Video Production

How to License Music - A guide for video creators, podcasters and streamers

Don’t let music copyright issues get in the way of content creation. Check out our guide for everything you need to know about how to license music.

When using somebody else’s music in your content, there are important legal and ethical considerations to take into account. 

Music is subject to copyright, which means there is a person or organisation who possesses the legal rights for its use. You can’t use a copyrighted musical work without receiving the correct permissions from the copyright owner.  

A music license is a contractual agreement stating the terms on which an artist's music can be used in other mediums, at a negotiated cost price. Licensing must be properly understood to protect yourself and avoid copyright infringement.

If you are not the copyright owner, or not sure if you have rights, the best case is not to use the music in your content, until you get a license or permission.

Why do you need to license music?

A license is required as a form of proof that the original artist or copyright holder has given permission for the use of their work.

Music can be a profitable asset, it can be used to generate profits, so if a song is played without paying the owner, the potential profit the artist could have made is being “stolen”.

Unless you own the original piece of music, or the music is copyright free, you will need a licence to use other artists' music in your content. Adverts, films, TV programmes, all tend to pay to use particular pieces of music.

It isn't legal to use songs without the owner’s permission in videos because the copyright owner intends to earn money for their work.

A farmer wouldn’t take someone's chickens without their permission, and start selling their eggs. This is the same with music, the chicken is the song, and their eggs are the profits that are made by the song.

Using copyrighted music without a license is a risky scenario, and can in the worst case end you up with hefty fines.

What are the different types of music licenses?

There are six types of music licenses depending on the nature of how you intend to use the music in question… 

  • Synchronisation: Required when the music is going to be used over the top of a video (adverts, films, TV series, streaming, video game).This applies even in cases where an edited version of the piece is used.

  • Master: This license is owned by the owner of the recording, and can be rented out, usually given out with a Sync license. The master on its own only covers playing the original recording, not remixes or modified versions.

  • Mechanical: Required in order to reproduce and distribute a song recording. This includes vinyls, CDs or digital downloads. Also needed if recording and distributing a cover song or remix, no matter how much the work has been modified.

  • Public Performance: Relates to any broadcast of a creative work, including music playing in stores, jukeboxes, radio. Also covers live performance up to large concerts. 

  • Print Rights: Covers the physical printed sheet music. This is needed when the sheet music is being redistributed, filed in a compilation or reproduced.

  • Theatrical: This type is a form of written permission used in the theatre industry, and is needed any time copyrighted work is performed on-stage to an audience (theatres, stage productions, musicals, pantomime)

The license needed will vary depending on how the final product will be distributed. For example, a YouTube channel that wants to use an artist's song as their title music would need synchronisation & master licenses obtained from the copyright owner. If you wanted to use a famous song in an on-stage musical, a theatrical license would be needed.

How to license music for your video or podcast

Music and sound effects contribute to the overall ambience and style of a video or podcast. 

Licensing music for podcasts and videos isn’t as complicated as it might sound, it can be achieved fairly quickly. Synchronisation and master licenses are the category needed for videos and podcasts.

To find the copyright owner/publisher of a song, use ASCAP's Clearance Express (ACE).

How to get permission to use a song

The way to contact a label or artist will depend on how “big” they are. The process of contacting Justin Bieber might be quite different to a small emerging artist. 

First, work out who owns the copyright or who is the current holder. This information can usually be found here:

Find a contact email address, for larger artists this might be a record label or publisher, rather than the person themselves. For smaller artists, it might be possible to contact them directly through a SoundCloud page or similar.

Reach out to the copyright owner stating which pieces of their music you would like to use, and providing information about your project. It’s often worth including a sample of your material so the owner can review. 

There is no set price, so there may be room to negotiate with the owner, sometimes they might let it be used for free under certain conditions, or they could ask for a one off license fee and/or take a percentage cut of the profit.

How do you get permission to use songs from music libraries?

