How to get your music on podcasts

Illustration: Yann Bastard

Podcasts are no fad.

Currently valued at about $500 million, podcasts are projected to be a $1 billion industry by 2021, according to a report from the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) and PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP.

What does this mean for you as a musician? Not only are there a ton of podcasts about music and/or featuring music, but many use sound to help tell a story, grab attention in their intros, in advertisements, as transitions, and as a marketing tool. They present a unique opportunity to share your art with an engaged audience.

Unlike most radio programs, podcasts live on indefinitely. Or at least until the publisher takes them down. But even then, if someone downloads an episode, they can have it forever.

Analytics are also much more tangible for podcasts in comparison to radio or television. Publishers can see how many streams or downloads each episode has, plus where their audience is and what device they’re listening on. They can demonstrate value beyond the financial gain of having your music placed on podcasts.

Below, we walk through how podcast publishers secure rights to music and sounds, as well as different ways to get your music onto podcasts.

Music rights and podcasts

Unlike radio, podcasters must clear the rights to a direct license to use a piece of music. Those who own the rights to the music must give permission (and are often paid) for its use. That said, plenty of musicians donate their work to podcasts for free, which we cover in greater detail below.

In an article from 2015, Ari Herstand explains that AM/FM radio pays performing rights organizations (PROs) such as ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC in the U.S. for a “blanket license” to play all the songs in their catalogs. Terrestrial (AM/FM) radio doesn’t have to pay sound recording royalties to the artist, label, or publisher. Digital radio (Pandora, Sirius/XM), though, pays both composition performance royalties and sound recording performance royalties.

He explains, “Podcasts, however, fall into a completely separate category. Most podcasts are still downloaded. So the songs used require a mechanical license. And the podcasts which are streamed are considered ‘interactive’ plays which require a different license. ‘Interactive’ means you can choose what you want to hear when you want to hear it (like Spotify), so they don’t fall under the same category as the above scenarios which are ‘non-interactive’ services. So podcasts have to get a direct license from the rights holders.”

Bryan Bruchman, who hosts The Subliminal Inevitable Show and The Music Digest on BTRToday, plays loads of full tracks on both of his shows. The station uses a broadcast release form to get permission for any music they play. He said, “In many cases, we have an ‘all works’ release from labels allowing us to play anything they put out, but sometimes they can only provide specific songs or albums, depending on their contracts with artists.”

He added, “Music in podcasts is a complicated thing because it doesn’t quite fit the mold of existing paradigms or structures for performance, broadcast, or publishing. I think our particular approach is a way of making sure we’re ok to use it in our specific ways, essentially similar to college radio/for promotional purposes. Although it’s complex, we make sure we have explicit permission to use the songs.”

As long as the rights are cleared, podcast music agreements can be more casual. Carter Lou McElroy, who leads music supervision for the podcast For the Wild (she’s also the Business & Company Branding Manager at Girlie Action), shared that she uses a straightforward clearance form to secure the rights of use after negotiations.

How music is used in podcasts

There are endless ways for music and sounds to be used in a podcast. We’ll list just a few in order to kickstart ideas: as theme music, transitions between segments, sound effects, background during ads, intro and outro music, accompaniment to a narrative, as a part of the story (if it’s about a particular year or person, for example), to establish a mood, to promote the podcast itself on social media, as a part of a playlist or mix, or just a featured song a host or guest would like to share.

The more podcasts are created, the more creative ways music will be used. As you start pitching your music or if you’re approached by a podcast, consider how your music will be used when deciding whether or not to move forward with the opportunity.

Ways to get your music on podcasts

There are several ways to get your music on podcasts. Many folks we spoke to for this article said it’s an organic process. They often start with an idea of who they’d like to feature, then reach out to the artist’s contact. However, there are plenty of podcasts that accept submissions from artists and their representatives; some even work with sync agents.

Through representation

When we spoke with Lacey Swain from Sub Pop about how sync licensing works, she mentioned that a part of her job is to clear the rights for podcasts in addition to TV, film, and other media. A publishing representative or sync agent can field inquiries from podcast producers and/or look for unique opportunities to place your music in a show. They’ll then handle the licensing aspect of the deal.

Public relations agents, on the other hand, are more likely to pitch you as a guest or your music to be featured on a playlist podcast. They’ll have access to an online database and/or have done the research to build one. This approach is a bit different in that rather than being paid for your music to be used as part of the podcast, it’s a promotional opportunity. However, if you’re operating by the books and if your music is used on the show, the rights still need to be cleared by you or your publisher via a contract or clearance form.

