Music is responsible for much of what an audience feels when they watch a film.
So if you’re serious about telling stories that resonate, the last thing you want is generic, boring stock music.
Luckily, in 2018, there are more licensing companies than you could count on five hands. All of them aim to provide filmmakers with high-quality, royalty-free music at legitimately affordable prices.
And though I haven't used all of them, I have used quite a few. This post explores my favorites.
Notes about the 2018 update
Since I originally wrote this a few years ago, the music licensing space has evolved quite a bit. There's been a massive push towards subscription services in addition to (or completely replacing) single track licensing.
We have sites like Artlist and Soundstripe to thank for that.
Another cool thing I've noticed is that companies are getting more competitive with their pricing, and they're innovating with their design and discovery features.
There's a ton of demand for royalty free music these days, especially with YouTubers and other types of content creators. And with new music licensing companies sprouting up every month or so to meet that demand, the competition is fierce.
And when companies compete for our business, we as creators and consumers win. Some of these companies, such as the ones on this list, are competing hard and innovating better than the others.
Anyhow, before we get into my picks, here are the criteria needed for a company to make the list.
The quality of the music has to be excellent. It has to be sourced from musicians who clearly care about their craft just as much as I care about mine.
The interface must be clean and intuitive and help me find what I'm looking for. There's nothing more annoying than scrolling endlessly through a bunch of irrelevant songs.
The pricing must be flexible and reasonable. I work primarily in the indie film space, which means tiny budgets. For corporate or commercial shooters, price might not be much of a sticking point, but it is for me and for readers of this site.
So with all of that out of the way, let's get to the good stuff! Here are the top six music licensing sites I recommend in 2018 if your goal is high quality music.
1. Music Vine
Music Vine just released a massive update to their site. There's a delightful new interface, loads of search options, and even more flexibility in pricing and licensing terms.
Besides their beautiful site, the thing that really sets Music Vine apart is their highly-curated selection of music from indie artists. The library isn't huge, but it's super high quality. And they make that music available for more affordable prices than you’d find with other licensing services. The founders at Music Vine are on a mission to democratize great music and make it legitimately affordable for everybody, and so far, the site is very much living up to that vision.
A quick heads up: I have a business relationship with Music Vine. They sponsored both seasons of the Filmmaker Freedom podcast, so I might be biased in my assessment here. But it's the service I've used the most, and it's the one I find myself recommending most often to my filmmaking peeps.
A clean, simple interface that's a pure delight to use. It's damn beautiful, but it doesn't let that beauty get in the way of functionality.
Speaking of functionality, Music Vine has the most robust set of search filters for finding exactly the right song quickly. Everybody offers filters like mood, genre, instrument, etc. But Music Vine adds film genre, era/decade, culture/locale, edit style, and occasion. Never has it been so easy to find Celtic music, or tunes that are a perfect fit for fast-paced Halloween content. Plus there's some nifty technology under the hood that makes your searches even more seamless. Read more here.
Super flexible pricing options. This is another thing Music Vine revamped with their new design. They have a ton of new licensing options, ranging from small personal projects all the way up to massive broadcast spots, and everything in between . And their prices start at just $10.
Similar music quality to what the high-end services offer for higher prices. Which is to say, the quality is objectively great. They take great care to source talent and curate the best stuff for their platform.
They have a wide, rather eclectic range of music to choose from. As someone who loves more esoteric types of music (gypsy jazz for the win!), there’s a diversity to Music Vine’s library that I find really appealing. While some music libraries cater heavily to what's "popular" or "trending," Music Vine doesn't shy away letting artists upload unique and memorable songs.
Like I mentioned, the music selection is still limited at this point, with about 2200 songs in total. What’s there is great, and more music is being added on a consistent basis, but it's one of the smaller libraries on this list. It might even be the smallest, but it's hard to tell.
Songs load super slowly for me, which is frustrating when you're trying to click through a bunch of songs and waveforms to find something good. I assume this is because their servers are halfway across the world from where I am, so perhaps if you're in the UK or Europe, you'll have better performance.
The site itself is still resource intensive on my computer, even after the update. Whenever I dig through the Music Vine library for more than a few minutes, my poor little MacBook Air starts to get very, very overwhelmed. I'm not sure what causes this, but I haven't noticed this on any other music sites.
Music Vine does not have a subscription model, so if you're looking for unlimited, all you can eat music, you'll have to look at other options on this list.
Like Music Vine, Artlist also got a pretty new coat of paint recently. Not much has changed under the hood though.
