Can’t Stop the Music

Rock ConcertYou’ve probably used truckloads of stock images, but have you ever considered stock audio? Drew Turney learns more about the fastest growing area of royalty-free media.

A cautionary tale; a young documentary filmmaker was shooting in New York City. She wanted to capture the sights, sounds and even an evocation of the smells and texture of the city and its people.

Walking around town with her sound recording equipment soaking it all up, she realised she was capturing the heart and soul of New York that she wanted. Construction cranes hummed, building materials clanged and an endless orchestra of voices, sirens and car horns rang across the air.

As well as the ‘organic’ soundscape, a car drove past with its windows down and The Rolling Stones’ Jumping Jack Flash playing. A radio on a building site was blaring with George Thorogood’s Bad to the Bone as she passed. A techno track by Erick Morillo rolled out of a hip boutique across the footpath and traffic.

On the advice of the financier, an advanced edit was show to the distributor’s in house lawyer, who straight away said how lucky she was as a small, self funded director to get clearance for so many popular songs.

After an awkward silence the young lady said she had no clearances of any sort, but assumed because the songs were being played publicly they were fair game. The lawyer looked at his shoes, not wanting to give her the bad news. Regardless of whether she’d chosen them for the soundtrack or they just happened to appear courtesy of passers-by, she might be up for tens of thousands in licensing fees.

As the basis of a popular Internet comic strip about the perils of using copyrighted material in your project, the nightmarish scenario above might not be completely true. But the twin morals are clear; music is expensive, and music industry lawyers have very deep pockets.

Rising stocks

It’s a call the stock image services have answered whole-heartedly, many of the larger libraries now offering a huge range of stock music and audio clips.

But where the laws covering the use of images are fairly clear cut, resulting in the distinction between royalty free and rights-managed, the use of copyrighted audio is a hornet’s nest waiting to happen.

“In audio royalty free can mean the same as it does for other media, but unfortunately in most cases it doesn’t,” says Kelly Thompson, chief operating officer of “The difference is the number of royalties, licenses and rights attached to a musical composition. There are up to five separate royalties you need to pay to use a piece of music. Most sites simplify it by offering music for a single fee, but what they don’t mention is their music doesn’t include performance royalties.”

Thompson goes on to explain the labyrinthine nature of Performing Rights Organisations and why iStockAudio stays right away from them. “In most of the world outside the US there’s a single PRO in every country and when an artist signs with them they lose the right to collect royalties on their own behalf. A PRO now has that right, even if it isn’t the artist’s wishes.” In other words, if you’re friends with Green Day’s lawyer, don’t assume you’re in the clear just because he says you can use their song.

The reason stock audio has such a complicated legal framework is because the human race has been making music for a little over 5,000 years, protecting it legally for a little over a century (the earliest known sound recording is from 1857) and offering it for resale since before the web age.

So as Larry Mills, director of music products at Getty Images explains, the Internet is just the latest delivery platform in a market that’s more mature than you might think. The company repackages stock music from a service called Pump Audio. “The music market is growing as more and more artists see licensing as viable revenue for their music,” he says. “When Pump Audio started, no libraries had real independent artists’ music and none of them delivered their music on a hard drive, most were still using CDs. We felt there was a big hole in the market and thought we could make a dent.”

“The royalty free audio and music market is very mature,” agrees iStockAudio’s Thompson. “It’s about as old as the photo market. We’re not the first player in this market and it was good for us because there was a longstanding demand yet bad because there were so many established players.”

The biggest difference in iStockAudio’s service that it wields the same power of crowd-sourcing their image service does. As it’s produced by creative types like you who might not be professional musicians and sold as micro-stock, Thompson believes iStockAudio is one of only five truly royalty free solutions.

Needle in a haystack

But we know what you’re thinking. If it’s on a stock site, it must be pretty rubbish, right? Of course there’s a lot of chaff to be separated from the wheat just like when you’re searching for images. But as we become armed with high specs, GarageBand, Logic Studio or other such music creation devices on our systems, more of us than ever before have the facilities that used to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in instruments, studio time and mixing equipment. Like it has in filmmaking and graphic design, technology has widened the field much further and brought the barrier to entry crashing down. So there’s simply a lot more out (and a lot more all the time) than there’s ever been.

It’s also easy to forget that many of the people who contribute to stock services are pro musicians looking for extra income, even on a micro-stock site like iStockPhoto. “Both iStock’s standard collection and the Pump audio collection are created by skilled artists” says Thompson. “Stock audio won’t replace the need for custom work any more than stock images will, but the technical and performance quality in stock media is as good as any custom compositions.”

