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Legal Mumbo JumboBefore we tackle these questions, let me clarify a couple of points with the disclaimer that I am not a lawyer and this should not be construed as legal advice. Every piece of music that is composed is copyrighted by the person who created it regardless of whether or not it is included on a CD and distributed under contract with a major record label. So anytime you use any bit of music, you are using copyrighted music. It doesn't matter how long the piece of music is (the 30 second rule is balderdash); if you play it, you're infringing on their copyright. The issue is whether or not you have the permission, rights or license to use that music. In the case of a popular song that you might hear on the radio, it gets even more complicated since there are many different parties who have rights to that piece of music including, but not limited to, the record company and the songwriter. Crediting the artist is not sufficient to protect yourself from a potential lawsuit.
The Four OptionsThere are 4 different approaches to using music as a theme or an intro/outro for your podcast. These also apply to using background/transition music in your show. The 4 options are songs from a popular recording artist, royalty free music, working with independent artists, and finally, custom composed music. Let's take a couple of minutes and break down each of these options and evaluate the pros and cons.
1. Music by Popular Recording ArtistsThis option is nice because there are many songs whose lyrics or music are familiar to many people and you might feel that the message of that song fits perfectly with the goals or topic of your podcast. But the cons are that it is very difficult to obtain a license to use a popular song in your podcast and it can also be very expensive. The record companies are still not sure how to handle this type of license and therefore it is often a very cumbersome process. If you're willing to sort out all the legalities to obtain all the necessary permissions then feel free to go for it. You may also choose to just accept the risk of a potential lawsuit for copyright infringement and use the song without permission. The choice is entirely up to you, but I'd strongly urge you not to do that.
2. Royalty Free MusicThere are many different sources online for obtaining royalty free music to use in your show. Some have very affordable prices, others require a more substantial investment and still others offer great tracks completely free and only require some sort of attribution. Many audio editing software programs also contain royalty free music that you can use. With any of these choices the benefit is you get a cool intro tune for free or relatively low cost investment. The downside is that the chances are pretty good that another podcast is using the same music as you are.
3. Independent Bands & MusiciansThis can be a really great option for many podcasts. There is an abundance of indie artists who would be happy to allow you to use their music in exchange for a link back to their website or a mention in your show credits. There really aren't any major drawbacks to going down this route.
4. Custom Composed MusicThis is my favorite option. All of my current podcasts have theme music that was custom written for that particular show. I work directly with a composer who writes the music based on specific instructions that I give him. You may have a friend or local musician that you can work with to create the perfect intro tune for your show. You can also use a service like giftysong.com, musicradiocreative.com, or a composer on a site like fiverr.com. The obvious benefit of this option is you have a unique sound for your show that no other show has and you can create something that fits your show's branding like a glove. The only negative is that this option can potentially be quite costly.
Ultimately, there's not really a right or wrong choice. There's not even one option that is better than the rest, generally speaking. It all comes down to personal preference and which option fits best with the goals that you have for your podcast.
Resources:Google + discussion on the topic of music in podcasts
Attorney Gordon Firemark's book for new media creators
Music Radio Creative - Custom Podcast Music
Gifty Song - Custom Music & Lyric Podcast Themes
Incompetech - Royalty Free Music
FreePlay Music - Royalty Free Music
YouTube Audio Library - Royalty Free Music
AudioJungle - Royalty Free Music
JewelBeat - Royalty Free Music
Partners In Rhyme - Royalty Free Music
The Music Bakery - Royalty Free Music
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