Using music libraries is an easy way to find and license music for videos. The prices vary from library to library, so check the provider’s details. 

Getting permission is usually as simple as buying the song from the library. Some libraries require a separate license purchased for each song used; other libraries have a buy-in fee that once paid covers usage across all their material.  

There are many companies and platforms for obtaining musical licenses agreements. Each platform works slightly differently, but usually they provide a database of music, with descriptions about which type of licenses each song has.

How much does it cost to license a song?

Music licenses don’t have a fixed price, so it’s up to the artist or owner to decide how much money they want for the deal. More successful and well known artists are usually going to ask for more than smaller artists; here are some examples. 

Songs licensed by independent artists could cost between $50–$150

Songs from commercial artists can easily get into the thousands, anywhere from $1000 to $70k+ depending on their profile.

It’s common for film companies and advertisers to be charged between $20k–$45k per license for sync.

There are middleman companies who specialise in connecting deals from artists to users, they can charge transaction fees, or provide a service on a subscription price. This type of company usually takes anywhere from 5%–15% of a transaction.

How much of a song can you use?

Playing any amount of a song without permission will count as a copyright violation, even a small snippet. There is a popular misconception that playing small clips is fine, however this still counts as infringement. Whilst the smaller clips often go unnoticed, they can result in punishment. 

Using snippets is also not cheaper. It generally will cost the same price to license any amount of a song. Even if only, say, a chorus is used. However, sometimes licenses can be agreed at a cost per second of material used. For example $500 per second.

How to credit a song

Crediting the original artist is a good practice, but not always a necessity. The specifics depends on the license agreement. Some artists won’t request being credited for use of licensed material, but others will. It’s always worth checking with the owner. It’s safer and ethical to include a credit regardless.  

A credit should include the song’s title, the year it was copyrighted, and the owner of the copyright. Author’s names are not necessary, but can be included to honour writers. On a video hosting site like YouTube, credits should be included in the description box of the video, and/or inside the video itself.

The proper way to format a song credit is:

”Song Title“ © (Copyright Year) Name of Copyright Holder. Name of Author(s).


“The Payback” © (1973) Polydor. James Brown, Fred Wesley, John Starks.

“California Gurls” © (2010) Capitol. Katy Perry.

“Smells like Teen Spirit” © (1991) UMG. Dave Grohl, Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic.

How to use copyrighted material in your content

Each content platform has different rules and guidelines for copyright, with different systems for finding and penalising copyright violations. Some are stricter than others, so check with the platform you want to use. 

Some platforms have detection algorithms that automatically manage the process, oftentimes causing trouble and incorrectly removing videos. Other platforms work by relying on users to report infringing material.

When using copyrighted audio in your content you should always obtain the correct permissions to do so. This will vary depending on the nature of the content you are producing, so think about how exactly you are going to be using the piece of music.

Research and contact the copyright owner, requesting a license to use the musical work in your content. If you have purchased the track from a music library, you will usually have all the permission rights you need, but check with their specific terms of use just to be sure.

If your requests are refused by the copyright owner, there are other, more accessible options available to you. Music Cellar will provide a one stop catalogue of royalty-free music tracks, ready to download and use in whatever way you like. Get started now with a free subscription!

How does music licensing work on YouTube?

YouTube has strict Terms of Service outlining how licensing and copyrighting works on the platform, breaching this can result in videos or channels being removed, and demonetisation.

YouTube has a music detection algorithm (Content ID), that automatically detects and flags copyrighted material. Users can also manually report videos.

If YouTube finds a copyrighted song it will flag and suspend the video, unless the owner’s permission can be proved.

If you have obtained permission, credit the song in the upload, and hopefully it won’t get taken down (sometimes it will and you will need to file an appeal).

How to license music for your podcast

The results of using copyrighted music in a podcast depends on where it’s hosted. Some platforms have automated detection, other hosts have no copyright management in place. The stricter platforms are bigger host sites like iTunes and Spotify.