Luckily, the functionality and value proposition of Artlist are still great. For a flat, yearly fee of $199, you get unlimited access to its entire catalogue of curated music. And because everything in their library is universally, globally licensed, you can use it all in any kind of video project you want. From films to YouTube videos to commercials to corporate videos, it's all fair game. And there aren't any additional fees.
That’s really the main selling point of Artlist. You could download 10 songs during your yearly subscription, or 100 songs. The price would be exactly the same, which makes it a steal for people who work on lots of projects thought the year, or who create for YouTube.
Unlimited music for as long as you subscribe. I can’t stress how huge this is, especially for corporate filmmakers, wedding filmmakers, YouTubers, etc. Basically, if you create work in high volume and want to license good music for everything, Artlist is a no-brainer.
Ultimate simplicity in licensing. There is only one license, and it covers everything you’d need to do with the music (at least with video work).
High-quality music sourced from a growing number of independent artists around the world.
Price. No matter what you do, the price of Artlist is $199/year. That doesn’t change even if you use the music in corporate videos for massive companies, or even in broadcasting (both of which are traditionally outrageously expensive).
A library that’s growing insanely fast. When I first wrote about Artlist in early 2016, they had about 1000 songs on the platform. Now, in late 2018, they’re well beyond 6000, and adding around 150 new songs a week.
The licenses aren't uniform. Last year, I wanted to use some Artlist songs for my podcast, but after talking with one of the co-founders, I learned that only a handful of songs on the platform were properly licensed for that use case. This won't affect anyone looking for music for their films and videos, but it's something to be aware of if you produce multiple types of media.
With the rate they’ve added new music to the platform, not all of it is super high quality. Don’t get me wrong, there’s no bad music here—most of it is damn good. But the larger it gets, the more it feels like I’m searching for gems in a sea of slightly above-average music. Not a big deal, but I hope they keep their curation standards high.
Some of the font sizes are ridiculously small across the site. I found myself doing a bit of squinting when using Artlist on my iMac.
The site itself is still occasionally slow. The site was great when they came out of their public beta, but after the redesign, some things are noticeably slower, especially the overlay pages with the FAQs and such. The media still loads fast though, so I'm not too upset.
Musicbed is the gold standard for modern licensing services. It’s the "OG" in the music for film space—the site against which all of the others are judged.
Musicbed excels because of their highly-curated selection of emotive, cinematic music from independent artists. Plus tts interface is very well-developed and designed, making it easy to find whatever you’re looking for. Basically, everything Musicbed does exudes quality.
That quality has traditionally come at premium prices, but soon they’ll even have a subscription service, although the details aren’t out yet about what’ll be included and how much it’ll cost.
Like I mentioned before, the quality of their music is objectively outstanding. And their library is pretty damn big at this point. It'll be hard not to find something that's a perfect fit for your project.
The pricing can be fairly reasonable for single track licensing (depending on how you intend to use the music, obviously). And they've got a subscription service coming, but it hasn't been released yet as of September of 2018. Still no details on how much it'll cost.
The browsing interface is clean, and very minimal. But there's still a ton of power under the hood for searching and sorting and filtering.
To my knowledge, they're the only ones that allow you to exclude certain criteria from your searches. So if you know you don't want something with heavy drums or guitar, you could exclude any tracks that match those criteria. Cool stuff.
If you have the budget, Musicbed has a custom music service that will pair your project with their musicians.
Plus they have the classiest blog ever. Seriously, go check it out once you’re done with this article.
Prices that rise very quickly. If you only intend to use Musicbed for personal or non-commercial projects, you should be able to snag some great music for a reasonable price. However, once you start delving into commercial and broadcast territory, Musicbed’s prices start to climb quickly and dramatically.
Their licenses are also rather complex, requiring all sorts of information about company structure, ad spend, employee count, etc. I understand why they do this, but I think I've been spoiled by sites like Artlist and Soundstripe, where licensing is dead simple.
You have to create an account to listen to full previews of songs. It's not a big deal, but it annoyed me as I was putting this comparison together.
Marmoset is another of those companies that just exudes quality and coolness. Rooted in Portland, Marmoset maintains a handpicked roster of independent artists (mostly from the pacific northwest), and makes their music available on a beautifully-crafted licensing platform around.
I can’t stress just how awesome this platform is in terms of its usability, especially when it comes to its search functionality. Their project and emotion-driven search algorithms are truly a fantastic and useful alternative to searching by mood or genre.
Marmoset makes it really easy to search based on the emotion you're trying to evoke. They have unique search modifiers that make it easy to match music the emotional tone of your project. And then you can stack a whole bunch of technical modifiers like track length, energy, arc (which is really cool), and instrumentation on top of those results to narrow the search even further.
