In a nutshell Royalty Free Music refers to a type of music licensing that allows the purchaser to pay for the music license only once and to use the music for as long as desired.
For example you purchase a Royalty Free Music license for a video on your website. You pay one single price whether you have 100 visitors or 10,000 visitors, and whether you use the music for 1 month or 10 years. Or you purchase a TV advertising license for your new restaurant. You pay once and the commercial can play once a week or 50 times a week, for 3 months or for 5 years. You pay once and you use it for as long as you want.
The term “Royalty Free” is confusing for more reasons than one. In fact it simply means “Free of Royalty”. The term is in opposition to “rights managed” licensing where the purchaser pays fees (royalties) according to the number of times it will be used as well as the size of the territory. With Rights Managed licensing or “Needle Drop” licensing you would need to pay a fee every time the music is used or as the old term expressed every time the “needle is dropped” on the record.
Just as importantly here is what Royalty Free Music does NOT mean…
Royalty Free Music is NOT free!
It is “Free of Royalty” not cost free. Just like a fat free cookie is “free of fat” not free of cost. Or a “tax free” product is not free, it is just free of taxes. And yes some people may be offering their music for free – whether it is also Royalty Free or not! For example a composer may be offering you his music for free for your College film in exchange for listing his work in the credits.
Royalty Free Music is NOT Stock Music
Although most Royalty Free Music comes from Stock Music Library they are not synonymous. A Stock Music Library is a music library that offers music already in stock – already made and ready to license and use. Although some people consider Stock Music negatively as cheap “canned music” it is not the case at all. You have the full range of music quality in stock music from very amateurish poorly mixed music to highly professional music tracks. Stock music is understood in opposition to “custom made” music that is created for a specific product – a film, a commercial, a TV show… Many stock music libraries offer their music on a Royalty Free basis, but other libraries prefer to offer their music with a Rights Managed model or “per usage” based on the frequency of use as well as the size of the territory.
Royalty Free Music is NOT Copyright Free music
I am not sure there is such a thing as “Copyright free” music since anyone who creates a piece of music automatically owns the Copyright for that music. The creator may not care and say that anyone can use his music for any purpose. In this case the Copyright owner is giving you the “right to copy” his music for any purpose. So it may be free to use but that does not make it free of Copyright. And this does not mean that the composer has given up his Performing Rights if his music ends up a background music on television for example. The composer as the Copyright owner may want to receive his composers royalties for the public performance of his music. Even the recordings of Public Domain music are not Copyright Free. The composition may be Copyright Free but not the actual sound recording (also called the Master). You can read an excellent text about Copyright and Public Domain music at PDInfo.com.
Royalty Free Music is NOT a specific type of music
It can be music in any genre from Classical to Heavy Metal to Country music. Instead it is a type of “Music Licensing” for commercial use. Commercial use here means using the music for more than your private usage (your home, your car, your iPod). Private usage is the right you get when you purchase a music CD or pay and download your music from iTunes for example. That does not provide you with any broader rights (your website, your videos, your slideshows, TV shows, etc.).
Royalty Free Music is NOT poor quality music
Any music can be licensed as Royalty Free music. The good the bad and the ugly. This choice for music licensing has strictly nothing to do with the quality of the music itself. The quality will vary enormously from one library to the other. The quality of library music has more to do with management policies, whether the music is hand-picked or not, whether composers are screened or not, etc.
Royalty Free Music is NOT cheap music
Royalty free music can licensed at any price. It is not a price structure, it is simply a licensing model. You can find Royalty Free music for $30 and you can find it for $600. It has nothing to do with pricing, it has to do with the licensing model of not charging royalties each time the music is used. This being said most of the time music licensed with a Royalty Free model is inexpensive and affordable for most people.
Royalty Free Music is NOT Royalty Free!! Say what?
Usually Royalty Free Music licensing does not include “public performance” royalties. Those are royalties paid to composers when their music is performed publicly – on television for example. But these royalties are not being paid by you (the music purchaser) they are being paid by the network that is broadcasting the show where the music is performed either as a featured piece or more commonly on television as background music. Performing Rights Organizations (PRO) like ASCAP, BMI, SESAC, SOCAN, PRS, etc. are being paid by the networks and are in charge of distributing the performing royalties to the music composers. So for the person purchasing the music license it is entirely Royalty Free but if fact some royalties may be paid to the composers by the PROs. Wikipedia mentions this as well on its Royalty Free Music page.