My theory is that as companies such as Spotify continue to invest in the podcast space, they’ll hire music supervisors/editors for their original content like Netflix has. If they haven’t already.

Personal outreach

Another approach is to reach out to podcast producers yourself. If there’s a show you enjoy or one in which you can see your music fitting in well, reach out to their music supervisor/editor/director if they have one, or their producer.

Do your research before reaching out. Make sure you know the vibe of that show—what type of music they’ve included in the past, topics or themes covered, the types of guests they have, etc. For example, McElroy shared that she prioritizes music by underrepresented and marginalized people. This is evident if you look at the music featured in the show notes of For the Wild. She’s far more likely to accept music by a person of color or a member of the LGBTQIA community.

Also, make sure you have your music ready to be formatted for the type of podcasts you’re reaching out to. We cover that in greater detail below.

The friend/favor situation or trade

If you’re a musician and have a friend who runs a podcast, there’s a big chance you’ll be asked to lend your music. They may or may not have a budget to pay you. There are several ways to look at this situation — as simply doing a friend a favor, gaining exposure, building a relationship with their network, etc. Just make sure the show aligns with your values.

When someone wants to use your music but can’t pay for it, consider a trade. Maybe they have some gear they could lend you for recording, consult on engineering, or mix some of your sounds. Trades are a great way to get your music to more ears without devaluing it.

If you have a label or publisher, you’ll likely need to get the rights cleared for a favor or trade by whoever owns them per your publishing deal.

Sample and music libraries

Some of the more musically-inclined podcast producers create original show music. Or they find the sounds they need via a royalty-free library much like Splice Sounds. They can turn to sample libraries as a source of one-shots and loops to use as transitions, filler, sound effects, or to create full tracks. If a library is truly royalty-free, all of the sounds are cleared for commercial use.

By having your music on a sample library, you forego the need to do outreach or work with a representative, and you’ll be paid every time someone downloads your sounds.

For full songs and tracks, podcast creators might turn to a resource like the Free Music Archive from WFMU. If music from FMA is used, it must be credited verbally. They also have an option to “tip” the artist. However, not all tracks on FMA are fair game for podcasts and videos. The site has a great license guide and FAQ outlining the different licenses and what they mean. Podcasts and videos don’t require the same license, so be sure to do your research.

Work for a podcast as a composer

Another option is to get a gig with a podcast or podcast/radio network where you’re composing and creating original scores for their show(s). In this situation, you’d likely sign a contract that gives the show or network rights to the material created, making them the publisher and rights holder of the work produced. These roles can take many forms, from part-time contracts to full-time employees, and could potentially be a fun way to earn some table income.

Getting your music podcast-ready

McElroy shared that she often needs the instrumentals of a track to use in For the Wild. This echoes what Rachel Komar said in our article on music publishing about having your music ready for sync usage. Ask your engineer for stems and the instrumental version of your tracks so you can offer versatile usage of your music. By doing so, you’re creating more opportunities for additional revenue streams without having to record again! Additionally, ensure you know who owns what rights to your tracks and who needs to be paid for any usage.

Further considerations

If you’re looking to get your music on podcasts, consider what you’ll get in return. If it’s not for financial gain and if they’re offering you “exposure” as payment, ask them for the data behind their project. How many listeners or downloads they have, as well as the reach of their marketing channels — the size of their email list, social media following, etc.

Or, if it’s a show you really like or if you believe in their mission, there’s nothing wrong with lending your music to it. Consider how your music will be used. Meaning, if it’ll just be the instrumentals or just a clip, and where in the episode it’ll be included. If it’s as the intro, theme music, for an ad, etc. If that’s important to you, ask them upfront and consider putting together a simple contract or agreement outlining how your music can and cannot be used.

Finally, consider what type of credit you’d like and include that in your agreement. Do you want a shoutout in the intro or a link to purchase in their show notes? Perhaps the show could spotlight your featured song on social media with a link to purchase it. Make these requests explicit as you work with podcast publishers on an agreement.

Have questions about getting your music on podcasts? Leave them in the comments below!

November 7, 2019

Shannon Byrne Shannon Byrne is the founder and host of The Process podcast, an interview series exploring the process of survival as a creative. She's also the brand writer at Splice.