Unique music of the absolute highest quality. Thanks to the handpicked roster of indie artists, Marmoset might be the only service to offer better music than Musicbed, but that’s just a matter of taste and opinion.
A "Marmoset Radio" button that plays random tunes from the Marmoset library. It probably won't surface the exact song you're looking for, but I almost always love what I hear when I click that button.
Marmoset isn't just a licensing platform, but a full service music agency and studio. If you need custom music for any type of project, they can get you taken care of, either by pairing you with their artists, or by composing something bespoke in-house.
Price. Similar to Musicbed, Marmoset songs get super pricey quickly, especially once you start getting into commercial and broadcast territory. However, the rest of their licensing options tend to be pretty straightforward and reasonably priced. They even offer a dedicated podcasting license for a super affordable price.
It looks like Marmoset have removed some of their search filters since the last time I updated this article. They used to have story and character-driven search modifiers that were great at unearthing songs when you weren't quite sure what you were looking for. You can still do that to some extent with project based modifiers, but I found the story and character ones to turn up interesting results.
Soundstripe is another great offering in the realm of unlimited music subscriptions. Their service is similar to Artlist, in that you get unlimited access to the music, and you can use it however you want in your videos, even commercially and in broadcast.
However, Soundstripe is less expensive at $135 a year, so it’s easily the best bargain on this list. If you're on a super tight budget, but needs loads of music, its the best choice. Or, if you really need a ton of music for your content, you might even consider getting both an Artlist and Soundstripe subscription. That oughta cover even the most prolific of creators.
An insanely well priced subscription model. For $135 a year, you get unlimited access the library, and you can use any song however you want in any video project, from personal to broadcast. It's easily the best bargain on this list.
Dead simple licensing. You never have to worry about paying extra for using these tunes in different types of media. It’s all covered by the subscription fee.
A slick, clean, colorful interface that's really easy to use and navigate.
Their curated playlists are quite good, and that was my favorite part of browsing through Soundstripe.
Right now, the selection of music is still relatively small, coming in around 3000 tracks. Like all of the others, it's consistently growing, but if you create a lot of content, you will likely run into the "edges" of their library the more you dig through it.
There's a lot of great music on Soundstripe, and no bad music. But there's a good deal of "middle of the road" music that feels pretty average. Maybe it's just because I've listened to so much stock music in my day, and I'm really hard to impress. Either way, if quality and uniqueness are your main priorities, you're better off with Musicbed or Marmoset or Music Vine.
Also, I feel like every time I work through Soundstripe's library, I hear way too much of what I like to call "cheerful hipster music." You know, overly upbeat folk with lots of whistling and clapping and such. I get that style is popular, but every time I hear it, I roll my eyes. That's not really something wrong with Soundstripe, per se. I'm just cynical.
I was introduced to Epidemic Sound recently, and though I haven't licensed anything from them yet, I like what I see. Their library is huge, and the music on their site is damn good.
Like Musicbed, they seem to be primarily aimed at single track licensing, but they do offer a few different tiered subscriptions for YouTubers. The tiers are based on how many video plays your channel gets in a month. And if you’re just starting out on YouTube, it’s a great bargain.
The other cool differentiator I found is that they pay artists up front for their songs, instead of paying based on licensing performance. If you're a musician reading this article, this little tidbit might be enough to push you into the Epidemic camp. Plus they can get your music to Spotify and other streaming platforms.
Super affordable music subscriptions for up and coming YouTubers. At $15 a month for their lowest tier, it's a steal for someone who's just getting started.
World class music, including lots of stuff outside the mainstream. They pay up front for each song, so they're incentivized to curate only the best stuff. From my browsing, this model seems to work well, because I couldn't find any mediocre music.
A HUGE library. I don't know how many songs are on Epidemic, but they've been around since 2009, and have clearly been prolific about adding new tunes. Even the deepest searches turned up dozens or hundreds of results.
They also have a pretty sizable sound effects library. So for some of you, Epidemic could be a "one stop shop" for your post production audio assets.
The not so good
Of all the services on this list, Epidemic's user interface is the clunkiest and most dated. The "Browse" page isn't hard to use, but it can accurately be described as an eyesore.
The subscriptions are great for YouTubers, unless you run a popular channel. At that point they get expensive, fast. In fact, if you run a channel with more than 500K views a month, you're probably better off with an Artlist or Soundstripe subscription.
That wraps up this exploration of 2018’s best options for licensing music that doesn’t suck. As you can tell, there’s quite a bit of my personal opinion laced throughout this piece. But music is a very subjective thing, as are our preferences for how to sort and find it.
Still, this should give you a great idea of the high-quality services out there that are serving the needs of content creators and helping musicians monetize their work.
Good luck to you, and godspeed.