When you want to listen to music, you might access it in a few different ways: streaming services like Spotify or Apple Music, social platforms like SoundCloud or Bandcamp, or personal libraries on your computer or phone.
But for other purposes, like professional projects, public events, or Twitch streams, listening to music gets a lot more complicated. Even though you can play all your favorite music for your own personal enjoyment, you most likely don't have the legal license required to use music in a professional setting.
A large reason for this is that most musical artists get paid a royalty every time their music is played publicly. But some artists don't ask to get paid when others play their music, instead receiving money from licensing fees or subscription costs, or just share their music for public exposure and growth. For independent content creators, royalty-free music like this is especially useful for small-scale, personal projects and ongoing work like gaming streams.
What is royalty-free music?
Royalties aren’t just any money that musicians make from their music. It’s a bit more specific than that: royalties are paid to musicians and others with rights to the music when music is played or streamed. Royalty-free music can be played for anyone, in public or private, for most purposes, as long as you have the legal license to play it. The creator and rights holders, however, don’t get paid anything for each time it’s played.
Royalty-free doesn’t mean free, unfortunately. That’s because royalties aren’t the only fees associated with using someone else’s music: many top royalty-free music libraries actually ask you to pay a one-time licensing fee for the music you use, or a paid subscription to the entire library with no licensing fee. Depending on what you’re using your music for, how much you need to use, and how long you need to use it, either of these options might work better for you. In this list, I’ve included libraries of all types: those that are entirely free to use, those that require a one-time licensing fee for their content, and those that operate using paid subscriptions.
The top 5 royalty-free music sites in 2021:
StreamBeats was created by Twitch star Harris Heller for the benefit of the streaming community as a whole. The purpose of the library is just what it sounds like: for Twitch and YouTube streamers to be able to play background music on their streams without worrying about being “DMCA’d,” or receiving copyright strikes on their content, resulting in demonetization.
The best part of StreamBeats is that it’s completely free – you don’t have to pay for any one-time license fees or monthly subscriptions. Plus, the music is all selected to be great on stream, meaning it’s up-to-date and fairly trendy. The downside, though, is that it’s just not that extensive. Since the best music for streaming fits fairly well into the background, StreamBeats only contains 4 genre groups: Lo-Fi, EDM, Synthwave, and Hip Hop.
If you have any specific genre of music you need to have deep access to, high-level content you’re trying to produce, or long-running streams that you want to keep consistent, then BenSound might not be your top option. Its tracks aren’t quite as consistent as those on other platforms, and they tend to be fairly generic.
But it’s a terrific place for one-off projects, as its ease of use and large selection of completely free tracks lets you leave the library with royalty-free stock music in no time. All they ask is a brief, unobtrusive source attribution wherever you use their music.
In many ways, Thematic is the boutique royalty-free music service. Their streaming platform feels a lot like a popular platform for personal use, like Spotify or Apple Music. They allow you to group their royalty-free offerings by genre, artist, playlist, mood, and vocal styles. I’ve found that their selection is highly contemporary, varied, and easy to curate.
It also offers a platform that is highly distinct from any other royalty-free music service on this list. It's more like SoundCloud or Bandcamp for royalty-free tracks. You can browse music on artists' pages, link your social media accounts in order to add their music quickly to your YouTube or Instagram videos, and seamlessly download your favorite tracks straight to your device. And Thematic, like Bensound, only asks for a brief source attribution when you use their music in your content.
Update: Thematic created a discount code for Kapwing users: use KAPWING10 when signing up for Thematic Premium.
I know what you’re thinking: SoundCloud isn’t a royalty-free music site! And you’re right, technically. But there are thousands of tracks on SoundCloud that are grouped in royalty-free playlists. And just like all of SoundCloud’s offerings, there are no limits to these tracks’ genre, intensity, and use.
Better yet, every one of these royalty-free stock music tracks is free to download, with the right knowhow. Using a free software like the Kapwing converter, you can quickly convert royalty-free SoundCloud tracks to MP3 files and save them to your devices to play anywhere.
PremiumBeat is the stock music service of Shutterstock, one of the largest stock photo libraries in the world. It’s yet another subscription-based stock music library, but it’s far cheaper than most at $13/month and comes with one restriction: the basic package allows for 5 track downloads per month.
I gave PremiumBeat the final spot on this list because it’s the cheapest high-quality option among subscription-based stock music libraries. But it’s beaten out by the other four because of its 5-track limit. For both in-depth, long-term projects and brief, one-off uses, it’s an awkward limit to work with.
How to Use Royalty Free Music:
Getting your hands on royalty-free music tracks that you can use for your project is half the battle, but you also need to know how to use audio tracks for various types of content. For quick video content, you can use online editors like Kapwing to combine and edit video and audio tracks. For longer-form video content, any major desktop app will allow for audio adjustment and editing, and online editors like Kapwing offer paid plans that support more lengthy, in-depth video projects.
For streaming purposes, you’ll want to make sure your audio inputs are configured correctly on the device you’re streaming from. It’s fairly simple, really – here’s a tutorial on how to do it in OBS. And if you don’t care too much about your audio quality, you can even play it out loud so your mic picks it up.
For podcasting, using royalty-free music will likely fit into your existing workflow seamlessly. Free softwares like Audacity and GarageBand are popular for podcasters, and either one allows you to upload a music track the same way you upload your recorded audio. Here’s a great tutorial on balancing speech and music in GarageBand.
I hope this article helps you get started with royalty-free music! In 2021, your copyright-free stock music options are more robust, accessible, and versatile than ever. If you’re interested in more content like this, head over to our YouTube channel Kapwing App. And while you’re here, read through some of our related articles on audio editing for videos and podcasts: