in high-quality music?



There are a lot of variables out there, but don’t just go with the least expensive! Ask questions and negotiate. Investigate and listen to the music. Above all, know that you can add another resource to your circle, and build a relationship.

Don’t get locked into some long-term contract that may not work for you. I know that in my experience, I would rather build an artist’s career than just have a hit record! I prefer to build a relationship rather than just do a deal. 

For listeners, music can be one of the most compelling elements of a podcast. The uses are endless, from theme to intro and outro bumpers. Interstitial music gives pause to color an emotion, or transition your story with impact. It adds drama and has the power to embellish the listener’s experience.

This all works best if the music is of high quality. You will want to find a reputable source that offers wide variety, new releases, and a deal that can provide creative latitude. Production music libraries can have anything you want, from epic cinematic scores to quirky kitsch. An engaging variety can make your content more inviting, more intriguing, and more impactful.


Licensing music can be confusing. But with the right resources, it can be easy.



  • One option is to contract a composer for a work-for-hire. There are a wide variety of composers available, and there are many production music libraries who contract composers to write music for them.

Some production music libraries have commercial artists who compose for them as well. What is the difference between an indie artist and a composer? One might perform more often than the other, but they can be the same thing! As an example, The SXSW Music Library holds music from artists who have performed at the famous South by Southwest festival in Austin, TX.

f you work with a buyout library, it may be less expensive, because they do not have to share the licensing fees. (The term buy-out means a publisher has bought out the synchronization rights from a composer.) This is the right to use the written song or the composition. The composer is still the composer and retains any performance rights, but any revenue from sync goes to the owner. The downside is that buyout libraries can tend to be stale. There’s generally no new music, and it might be that same guitarist on this Latin record as on that jazz record.

  • Another option is to look into commercial artists. However, most will be very expensive and time consuming — if you can negotiate the rights at all. Frankly, in most instances commercial artists will not work for on-going content.
  • New, up-and-coming artists represent a terrific resource, assuming they are the right fit and are willing to work with you. Again, regardless of the circumstances, be sure to document any permission in writing.

Whichever music source you select, there are some very important things to consider. When you plan ahead, you’ll avoid getting locked into a deal that doesn’t work for you.


Licensing music Why are the terms of music licensing so important?

Music Publishers will grant certain rights, or clearances, to use the music in your productions. These can be negotiated. Basically, for podcasts, you want to ensure you have a few primary rights.

  • You will want the Synchronization rights, or the ‘SYNC,’ as we call it. This is permission to use the written composition. You can sync the music to an audio or video production.
  • You will want the Master rights, which is permission to use the recording of the composition the publisher owns, or represents. This is what a Record Label controls in most commercial music.
  • You may want to ask about Mechanical Rights, which in some cases can apply. This is permission to reproduce the publisher's recording of the music by itself.
  • You may want to negotiate a blanket fee, which is essentially one flat fee for unlimited music in your podcast. Sometimes blanket fees can be based on the length of your production.
  • You should also negotiate for an In-Perpetuity license. Once you license the music in your production, it can be aired forever. If you were to make any changes to your production, you would need to get a new license. This is basic Intellectual Property law. Again, you can negotiate some of these things to fit your needs.


 Licensing music Don't become a headline. Ask about indemnity



Whatever music source you select, you need to ask questions. Two important ones:

1. Do they provide indemnity?

Essentially, indemnity means security or protection against a loss or other financial burden. In music licensing, having indemnity can protect you from common pitfalls, like legal liability and lawsuits.

2. Have they vetted the music properly?

Simply claiming that music has been vetted is not enough. Proper vetting means that the source has confirmed that the music does not infringe on another work, and thoroughly investigating the source to confirm that the composition is owned and from the composer indicated.

Most online sources that offer music at very low cost, even monthly subscription costs, may only offer indemnity for the value of what you paid. If you paid $20, that will not cover the cost of a lawyer. Read the fine print, and ask follow-up questions to make sure you fully understand the terms.

Some are owned by foreign companies, which can put an extra layer of difficulties. Imagine getting a call from a composer who says the music in your production is his, and that you did not license it! International licensing gets complicated, and us unlikely to get easier in the coming years.


The Big Picture



Have you ever posted a video on YouTube and gotten a pop-up that says, “This contains intellectual property and must be licensed”?

Several years ago, a company developed a software program to detect intellectual property on the internet. They went to all of the record labels, the music libraries, and even Getty Images for stock photos. Next, they collected all of the metadata embedded in these properties and loaded it into their software. The first platform they screened was none other than YouTube, which had been embroiled in lawsuits since its founding in 2005.

On a daily basis this software runs through what is essentially 400 years of video time, detecting metadata in the audio. It boggles the mind, but the technology exists. In fact, it has gotten better. They used to need thirty seconds of copyrighted material to detect a match. Now, it’s much shorter.

Performing Rights Organizations (PROs) such as ASCAP, SESAC and BMI have used this technology to carve out ‘performance blankets’ on the internet. Up until a few years ago, no composers were getting performance royalties from online plays. (Performance is when music is played, and its composer is compensated.)

Now YouTube, Facebook and others are paying those performance royalties. Businesses like bars, convention centers, restaurants, hotels, and amusement parks pay annual performance blankets to the PROs. Radio and TV outlets pay them as well, traditionally for music in commercials and programming. This is all part of the taming of the wild frontier known as the internet. From billion-dollar companies to small podcasts, music licensing is a part of doing business.


Takeaways for podcasters

I am very impressed by what I have seen at the Podcast Movement conferences. This is where you can build, or grow your network, or circle of advisors to help you develop your creative content.

There are companies who can support your productions on the internet, providers of software, vocal talent, advisors to help you develop all important advertising sponsors, and even lawyers. Legal advisors should be part of your circle, and I know that there are many good ones attending the PM conferences.

That said, if you’re a podcaster interested in licensing music, keep the following tips in mind:

  • There are more options for podcast music than ever before. Licensing may be more affordable than you’d think.
  • Does a potential music source offer indemnity? Is their library of music properly vetted? Always read the fine print, and ask follow-up questions to make sure you fully understand the terms.
  • Not sure about the details of a contract? Legal advisors are available to help you make informed decisions.
  • Programs that detect copyright infringement are getting smarter. Be smart, too — don’t put your show at risk by skirting the law.
  • The podcasting community is full of expert help. Build your network by building relationships.


Bob Frymire - APM Music Key Account Director

Bob Frymire works at APM Music Publishing and has over forty-five years’ experience in the Music Industry. He was a department head at A&M Records and helped to start Virgin Records in America becoming VP of Promotion Operations.