Music for Film Production

This article is all about successfully using music for film production. It’s a fairly complex subject. You need to be aware of copyright issues and how online hosts analyse music for copyright infringement. This is the automated process that happens when you upload content to YouTube, Vimeo or Facebook.

Music for film production can be royalty or royalty-free. All royalty music requires you to buy a license, which comes with certain limitations. Some royalty-free music is commercial, while some tracks are free. Some free tracks require attribution (the composer receives a credit), while others don’t.

In this article I’ll take you through the different options for royalty-free music. Then we’ll look at obtaining a license for a commercial track, which requires a royalty payment. Finally I’ll cover the issues you might encounter when you post video with music on YouTube, Vimeo or Facebook.

Music for Film Production - Indigo Film School

Paid Royalty-Free Music

Let’s start by looking at paid royalty-free music for film production. Known as production music, stock music, or stock audio; it doesn’t need a license.

Online Music Libraries

With paid royalty-free, you only need to pay for the music once. After that, you can use it however you want. This is music you would typically buy from an online library such as Premium Beat or AudioBlocks. Some libraries are subscription based, you pay a set amount monthly or yearly. Just be aware that some music libraries behave more like royalty collection societies. Meaning they sell licenses with limitations. I cover how licenses work later in this post.

Many of the tracks you find through online libraries are instrumental, but you can find songs with vocals. Music libraries are mainly for corporate productions rather than drama. You are able to preview the tracks and then download a file once you’ve paid.

PRS for Music

PRS for Music provides royalty-free style purchasing from several music libraries under the banner of MCPS Production Music. If you are an independent production company supplying any of the UK broadcasters, just be aware that you need to buy a licence to use MCPS Production Music.

Unpaid Royalty-Free Music

Unpaid royalty-free is music for film production that is completely free. You can use it however you like. A number of online libraries provide a few free tracks. If you sign-up for a trial period with a music library, you will likely get some free downloads.

YouTube Audio Library

One of the best places to search is the YouTube Audio Library. You need to sign in with a Google account to access it. Just be aware that some tracks require attribution, you’ll see this info when you preview a track.

A number of artists including Moby have made songs available free to use in non-profit productions.


Music on SoundCloud is another route you can try. Some artists will allow you to use their work in your video. When you find a track, carefully check its status and the conditions for use. You can usually download and use Creative Commons tracks. But always check the limitations and whether you need to credit the artist. When searching on SoundCloud, filter the results to show use commercial use tracks.

Create Your Own Music

Another path you can take to source music for film production, is to engage the services of a composer, or create your own music. A composer will write and record unique music for your production. You sign a contract with a composer agreeing to pay them a license to use their music.

Another option is to make the music yourself. This might sound daunting, but some music software comes with a library of royalty-free loops. You can use these loops to quickly create music for your movie. Apps with loops include Logic Pro, GarageBand, Soundtrap and Music Maker. You can layer up the loops to create original compositions and use them however you like. Just be aware, if someone has used the same loop in a monetised video, you’ll have some issues. I talk about this later.

Copyright-Protected Music

Next we’ll take a look at copyright-protected music for film production. This is also known as royalty music or commercial music.

What I’m covering here is based on my experience in the UK. There might be different rules for copyright licensing in other countries. Copyright is a legal issue, so please check with the organisation that handles music copyright in your territory. If in doubt, talk to a legal advisor.

The Importance of Buying a License

You need to understand the importance of buying a license for royalty music. If you purchasing copyrighted music via a download or on a CD, it doesn’t give you the right to use the music for your video production. You always need to buy a license.

Collection agencies register copyright-protected music. They collect royalties on behalf of the publishers, songwriters, composers, record companies and recording artists. The main body for this in the UK is PRS for Music. In the USA you can contact ASCAP or BMI. However they do not handle royalty collections for all artists and you might need to contact the record company directly.

How Music Royalties Work

Music royalties is a complex subject. Here’s a quick summary of how they work. The composer of the music and writer of the lyrics own the publishing rights. Every time your film plays or streams; performance royalties go to the songwriters, artists and record company.

Imagine you want to use a well-known song in your movie. Not only do you need to make royalty payments, you need to agree to a license that describes your rights. When you use copyright music for video production, you need a master use license and a sync license. You cannot simply buy a license and do as you please, there are limitations:

  • Explain how you intend to use the song. Will the movie appear on YouTube, television or at a film festival?
  • Will you adapt the song in any way? This means shortening its duration, changing the speed or making any tonal alterations.
  • The license is for a particular territory. Is your production available to the world or only seen in a particular country?
  • The license has a time limit, you can’t pay once and use it forever. The payment might be for six months, one year or a one-off license for a single screening.

