The Reign of Royalty-Free Music

As disputes between labels and social media platforms like TikTok continue, it may be time to reembrace the sounds that have soundtracked the internet since its early days: royalty-free music.

The Reign of Royalty-Free Music
Dalia Abdelwahab
Dalia Abdelwahab
June 14, 20246 min read
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2024 started on quite an unexpected note on multiple fronts. One of the most polarizing social media platform’s reign in the United States could come to a head imminently; said social media found itself in a tug-of-war with one of the world’s most powerful musical conglomerates… it’s already been a handful. 

The now-resolved feud between TikTok and Universal Music Group (whose roster includes the likes of Taylor Swift, Bad Bunny, Kendrick Lamar, and his current lyrical punching bag Drake, among others), originated from a dispute over royalties and resulted in the music of these artists and many more being removed from TikTok. Speculation arose about what that would mean for the future of the platform, a major juggernaut in the ever-confusing realm of the music industry. Though not necessarily a “music app” by any stretch of the imagination (ByteDance has already assigned that job to sister app TikTok Music), TikTok has leaned on music throughout its bumpy journey towards being a landmark symbol of the cultural landscape of the 2020s. It is precisely because of this fact that the game of Russian Roulette between TikTok and UMG was a cause for astonished and frantic predictions from laypeople and PR professionals alike, all of whom immediately pulled out their metaphorical crystal balls in an attempt to figure out the app’s future both as a music aggregator and algorithmically-derived cultural force. 

Among those predictions, as I had previously reported, was a potential pivot on behalf of the app’s infamous algorithm. This would not be towards an unmusical future, but rather in the direction of a different realm of music, namely one of royalty-free offerings. There is a caveat to this, however: royalty-free music has already been shaping up the ecosystem of internet culture (and, by proxy, TikTok communities) as we know it for almost as long as the internet has had a presence in our lives.

@littlemissroman #alexconsani #blowthisupforme #viral #fyp ♬ Fluffing a Duck - Kevin MacLeod

Case in point: The vast discography of software programmer-turned-composer and producer Kevin MacLeod — who, according to Chartmetric data and the admission of an entire 2022 documentary film, has become a musician of mainstream status (soon-to-come merch and all). His career as a musician began after compiling his compositions to Incompetech following his rejection from a composing job he applied for in 1996.

Now, 27 years on, it is not possible to venture through the internet without hearing a snippet of his 2011 (and his most mainstream) track “Monkeys Spinning Monkeys” or stumbling across a YouTube video that utilizes “Sneaky Snitch.”

From the Mild to the Wild 

Generally speaking, the reason a business might opt to use a royalty-free track in a commercial or an up-and-coming podcaster might choose to buy a royalty-free intro and outro for their latest project all boils down to the name “royalty-free”: they have a one-time purchase or licensing fee, freeing users of reoccurring royalties, regardless of continued usage. Because of this, musicians, composers, and entities that create royalty-free tracks do tend to diversify the sonic output of their offerings — with results ranging from music passable for a generic brief Top 40 hit with Electronic Dance Music influences à la 2012 recession pop to the kitschy offerings that the average listener now almost exclusively associates with labels like “royalty-free” or “copyright-free.”

Because of this, there have been instances of several musical offerings frequently getting mistaken for royalty-free music because they sound like they were ripped from the portion of a prescription drug commercial where all the side effects are being listed in rapid-fire speed. Just look at “Love You So” by King Khan and the BBQ Show, a 2005 song that sounds deceivingly like a royalty-free track and has had such a surge in popularity thanks to rampant TikTok usage that it began to get radio play.

There is no shortage of this music online, from in-house libraries by and for certain platforms, autonomous libraries (like the aforementioned Incompetech), and even fanmade projects by way of independent YouTube channels. Because of this, royalty-free music plays an inevitable part in the creator economy as it is known today — for better and for worse. 

The Time a Worldwide Hit Song’s Status “Faded” From Royalty-Free

In 2014, then-unknown British-Norwegian teenager and hopeful record producer/DJ Alan Walker made one of his tracks available via NoCopyrightSounds, an independent record label specializing in royalty-free tracks for content creators. The idea behind the track, then called “Fade,” was simple: A song generic enough to use in some random travel vlog, but still with a tropical house sound. It would later prove distinctive enough to mark it as both a product of its era, while unique enough to become attributed to Walker’s signature sound. 

