YouTube Creators Shocked at Cost of Song-Licensing


  • YouTube released a new music-licensing feature for US creators in its partner program this month.
  • The tool allows influencers to buy a license to use a song or share revenue with rights holders.
  • Some creators were shocked by the cost for a single track, with song prices reaching up to $18,000.

YouTube is opening up access in February for US creators in its partner program to use copyrighted music in their videos without being demonetized. 

The new Creator Music feature the platform is beta testing allows influencers to either pay upfront to use a track in a video or split future ad revenue with a song’s rights holders once the video starts earning payouts through Google’s AdSense program.

Some creators who gained access to the tool in February said it shows promise as a new way to incorporate popular music in videos — a common pain point for the platform’s users. But several expressed sticker shock at the cost of licensing songs, which, while often listed as free or as low as $29.99, were in some instances priced at over $1,000, according to screenshots of the feature viewed by Insider.

“I saw stuff go all the way up to $500,” said Daniel Sulzbach, a YouTube creator who posts commentary videos on the account Repzion, which has about 760,000 subscribers. “That’s astronomically too expensive in my opinion.”

Some Creator Music licenses have a set price, while others have custom pricing based on a channel’s size. Other licenses don’t cost anything, including YouTube Audio Library licenses and Creative Commons licenses.

Prices for a song license in Creator Music can vary widely based on a creator’s subscriber count. Sulzbach noticed this variance when comparing his main channel to a smaller gaming channel he operates that has around 7,000 subscribers. The song “Seguimos Laborando” by Grupo 360 cost $0 on Sulzbach’s gaming channel and $149.99 on his main channel, for example. Insider verified the price difference via screenshots.

A two-year license for the song “Feel It Too” by Cadmium and Timmy Commerford ranged from $1,000.99 to $18,014.99, according to two creators who shared screenshots of the track’s license details with Insider. The creators, David Altizer and Justin Watkins, had 7,000 subscribers and 8.9 million subscribers, respectively.

The song was also listed as eligible for revenue sharing for creators unwilling to spend the flat fee. After the two-year period, a creator would need to renew their license on the track, either through a revenue-share agreement or another flat-rate purchase depending on the rights holders’ terms, to ensure copyright compliance.

“Obviously even a creator my size wouldn’t even think about using this track, especially with a two-year limited term,” said Watkins, known online as Thinknoodles, who also shared screenshots of several other songs with similar listed fees. “Would be extremely unlikely to ever get close to breaking even (even with an infinite term), let alone any profit.”

YouTube Creator Music screenshot

“Feel It Too” by Cadmium and Timmy Commerford was priced at $1,000.99 for a two-year video license for one creator.

David Altizer/YouTube.

For instances in Creator Music where a song is available for revenue-sharing rather than an upfront license, the costs can still be steep, particularly when a creator needs to split half (or more depending on usage rights costs) of their 55% cut of ad revenue, said the tech YouTuber Vyyyper, who requested to be identified by their YouTube username.

“If you’re a smaller creator and you’re just starting out, you’re probably not going to get much return by licensing a track,” they said. “You’re probably not going to get the views that [are] going to justify that license paying for itself.”

Other creators balked at the idea that a Creator Music license only grants an influencer access to use a song in a single video on YouTube, and cannot be used with YouTube Shorts, livestreams, or in reposts of the video on other social platforms. One pointed to competing music-licensing tools like Epidemic Sound, which offers access to royalty-free music that can be used across different social platforms via a monthly subscription, as a more cost-effective alternative.

“Obviously I create stuff on YouTube, but I create stuff everywhere,” said Altizer, who is also a content consultant who has worked with the music-licensing service Soundstripe. “Every dollar counts when you’re self-employed. If I’m going to spend $30 on one song for one use case that can only be used on YouTube versus a subscription service that’s $15 a month [where] I can download an unlimited library and use them on a variety of channels, on a variety of platforms, obviously you can see the objective appeal to that.”

Thomas Johnston, managing director at the influencer-talent-management firm Shifted Digital, said his clients mainly use Epidemic Sound for campaigns because most brands only want royalty-free music used in videos.

The consequences for marketers who violate copyright terms can be severe. Music rights holders regularly crack down on brands that use songs in social-media posts without paying for a license.

Music is core to social media, and rights holders want to cash in

YouTube’s price tags for song licenses may seem particularly shocking for creators that are used to accessing tracks for free on platforms like TikTok and Shorts. But as social media gobbles up attention time and becomes an increasingly important hub for artist discovery, labels and publishers are looking to renegotiate with major platforms to capture more revenue. And creators that make money from social media may need to help foot the bill.

TikTok in particular has solidified itself as a top platform for music discovery. The company and its owner ByteDance are currently embroiled in contract negotiations with the major labels as they look to leverage the app’s influence in music to garner favorable licensing deals.

Meta Platforms, which owns Facebook and Instagram, also introduced its own revenue-sharing model last year to enable creators to use music in videos without losing monetization rights. 

YouTube has gradually introduced features over the past decade-and-a-half to compensate music rights’ holders on its platform. In 2009, it colaunched the music-video platform Vevo with Universal Music Group. In 2015, it built a standalone music-streaming service called YouTube Music. The company is also setting aside revenue for music rights holders as it introduces revenue-sharing on Shorts this month.

In September, the company’s head of music wrote that YouTube had paid $6 billion to the music industry over a 12-month period.

This story has been updated to include additional details from creators.

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