Hosting the Video

Usually you’ll host you movie with a online service such as YouTube or Vimeo. But if you host the film on your website, you need a Performing Right Online Licence (PROL) in the UK. Obtain a PROL from PRS for Music.

Getting the Licenses

In this section I’ll walk you through the process of obtaining licenses. If your experience is different, please tell me in the comments below.

  • Decide where, when and for how long you want to use the song. This is info the collection society or the record company will need straight away.
  • In the UK, contact PRS for Music. In the USA, ASCAP and BMI will be able to help. What you need should be a master use and sync license, but always check.
  • If they are unable to act on behalf of the artists, ask them who owns the publishing rights.

It’s possible that the publishing rights holder and the recording rights holder are different companies. There might be more than one artist, the original recording artist and a remix artist.

  • To find out who owns the recording rights, enter the artist and song details in the PPL Repertoire Search.
  • You can also find publisher and record company details on the artist’s website.
  • Contact the publishing rights and recording rights holder and ask for a sound recording and sync license for the song.
  • Make sure they are quoting you for all costs. Check the licenses cover everything and there are no hidden fees.
  • Make the payment.

You can now use the music under the limitations of the licence agreement.

Film Production Music on YouTube and Vimeo

There shouldn’t be issues if you post a film with composed music. Just make sure you have a contract with the composer to use the music.

If you post a film with commercial music, make sure you have the licenses to hand in case of disputes.

YouTube – Content ID Claim

If you do upload your film and you don’t have permission to use the music, there will be repercussions. It’s not necessarily a serious issue, but one of the following will happen:

  • The copyright holder allows you to use their material, but they can monetise your video by placing ads on it.
  • They block your video, preventing people from watching it. This is either global or for certain parts of the world.
  • The copyright holder mutes your video, preventing viewers from hearing the soundtrack.
  • They might block it on certain platforms. This restricts the devices, apps or websites on which the video can appear.

If you have a Content ID claim against your video on YouTube, you can dispute it. If you have paid for the rights to use a copyright-protected song, then you should definitely query a Content ID claim.

To view licensing info on songs by popular artists, login to YouTube and navigate to Music Policies. It tells you which songs are muted and which ones are monetised by the owner.

Takedown Notice

While Content ID is an automated system, people can also submit a Takedown Notice if they believe your video infringes their copyright. A successful Takedown Notice will likely result in a copyright strike against your account. Your account can be removed if you receive three copyright strikes. As with a Content ID claim, you can dispute a Takedown Notice.

To successfully dispute a Content ID claim or a Takedown Notice, you would need to prove either fair use or public domain. Fair use is music used in a transformative way. This typically means commentary, criticism or a parody. Music is in the public domain, if the ownership is expired or forfeited.

If you don’t have a license to use the song, be very cautious about disputing on the grounds of fair use or public domain. You need to have a solid and valid claim before proceeding.

Copyright Claims on Royalty-free Loops

Royalty-free loops from software such as Logic Pro are free to use in your movie. However, if someone else has used them in a monetised video, you could receive a copyright claim. You can dispute this as the music is royalty-free, however you will have to wait for the monetiser to respond. If the claim is successful, adverts will appear on your video with the money going to the so-called copyright owner.

In this situation, you can do one of two things. Remix the loops or use music from YouTube’s music library instead. If you’ve thrown together a couple of loops without any modification, the chances are that someone else has also done this. I’d recommend you combine loops with several different instruments, add effects to the tracks and change the tempo. This makes the music more unique and less likely to receive a copyright claim.

Copyright Claims on Stock Music

If the stock music you’ve bought receives a copyright claim, replace it with a track from the YouTube Audio Library. However, some music libraries will actively help you resolve this issue. For example AudioBlocks will take action to remove the claim, if it’s one of their tracks.

Vimeo – DMCA Notice

Vimeo uses a similar system to YouTube, scanning for content that infringes copyright. Owners can file a DMCA Notice if they believe the music use is unlawfully. Vimeo differs in that you are exempt from their copyright infringement policy if the video is Private and you’re a Plus or PRO member. These are your options if you upload a video with music flagged as copyright:

  • Replace the music
  • Replace the whole video
  • Delete the video
  • Submit an appeal


The moral of this story is be careful with the music you use with your video productions. If you use copyright music without a license, there will be repercussions. It is almost impossible to get away with using copyright music on YouTube or Vimeo.

The most hassle free routes for using music are YouTube’s Audio Library or signing an exclusive deal with a composer. The most expensive approach is to apply for licenses to use commercial music. The other approach, which has the potential for copyright claims is to use software music loops or stock music.

Obtaining licenses or resolving copyright disputes does not happen quickly. If you think there could be potential problems with the music you’re using, take this into consideration. If you’re going to premiere your film online, you need to make sure everything’s going to run smoothly.

Go Further

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