The track did its job, perhaps too well. It grew in popularity unironically, later prompting Walker to give the song a facelift under his new label, MER Recordings, complete with Ellie Goulding-esque breathy dreamy vocals courtesy of Norwegian singer Iselin Solheim. The song made its non-royalty-free debut with a new sound and new name of “Faded in December 2015 — more than a year following the original rollout of “Fade” — and remains Walker’s most popular track to this day, with nearly 2 billion Spotify streams. Most of the track’s success can be attributed to its chart positions across Europe, although it still managed to earn Walker his first and only Billboard Hot 100 debut. Despite this, Walker appears to be still maintaining a presence in the EDM world, with frequent performances at the likes of Ultra Music Festival.

Now, in addition to at least two other Walker tracks, “Fade” can no longer be found on NoCopyrightSounds’ official YouTube account or any other pages, with Walker citing a mere desire to take ownership of his work while acknowledging the impact of their prior partnership.

From Amateur YouTube Productions to Meme Background Music 

The aforementioned Kevin MacLeod is also considered to have established quite a career by way of his royalty-free music, yet his trajectory could not be more different from Walker’s. For one, his vast royalty-free catalogue remains available for use in all its glory, boasting a peculiar digital footprint. 

@jarredjermaine Ranking Kevin MacLeod royalty free music #kevinmacleod #royaltyfreemusic ♬ original sound - jarred jermaine

For the most part, the digital presence of MacLeod’s music was shaped by all different kinds of creators using his music for their projects, with one specific genre of content especially present on YouTube almost single-handedly setting the tone for the memeification of the MacLeod musical universe. Enter: YouTube “tea” and drama channels. 

In conjunction with the “Beautuber” and beauty influencer renaissance of the early-to-mid 2010s, this new wave of creators emerged as what would become a tried-and-true formula of pop cultural commentary. They were a distinctive mishmash of gossip blogger meets watchdog meets amateur citizen fauxrnalist, devoting their platforms almost exclusively to coverage of ongoings and gossip pertinent to online personalities. While some opted to simply list off the coverage items or scandals du jour matter-of-factly, others chose to dial up the silliness. It is there that MacLeod comes in. 

Listing off the facts? The semi-comedic tones of “Fluffing a Duck” would probably be the safest bet to set the tone. Is the case getting too “messy”? Why, yes, the dramatic “Sneaky Snitch” would fit like a glove. These and other royalty-free songs became an almost ubiquitous soundtrack of sorts for the internet’s answer to TMZ.

That memeified familiarity would continue to follow MacLeod and his discography to the present day and will likely continue into the future, mostly as background music for sketches by comedy hopefuls and watchdogs lampooning everyday happenings alike. With that in mind, it is also possible that the popularity of MacLeod songs such as “Monkeys Spinning Monkeys” (and other tracks) could be partially accidental; a result of the increasingly common phenomenon of creators opting to manually tag certain trending songs (regardless of if they are used or not) onto their TikTok and YouTube videos in an attempt to give them an algorithmic oomph.

Royalty-Free Royalty 

Make no mistake: In theory, the royalty-free music world does not revolve around Kevin MacLeod. In practice, though, the ubiquity and early availability of his catalogue makes it almost impossible for that world not to. For now, MacLeod remains touted by music nerds and aficionados as both royalty-free royalty and the composer of the closest thing the internet has to a soundtrack. Success-wise, MacLeod is the exception and not the rule, but it is almost exclusively because of the charm carried by much of his catalogue. It has in equal parts the quality and kitsch of, say, your favorite commercial jingle: familiar enough to hum along to or reference as an inside joke, but not necessarily the kind of mnemonic you want to be caught dead listening to unironically. Notwithstanding the irony, if his Spotify playlist reach of more than 60 million is of any indication, MacLeod is an unironic joy to some in true fast food burger fashion. Fast food royalty burger fashion, if you will.