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Why music is so important to podcasting

When people think of a podcast, they immediately think of listening to a conversation, human voices, maybe laughing and joking about something that happened to them over the weekend; or perhaps a serious narration about an unsolved criminal case; or perhaps even a roundup of the daily news; regardless, the human voice, and what it has to say, is the most important part.

But the personality of the podcast also comes from other creative elements. There’s a picture attached to the sound file. There’s a blurb telling you what the podcast is about. Maybe a few sound effects within the podcast, as well as an underlying script (invisible to the listener). There is also, hopefully, a clever title that caught your attention in the first place.

And then there is music.

The music might be a short theme at the beginning and end of the podcast – or it could be a full-blown soundtrack running for the length of an episode. And although music is not the primary consideration of someone making a podcast, it is still very important.

There are a few distinct things that music can do:

  • It helps create a ‘sonic identity’ for your show. A listener can quickly work out ‘the tone’ of your podcast by your theme music; whether it is a heavy intellectual discussion, or something lighthearted. Or what the general topic is: electronic music might indicate a science podcast, whereas hearing blues and a slide guitar might signal a human interest story.
  • Music can be used to break up the content of your podcast. You can use short ‘stings’ or musical ‘transitions’ as a way to tell the listener that they have reached an end of a section; and that it’s time now for something new. That transition also gives the listeners a chance to relax for a moment and reset their attention.
  • Music gives your podcast extra continuity. This is something that the film industry has always known; that music can help to make a film seem more cohesive to an audience, a unified piece of work rather than just a series of images cut together.
  • Filmmakers also use music to enhance the emotional impact of a story, whether it is a made-up story like Interstellar – or a nature documentary narrated by David Attenborough. This kind of emotional enhancement is also possible to achieve in a podcast.
  • Music can act as a storytelling element. Imagine if you have created a podcast series about Soviet writers suffering under the iron fist of Stalin; you could use a popular Russian song from that era to help set up the context of the story; and that helps to build-up your overall tale, giving the listener non-verbal information about your story.

You might say these are all fair points . . . but where do I actually find this music?

And that’s a pretty good question.

Almost all commercially released music is protected by copyright, meaning that you have to get permission in the form of a license to use it. And there are usually two separate copyrights attached to every piece of music: one is with the person who created the song; and the other is with the person or company who made the physical recording (mostly it’s the record company).

Generally, it is very difficult to get the right permissions to use a commercial song within a podcast, as well as being expensive, making it a huge hurdle.

So people in the podcasting industry came up with the term ‘podsafe’ – this is a label to tell podcast creators that the music will not infringe copyright. It might be ‘royalty-free’ or in the ‘public domain’; it might also be ‘Creative Commons’ – and the overarching ‘podsafe’ label covers all of these.

So, where can you start to look for ‘podsafe’ music?

Production Music Libraries

Firstly, you can look for ‘production’ music libraries. These are music/media websites where you can license single pieces of music outright, or subscribe on a monthly or per-download basis.

I often use Soundsnap – which is more of a sound effects library – but has a fairly affordable subscription. I look for ‘music loops’ which I can build into an intro theme; a quick way to get some music with only a small cost involved. However, it might require a little bit of production work, looping the piece of music, and finding a way to end it. (Below, I have embedded a podcast called Spectrumite – and if you listen to the first minute, you can hear a ‘Rage against the Machine’ style loop from Soundsnap, where I have put a delay on the end).

If you know that you are making a podcast for more than a few episodes – you could also take out a special license with a ‘higher end’ production music library, the kind that are used by advertising firms and filmmakers. These companies can now see that podcasts are a definite standalone market, and so they have created a special podcast license for music from their library to be used in 1 years worth of episodes – for a flat fee, of maybe around USD 300 dollars.

This might sound costly, but if you are making something that requires more than just an intro/outro theme – say, something like a fiction podcast; or a true crime series, etc – then this can be a good option, because you will have access to a greater range of music, and not just ‘themes’ but also symphonic underscoring, etc – a big range, usually of a high quality, and allowing you to build up a distinctive soundtrack for your podcast by blending multiple pieces together.

I have used Epidemic Sound in Sweden, but I am also an ambassador for a Sydney-based production music library called Melodie. And at the time of writing this, both have single podcast licenses for under USD 200 dollars (Melodie also has a month-by-month subscription option).

Spectrumite is an example of a podcast I produce with wall-to-wall underscoring, using a single podcast license from a production music library. There are about seven different pieces of music in this particular episode

Soundcloud and Bandcamp

The second option is try and source independently released music, and talk directly to the artist or label, and see if you can get permission. You might be able to negotiate a reasonable fee for using the music – and without the huge corporation behind them to eat up your time and charge excessive fees. Great places to look for this kind of music are on Soundcloud and Bandcamp (there are over half a million artists on Bandcamp).

Find music that you like, then send the creator a message, telling them about your project, and asking them if you can license their song for your podcast. If you are offering money, even if it is not a huge amount, most artists will be interested, because it is a lot more than what they are getting from streaming platform royalties. Like I said, you can always negotiate from both sides. Maybe they might like your project, and just ask for an acknowledgement at the end – but it is still best to pay for music.

This is a project where I licensed a number of different songs for a 55-minute audio story. Except for some original tracks from my friends Henninger Parke Music, and one song on Soundcloud, the rest I found through Bandcamp

Creative Commons and the Free Music Archive

The third option is to use music that has a Creative commons license. Creative Commons is a special type of license that was invented specifically for the internet, for people wanting to share their work, without necessarily seeking monetary returns – but wanting to make sure that there work isn’t stolen, either. Creative commons license are often found in people sharing their photos, but it can apply to any creative activity.

The license often looks something like: CC BY-SA 3.0

And if you click on it, it will take you through to the license information, often telling you the conditions of using it – i.e, NC will mean ‘non-commercial’ . . . which means you can use the music only for non-commercial podcasts.

Soundcloud lets you filter your search to musicians releasing their work under a Creative Commons license. Choose ‘tracks’ from the lefthand side menu and then filter ‘modify commercially’. And you can double-check it in their notes field, below the song.

It is also worth sending them a message on Soundcloud to make sure that it is in fact their own track, and not someone elses.

There used to be the Free Music Archive – a special archive of Creative Commons music, originally set up by American community radio station WFMU – but it looks like it has recently been taken over by a commercial production music library. At the time of writing this blog post, the ownership is being transferred – but maybe in the future, it will be up and running again properly.

If you use Creative Commons music in a podcast, then you need to be willing to acknowledge the creator of the music in your show notes, and maybe even in the recorded credits of your podcast. That might be something to negotiate with the Creative Commons license owner.

Hire a composer

This is your fourth option, and it’s not a bad one at all. Maybe you have a friend that is in a band, or know someone who makes electronic music. Maybe you have a bit of a budget, and would like to come up with an original theme (as opposed to a production music library theme, which could be used on lots of different podcasts). Or you have a more ambitious project, like a sword and sorcery fiction podcast, where you’d something more like a classical movie soundtrack.

This is not the most budget friendly option, as composing music – like anything else creative – is labour intensive, and the music needs to be mastered to sound good. But it is still something worth considering, as a composer will give your podcast a unique sound.

Anyway, I hope this guide was useful to you. Remember, that a podcast has less creative elements than something like a film, so it is worth making use of all of them.

Header image by Tadas Mikuckis on Unsplash


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