Can I or can’t I? What music can I use in my podcasts without falling foul of the law?

Be careful of the music you use in podcasts. The laws protect artists and you’re mostly in breach of copyright laws if you use commercial music. It’s not so much that the artist will go after you, but the record label could.

Last month major music labels filed a lawsuit against iBusMedia for copyright infringement. iBusMedia is behind poker information site PokerNews which has produced a slew of podcasts allegedly using tunes from Universal Music, Capitol Records, PolyGram Publishing and others.

They claim iBusMedia continued to infringe on their copyrighted works, despite being warned three years ago to stop.

How much in damages are the labels demanding? $150,000 per infringement. How many infringements? Forty-six! That’s more than $6 million that the labels are seeking.

What are the lessons for podcasters? Can you use any commercial music in a podcast? editor James Cridland warns, “No. No, you can’t.”

Whether or not your podcast makes any money is beside the point, he says.

As unlikely as it is that a major record label comes after you if you have a tiny audience, would you like to take that risk?

So, what music can you use?

How do most podcasts get away with using music? Mostly, they have either purchased music, or they are using free tunes. (Or, clearly, some are using music they shouldn’t be.)

If you’re a business or a brand and you’re looking for something unique to you, it’s really worth time and money choosing a theme which reflects your image. Anything that smells templated and that includes music cheapens your brand.

There are plenty of music lists from which you can pay – see below – and you can commission artists to compose something unique for you, starting at several hundred dollars.

It’s your responsibility to ensure you have permission to play the music on your podcast. Here are three popular options available:

Royalty-Free Music

You receive a licence for the particular piece of music you’ve bought. Generally, it’s for the lifetime of the podcast.

Be careful with subscription services – often the licence is only valid so long as you have an active subscription.

Creative Commons Music

Most creative commons music allows you to play music for free if you credit the artist.

Public Domain

This is older music that has gone out of copyright after many years and enters the public domain.

Where to get music (and sound effects) for your podcast

Free music

A reasonably good collection of free music is from Icompetech. A lot of podcasts use these tunes, and so they are not so unique. But, if you’re starting out or if you have a small audience, it probably doesn’t really matter.

Music to purchase

Jamendo has a huge collection of music – around 200,000 tracks from 40,000 independent artists – for around $40 a song.

Audioblocks is a monthly subscription of a massive music and sound effects library. This is particularly helpful if you’re doing a narrative or documentary style podcast.

If you don’t care to spend hours and days to find the music to fit, you can ask an expert. Audio Concierge in Melbourne has a small, bespoke music library that you can audition online for use in your podcast or ask them for recommendations.

If you want a music writer to compose music for you, there are several options. You could commission an artist from Jamendo. Or, you could find out the music writer of any of your favourite podcasts and ask him/her to compose one for you.

Don’t forget. It’s all about the podcast

Music shouldn’t be the front and centre of your podcast. You still need great content. The music should complement the spoken word. It shouldn’t distract or interrupt the listener.

The music in Serial is a wonderful example of complementing the story. The music is unique to the podcast and helps amplify the emotion of the story. Ask yourself, does yours do the same?