There's no rule saying that you must have music in your podcast. Plenty of good podcasts have no music at all. But, there's no doubt that having your own theme tune adds a layer of identity and professionalism to any show.
How do you go about finding music that's suitable (and legal) for you to use? That's what this article is all about: what kind of music you're allowed to use, and where we recommend you find it.
What Kind of Music Am I Allowed to Use?
It's your duty to always make sure you have permission to use whatever music you play on your podcast. Generally, there are 3 options available to you.
Royalty Free Music
With Royalty Free music, you buy the license for a piece of podcast music. This entitles you to use it as and when you wish, for the duration of the license.
Most one-off music purchases give you a lifetime license. A lot of the newer ‘subscription' services give you a license, as long as you have an active subscription.
That doesn't mean you need to go back and remove music from old episodes, when you're no longer paying a subscription. But, with many of these services, you shouldn't be adding tracks to new episodes after that point.
Terms and conditions will vary, however. Be sure to familiarise yourself with this information when you choose a particular platform.
Creative Commons Music
There are various types of Creative Commons licenses. Most entitle you to use a piece of music for free and without permission, so long as you credit the composer.
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Some Creative Commons licenses permit commercial use, whilst others don't. It's usually pretty clear which are which, though. Read the license carefully to make sure you're covered.
Music goes out of copyright and into the public domain after a certain amount of years. Usually this follows the death of the artist/copyright holder. That law and time period differs from country to country. 70 years after death is a good ballpark figure.
There's a further grey area too. There's a difference between the song itself (which may be in the public domain), and the recording or performance of it. If a musician today performed and recorded an ancient public domain song, they'd be the copyright holder of that rendition, and you wouldn't be allowed to use it without their permission.
Can I Use Copyrighted Music At All?
In short, no. You'll find a lot of info out there about how you can use copyrighted music for “up to 7 seconds”, or debates around what constitutes “fair use” of music. “Fair use” is a defence you can try to use if you get in trouble for using copyrighted music. But why even take the risk of needing a defence when there's plenty legal options available?
Using any copyrighted music in your show means you run the risk of being kicked out of iTunes and Spotify too. This would cause massive damage to any podcast.
Here's a deeper dive on using copyrighted music in a podcast.
Ask yourself, will my listeners unsubscribe because they don't get to hear 10 seconds of Bohemian Rhapsody at the start? If that's the case, then it's time to go back to the content planning stages.
If you want to dive a bit deeper into how the law works with podcast music, check out this interview with Gordon Firemark on Podcraft. He's a media lawyer, and went into some great detail around copyright and fair use.
Where Can I Find Free Podcast Music?
It is possible to get podcast music for free, but, being free, that music is going to be used on a lot of other podcasts.
If you listen to more than a few dozen shows, you'll start to hear the same music pop up, again and again. This doesn't help your audio branding, or make you sound very pro.
If you're on a budget, or purely podcasting from a hobbyist perspective, then by all means go down the free route though. You can always upgrade later on, if you feel the need.
Free Option 1: Incompetech
Incompetech is an extensive library of free-to-use music created by composer Kevin MacLeod. A lot of his work is scored for film and documentary. These can really work well on fictional pieces, if you're an audio drama or documentary creator.
There's a whole load of tracks on there that would certainly fit as the theme tune to a spoken word podcast though. You can use the music on Incompetech for free, and without permission (so long as you credit the site). If you didn't want to list credits, you can buy a standard license for any particular track.
Free Option 2: DigCCMixtr
This is really important. If you intend to make any money from your show, you need to make sure you're using the right license. There are tracks on DigCCMixtr which are non-commercial only. That means if you take any sponsorship, product sales, affiliate recommendations, or even a few little donations, you're breaking the license. In most cases, you must give credit to the musicians.
You'll find the commercial safe music here, but make sure to double check the license when you download.
How Can I Buy Commercial Podcast Music?
To me, it's worthwhile paying a little extra to license some commercial music. This helps your podcast to sound unique, as your listeners are unlikely to hear your theme tune cropping up again and again elsewhere.
There are three main options here:
1. Looking for one track for a theme tune?
In this case, you'll want a lifetime license in exchange for a one-off purchase. That means you can buy a track for one single payment, and use it forever more. This is great for regular theme tunes that you want to use for months or even years.
Beware of licenses like this that have a cap on the number of downloads you're allowed, or the length of time it covers. Some have a limit of, say, 10k downloads. Some require renewal every year. Fortunately, such restrictive licenses are pretty rare nowadays. But you should always read the small print, before diving in and paying for a song.
2. Looking for a big range of tracks, loops or effects for regular use?
In this case, a subscription license might be better. That means you pay a monthly subscription for access to many (often thousands) of tracks.
Sometimes the license allows you to use as many tracks, loops or FX as you want on any episode, as long as your subscription is active when the episode is released. You don't have to be subscribed forever, to keep your old episodes active. But, you have to be subscribed when you release new episodes using their music. There are exceptions, though, as you'll find out below.