Technically it is possible to get away with uploading a podcast containing copyrighted material, however this creates the risk of the infringement being discovered by the owner, which can lead to legal repercussions. Whilst the podcast may not get automatically removed, it could result in a lawsuit. 

If you have permission to use the song in your podcast, it should still be credited at the download description or verbally in the podcast.

How does music licensing work on TikTok?

TikTok has a selection of songs built into the app that are cleared with the platform for copyright.

These can be added after recording a TikTok video. (Tap Sounds, then select a song, arrange and post). This provides a simple and safe way to find sounds for TikToks.

TikTok can also import songs from the phones library. However, TikTok does require permission to use other copyrighted songs. Unpermitted use of copyrighted material is a violation of TikTok’s terms and policies, and can result in account suspension. 

Artists can collect royalty money from music used in TikToks. Artists can license music to the TikTok library, which generates money each time the song is played.

Music licensing and live streaming

The rules for using copyrighted material are very similar for live streams as other types of content. The law does distinguish between different uses of copyrighted material. 

So the rights needed for recorded content may be different to those needed for live broadcast.

Using copyrighted material without a license in a live stream can result in the stream being stopped, and demonetised. Most streaming platforms automatically scan streams for copyrighted content. 

YouTube requires the original owner to add the live streamer to their “allow list” which will let them play third-party material, and in a similar way to licensing the content.

How to license music for Twitch

Synchronisation and Master licenses are required in order to use copyrighted music in Twitch streams. These licenses are obtained in the normal way through a license provider or through an agreement with the owner. Also, just a quick note that you also need to ensure other stream assets are copyright-free. Stuff like a voice changer online app is going to be OK if it works off of your own voice, but graphical assets, sub alerts, or donation SFX are often overlooked. They seem like small things to consider, but they're super important if you want an airtight streaming setup with little chance of issues!

Twitch has its own licensed music library called Soundtrack. Soundtrack provides users with a large selection of songs and clips that can be used in Twitch streams.

Twitch has a copyright detection algorithm (Audible Magic) that automatically checks content. Audible Magic will mute any sections found to contain copyrighted material. Music can be muted even if the user has permission to use the content, although these situations can be appealed. 

Other users can also report videos they believe to be infringing on copyright, this system exists to allow copyright owners to report violations of their content, although sadly this process is often exploited.

What happens if you use copyrighted songs on Twitch?

If you use a copyrighted song on Twitch without permission, the video will be suspended under a DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) takedown. 

Sometimes the detection algorithm makes mistakes, it can confuse songs for similar songs, or incorrectly judge the permissions, resulting in videos can be flagged incorrectly. Cases like these can be contested with Twitch if the correct permissions can be proved.

You can find a helpful guide to Twitch’s copyright policy at Twitch Creator Camp.

What are my alternative options? 

There are a few alternatives to licensing music. Producing original music is a great idea if you or a friend have the tools and skills, it can save money and add extra artistic flair.

As mentioned previously, royalty free music libraries exist which provide music licensed under Public Domain or Creative Commons.

Other options are discussed in our video on licensing music for podcasting below.

Music Cellar is an exciting additional solution to the issue of licensing, so watch this space! Sit tight for the full launch, but in the meantime make sure to register to our blog to learn more about our subscription services, and how to properly use music in your content.

April 05, 2021
Related articles
Video Production

Royalty Free Music Like Silent Hill 

Learn about the Silent Hill ost, who wrote it, and where can find horror music like it to use in your content
Video Production

Making Horror Content Scary: Using Horror SFX, Voice Changer, and More!

Horror sound effects, horror voices, horror music - they work together to scare an audience. Impersonate horror movie characters, utilize horror SFX, and beyond
Video Production

Music Like Minecraft

Here’s everything you need to know about the Minecraft soundtrack, and where you can find royalty free music like it