Such a widening of the field also reduces the ‘almost’ factor associated with stock search. You know the one — you find dozens of shots of a girl with a swimsuit diving underwater but in one she has a swimming cap, in another the Kreepy Krauly’s visible, in another one there’s some guy with her, etc, etc.

Searching for audio makes you realise you can broaden your standards. Images have pretty strict particulars, but a search for ‘dog barking’ on a popular site produced 146 results. If you can’t find one that suits you, maybe you’re being just a bit too picky.

Of course, if you’ve bought a sound mixing or film editing program in the last five years — anything from Cyberlink PowerDirector ($199) to Apple Logic Pro 9 ($749 as part of Logic Studio) — you’ll have a stash of free audio samples for use in your project. The developer and vendor have already paid the relevant releases in the case of copyrighted sound (for those they haven’t created themselves), and they’re yours to use as you wish. In the case of Logic Studio, you’ll have 20,000 loops, 1,700 instruments and 4,500 presets you can use to make your own tune, perhaps the ultimate in royalty free music.

More than music

The mention of barking dogs raises another interesting point about the development of stock audio services — they’re about much more than music. Pump Audio, mentioned before, is more a traditional service to connect buyers and sellers. We searched by genre to look at the fees involved on a random song and they range from US$3,750 to appear in a TV program up to US$25,000 to appear in a national or global TV ad. By comparison, some of the barking dogs clips from iStockAudio will set you back a couple of credits.

The gulf in prices highlights more than just the difference in expertise between recording a hit song and taping your dog barking. It indicates the wisdom of the swarm. User-generated Micro-stock is the perfect platform for audio stock that goes beyond music.

Returning to the above example or the barking dog record. You could sit out in your front yard with your dog and wait for the postman to come past. If you don’t have a dog you could walk around your neighbourhood tormenting dogs while hoping the owners don’t call the police or a plane drowns the result out mid-recording. If you live in the city you might have to drive out to the suburbs or country and still come back empty handed. It might take you several very expensive hours for a few seconds of audio.

User generated micro-stock takes advantage of the thousands of people around the world who’ve done what you’re wasting half a day on, and the perfect result might cost as little as two dollars.

The market

Stock audio is still a mere fraction compared to the business of stock images, but it’s growing fast. Back when it was distributed on CD collections it cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in equipment to shoot and edit a movie. Now anyone can do it, and they need soundtrack elements to go along with their work. “There’ll always be media where music is rarely if ever used compared to high volume of photography and graphics in books, magazines and newspaper,” says Getty Images’ Larry Mills, “but as more of them become digitally based the need for music will grow.”

It also used to be that the sole market for licensed music was ads and shows on TV and maybe cinema ads. As the fragmenting advertising and media markets spread out onto everything from websites to mobile phones to in-game content the market will support more variety in format, quality and style, so stock audio is stepping into an action-packed fray.

The good thing for providers is that it was a mostly easy switch to bring music stock into their various technology infrastructures and business models. “Many parts of [our site] could be used in selling audio files,” says Kelly Thompson. Some of the architecture and backend processes had to be modified or written from scratch, but we’re still in the infancy stage and future plans in audio will expand its solid roots.”

Such solid roots are now firmly planted, and stock audio is poised to give your creative work more dimension even faster than it ever did before…

Searching out Music’s DNA

You might have seen some of the technologies showing up on websites and in some software where you play a clip of a song and a logarithm goes off to find the name of the title and artist so you can buy it.

Can similar software help you find the perfect musical track? It would initially appear not — surely something as subjective as ‘good’ music or a song which suits your project needs a uniquely human response that computers simply aren’t built for? Actually, they’re very good at the sort of mathematical patterns music is made up of, and the reality of a software agent to suggest music is getting closer.

Online tools like Shazam or Midomi can find a track based on a recording of singing, humming or whistling a melody, and online radio services Pandora or ‘learn’ what you like to listen to based on what you’ve listened to before.

Neither method’s perfect, but a new technology from audio software company Celemony promises to drill much deeper into the ones and zeros of a music file. Using a process called Direct Note Access (DNA), a computer can isolate, itemise and process each individual note or sound to come up with measurable values for the mood, tempo, genre, key and more.

When it comes to searching for music, that gives you the capability to express the parameters for the sound you need down to the tiniest possible detail. Then, just sit back and wait while the software? searches the metadata for a million song files all over the web to find ones that match it, stitching the available media to your project with more precision than you’ve ever had before. Watch it in action at

Where do you get it?

iStockPhoto audio

Getty Images music search

Audio Jungle

Audiomicro music and sound effects

Sound clips and other components for Flash files

Stock music