3. Custom made podcast music tracks
This is pretty self explanatory – you can get totally unique theme tunes or idents, made just for you, by a professional producer or musician. This is totally unique to you and will tend to be great quality. But, of course, it's expensive!
What are the Best Paid Podcast Music Stores?
Here's where we get our music. Just to let you know, we have a partner deal with each, so we get a small commission if you use them. But, don't worry, we signed up for that because we love them all, and really use them in our own work. They're great!
Lifetime License: Audioblocks
Audioblocks have a huge catalog of excellent music tracks, loops and sound effects – over 100,000 by their last count. You'll find something in there to suit the mood and tone of any podcast series or episode. For the monthly fee (around $15) you can download as many tracks as you like and use them forever.
This is great for people who want access to a variety of music on a regular basis. For example, if you want to use one or two different music beds each episode, just to add polish to an interview, to highlight the key points. Or, if you want to use sound effects to draw attention to things or really visualise things for the learner.
Use our link above for a 7-day free trial so you can test them out before jumping in.
Lifetime License: Epidemic Sound
Epidemic boasts a library of over 30,000 tracks, and they add new ones every week. They also have a 60,000-strong sound effect library. This is ideal if you like to do a bit of soundscaping in your show.
Their subscription tier prices are £10 a month for the Personal Plan and £39 for the Commercial Plan.
Try the subscription plans for free for 30 days when signing up here! Try it, keep it if you like it, otherwise unsubscribe before the trial ends and you won’t get charged.
Lifetime License: Shutterstock
Shutterstock take a strict approach to quality control in their library, and they say that most who submit music don’t get accepted. This highly exclusive approach to curation makes their library of 25,000+ tracks stand out.
100% of Shutterstock’s tracks are copyright clear and can be used forever once licensed, and finding the right music for your projects is easy. Their library is optimised for painless search, thanks to precise filters that let you browse by genre, mood, popularity, freshness, and more. The in-house music team adds dozens of tracks weekly, so you’ve always got new music at your fingertips.
With a robust selection of pricing plans, bundles, and licenses, good deals exist for every budget and need. In addition to traditional pay-per-song licensing, customers can sign up for a subscription that offers unlimited downloads.
Lifetime License: Jamendo
Jamendo is a hugely comprehensive collection of Royalty Free podcast music. This is where we buy all of our one-off purchase music tracks – those that we plan to use long-term, either as theme tunes or regular music beds. The quality is brilliant, the variety is huge and a ‘standard license' covers commercial use and costs around £35/$50 per track.
The website states that they currently list 200,000 tracks by over 40,000 independent artists, so you're guaranteed to find something you like here.
Jamendo also offers a music composition service, so you can place a request to have your theme tune custom composed by a musician of your choice.
If you use our link above, you'll get 5% off your first track purchase.
Lifetime License: Foximusic
Foximusic let you buy tracks to use on an unlimited basis, and in any way you like. This is a really simple option for those looking to monetise their content without concern over license terms.
You can buy an individual track for $39, whilst they do deals on bundles of 2 (10% off), 3 (15% off) and 5 (25% off). You also get multiple versions of each track (full song, loop version, short edit version) to give you plenty production flexibility.
Get 15% off any Foximusic purchase by using the coupon code podcraft at the cart page.
Music With Voice-Over: Music Radio Creative
Music Radio Creative go beyond simply helping you choose music for your podcast. They will also work with you to design tailor made intros, outros, transitions, stingers, and jingles. They collaborate with some of the best voice over talent in the world to craft your message into these segments.
Their client list boasts some of the top podcasters around, like Pat Flynn, Cliff Ravenscraft, and John-Lee Dumas. They are very much the premium option, which automatically makes you think they'd be really expensive. But you can actually get something great for between £100 and £200. Using MRC won't break the bank.
There are a surprising amount of musicians out there who upload their material for free use on a Creative Commons basis. A big benefit of going down this route is that you're a lot less likely to bump into another podcast using the same theme tune as you.
Some musicians will also be open to working with you to custom score podcast music if you'd like something unique put together. I've often worked with Kevin Hartnell, who scored my sci-fi audio drama Kraken Mare a few years ago and did a fantastic job with it.
One More Option – Ask a Friend
If you have a musical friend, approach them to see if it would be alright to use one of their songs in your podcast. In exchange, you could always make sure to credit them at the beginning of each episode and direct your listeners to their website. This can be a beneficial relationship for both parties.
You can of course offer to pay them for their music, or buy them dinner, or repay them with a ‘skills exchange'. That could be anything from helping them carry and set up equipment at a gig, to mowing their lawn.
Wondering How to Use Podcast Music Well?
We have a couple of articles around this that you could check out:
We're always happy to coach you through the same process if you're a member of the Podcast Host Academy.
Join us there and we'll help you use music to make your show really stand out.