When you think of the music industry, the first thing that probably comes to mind isn’t the money involved in making and selling records. You want to think about the song, lyrics, or feel, but many other aspects of the business help determine if a piece will be successful or not.
Whether you’re a music producer or artist, you’ve probably heard of beat licensing online. But what exactly is it, and how does it work? And, more importantly, how can you ensure you’re on the right side of the law when it comes to using and licensing beats?
Any time you happen across a fantastic new beat from an up-and-coming artist on TikTok or pick up an old record from the 70s at a thrift store and rediscover an incredible sound you want to capture, you must think about licensing. There are some legal steps you need to navigate to ensure your next banger won’t be automatically taken down the moment you release it.
Beat licensing refers to purchasing the rights to use a beat for a particular project. This can be done for one-time or multiple uses, and it can be used for personal or commercial purposes.
Purchasing an instrumental does not guarantee that you will be able to use it in your project without paying additional fees for clearance of samples or sounds used in addition to the instrumental itself. Many times, the beat you are purchasing can get inspiration or use partial samples of other songs, making it even more confusing as to what is legal or not.
When you buy a beat online, you typically purchase a license that allows you to use the beat in your own music. This license will come with specific terms and conditions, such as how the beat can be used (e.g., for non-commercial or commercial purposes), how many copies of the song can be sold, and whether the beat can be modified or altered.
It’s important to carefully read and understand the terms of the beat licensing agreement before using a beat in your music. Failing to do so could result in legal issues down the line. The first step for buying beats online is to figure out what exclusivity you’ll need over that recording.
In the world of beat licensing, there are two main types of licenses that you can purchase: non-exclusive and exclusive.
A non-exclusive beat license allows you to use the beat in your music, but the beat will still be available for other artists to purchase and use as well. This means that there could potentially be multiple songs using the same beat. Non-exclusive licenses are generally less expensive than exclusive licenses, but they do not provide as much protection or exclusivity.
You have to be careful with non-exclusive licenses because, typically, the original creator retains copyright ownership and dictates how their sounds can and cannot be used. If you violate this agreement, your music won’t last long.
For example, many non-exclusive rights have a streaming limitation before you have to make a second purchase. Say you want to use a beat from The Roots, and it maxes out at 20,000 streaming plays. Once you hit 20,001, you’d better upload a new license to YouTube or Spotify, or it will vanish.
On the other hand, an exclusive beat license means you are the only artist allowed to use the beat. The beat will not be available for purchase by any other artists, and you will have complete ownership and control over the beat. This means you can stream, sell, distribute, or whatever else to that beat as many times as you want.
The result is that exclusive licenses are generally more expensive than non-exclusive licenses, but they offer a higher level of protection for your music because no one else uses that sound. The only caveat here is to check if the beat you are licensing was ever allowed to be non-exclusively secured. That’s the difference between having a one-of-a-kind sound and endless versions of Baby Got Back like we have today. No matter what, someone is getting paid!
In the United States, songwriters and publishers are paid royalties when their songs are performed in public or broadcast. The royalty rate is usually a percentage of the amount you earn from your song.
If you sell a song to someone who wants to use it in a commercial, for example, royalties will be paid based on how much money they make from using that recording in their ad campaign.
In some cases, there may also be additional fees for things like performing rights organizations (PROs), which give members access to databases with information about how much money each artist earns in royalties throughout the year.
What does this mean for licensing beats online? The terms of a beat licensing agreement will typically specify how royalties will be paid and to whom. Some beat licensing agreements may require the artist to pay a percentage of their earnings from the sale or streaming of the song to the beat maker, while others may have a flat fee for the use of the beat.
There are several different types of royalties, including:
It’s also worth noting that there are other types of royalties that may be relevant to beat licensing, such as synchronization royalties (paid for the use of a song in a film, TV show, or video game) and streaming royalties (paid by streaming services for the use of a song). The terms of the beat licensing agreement will specify how and when these royalties will be paid.
The reason this gets so confusing is that everyone wants a piece of the pie. Go take a look at some of the most popular songs of any year, and you’ll likely see an army of producers, songwriters, record executives, and more before the actual artist listed on the credits. That is because they are all making something off the rights to those songs.
Independent artists and those with a bit more business savvy only have 1-3 people listed, so they maintain full ownership of their work.
Love her or hate her, Taylor Swift is a fantastic example of this. The whole reason she went back and re-recorded her previous music was to get full ownership of it again and work out an agreement for royalties with Spotify and other streaming services (most likely inspired by the lessons of Prince).
At the end of the day, you want to acknowledge the owner and protect yourself over the new music you have created.
In general, the person who creates a work (such as a beat) owns the copyright to that work. This means that the beat maker (also known as the producer) is the initial owner of the copyright to a beat that they create.
However, the ownership of the copyright to a beat can be transferred to another person or entity through a process called an assignment. For example, if a beat maker sells the rights to a beat to an artist, the artist becomes the copyright owner of that beat.
Keep in mind that the music industry is all about copyrights. Whoever controls the copyright of a song or beat is the one that will make the most money, so there is a lot of incentive to be the one in charge.
In general, two copyrights are created whenever a song is written. The first is the sound recording (the master) for the work, and the other is the underlying composition (the song). That is why so many rap artists only work with trusted producers, so they get a say over the future of their work in a partnership.
Sampling is slightly different because it is still relatively new to the music industry. The general rule of thumb is you need permission from the original artist and copyright holder before sampling anything in your music. This is taking a short snippet of a pre-existing work and including it in your own song.
The whole industry of how does beat licensing work revolves around samples. Most modern artists sample a track as the underlying sound in their new song, so this has become significantly more important.
The hard part of sampling is that it doesn’t have to involve the entire song. When you license a beat, you typically take a pre-recorded beat package and introduce it into your current or new work. With sampling, this can be something as simple as a guitar riff like the intro to Smells Like Teen Spirit by Nirvana or a recognizable lyrical pattern like Juicy by the Notorious BIG.
Licensing a beat is more about capturing a groove and fully developed sound in your new creation. It is spitting lyrics over something formed by another creator. That is why popular producers like Timbaland, The Neptunes, and even Kanye when he first started, are so easy to recognize in the world. They have distinctive characteristics that set them apart from the rest.
If you ever want to go into a deep dive into how this world exists musically and the history of sampling. You can read a pretty in-depth article from the US copyright office here. Otherwise, let’s get back into sticking with beats.
Yes! Using beats captured by other artists is a fantastic way to break into the music industry and grow a following. When you offer a unique take on a previously known beat, you are breathing new life into an audience that already exists. You can also purchase new beats from artists no one knows and create something original that breaks barriers.
The best way to go about this is:
Be sure to keep a record of everything related to that purchase in case you get a DMCA takedown request so you can prove you have the right to release your songs.
Hopefully, this article has given you a better understanding of how beat licensing works. This is important, so you make sure that when buying beats online, or using someone else’s music as part of your own creation, you do not run into any legal issues. There are many pitfalls to avoid when it comes to licensing music, but if done correctly, there are also many benefits!
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