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Creative Commons for Musicians: Can You Make Money by Giving Music Away?

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Read Time: 7 min
This post is part of a series called Creative Session: The Business of Music.
A Musician's Introduction to Copyright
The Role of the Producer in the Studio

Last month we had a look at your rights as a music producer: copyright. This week we’ll check out why you may not want to reserve all of your rights. Creative Commons is all about a middle way: “Some rights reserved.” What exactly is Creative Commons, and how can not enforcing all of your rights be a good thing?

What Is Creative Commons?

“Creative Commons” is a concept and set of licenses developed by Harvard Law School professor Lawrence Lessig as a reaction to our increasingly litigious society, and out of a desire to add some gray between the extremes of reserving no rights (public domain) and reserving all rights (in standard copyright agreements). His book “Free Culture” (which was published under a Creative Commons license and can be downloaded for free here) describes the concept in easy-to-read language.

Towards the end of that book, Lessig describes one of the purposes of Creative Commons is to “enable creativity to spread more easily”:

Creative Commons is just one example of voluntary efforts by individuals and creators to change the mix of rights that now govern the creative field. The project does not compete with copyright; it complements it. Its aim is not to defeat the rights of authors, but to make it easier for authors and creators to exercise their rights more flexibly and cheaply. That difference, we believe, will enable creativity to spread more easily. (Free Society, p.286)

And that is a good thing for independent artists.

And notice that he doesn’t see Creative Commons as replacing copyright, but complementing it. It may make sense to license some of your works one way, and some another. And Creative Commons licenses themselves are quite flexible, allowing you to choose what the consumers of your music can do with it. You create your own license by combining these four conditions in a way that works for you:

  • Attribution: You let others copy, distribute, display, and perform your copyrighted work — and derivative works based upon it — but only if they give credit the way you request.
  • Share Alike: You allow others to distribute derivative works only under a license identical to the license that governs your work.
  • Non-Commercial: You let others copy, distribute, display, and perform your work — and derivative works based upon it — but for non-commercial purposes only.
  • No Derivative Works: You let others copy, distribute, display, and perform only verbatim copies of your work, not derivative works based upon it.

Read more on the Creative Commons Licenses page.

So how are musicians making the most of Creative Commons?

How Are Musicians Using Creative Commons?

Creative Commons licenses give music listeners the right to copy your music, at least non-commercially. Why would you want to give them this right? Distribution. Letting those who love your music distribute it to their friends is a great way for independent musicians to broadly distribute some or all of their music - and at the same time lets you stop others from profiting from your music at your expense.

At this point you may be wondering, “If I’m letting people copy my music for free, is it possible to make money from that music?” The answer is a definite “Yes”.

The Creative Commons FAQ explains with the following two points:

  1. “Firstly, because our licenses are non-exclusive which means you are not tied down to only make a piece of your content available under a Creative Commons license; you can also enter into other revenue-generating licenses in relation to your work.” In other words, you can distribute a song on your website with a Creative Commons license, and have the same song on an album with a standard copyright license.
  2. “Secondly, the noncommercial license option is an inventive tool designed to allow people to maximize the distribution of their works while keeping control of the commercial aspects of their copyright.” In other words, if your music becomes popular, someone can’t just take a copy of your song and sell it on an album. You retain the rights over who makes money from your music.

Neither of those points guarantee that you will make money, but they keep that option open. And in case there is any confusion, the FAQ points out that the Creative Commons term “noncommercial use” means that others can’t profit from your music, not you.

So Creative Commons opens up the possibility of broadly distributing your music. The possibility of making money is real, but will take some ingenuity and creative thinking. Here are some examples of other musicians’ creative thinking.

1. Bring Traffic to Your Website Where You Also Sell Your Music

Yoko Ono’s Plastic Ono Band recently held a remix competition on their website. You can download the Creative Commons licensed sample pack which includes the track’s vocal effects, loops of bass, drums, sound effects, and Tenorion files. Remix the tracks to your taste, and upload for the chance to win.

Create your own remix of “The Sun Is Down!” by Yoko Ono Plastic Ono Band, using as many or few of the samples from the pack and any original audio you wish to add.

When you have finished your mix, make an MP3 copy that’s as high quality as possible, but still under 10MB in size.

Email the MP3 of your mix, along with its name and your name, address, email and phone number to before 12 December 2009.

The competition was a huge draw card to the website. And once there you can’t help but notice the huge link, “Out now! Click here for iTunes, MP3s , CDs & Vinyl.” People pay for convenience, and to get music in the medium they prefer. Concerts are also advertised on the page.

2. Give Away Streams and Sell Downloads

Jonathan Coulton, a singer-songwriter and musician based in Brooklyn, New York, has been releasing music under a Creative Commons license for some time. Here is his circular rationale:

I give away music because I want to make music, and I can’t make music unless I make money, and I won’t make any money unless I get heard, and I won’t get heard unless I give away music.

He makes all of his music available to stream for free from his website, and many of the songs are also available for free download. But he also sells song download for $1, and albums for between $5-10. He also sells merchandise such as books and t-shirts from his website.

3. Sign Up With a Label Who Sell Creative Commons Music

An increasing number of music labels are selling Creative Commons licensed music. Consider selling your music on their website.

Magnatune is a great example. They only sell Creative Commons music, and the artist makes a huge 50% of every sale.

The Creative Commons website publishes a long list of record labels and music communities who distribute Creative Commons music.


Has this article raised your interest in Creative Commons licenses? Perhaps you still have doubts that giving away music can help you make money. These thoughts shared by Jonathan Coulton in an interview may help:

It’s gone very well for me. At first, even though I was all fired up about the possibilities of CC, I still had that panicky lizard-brain fear about file sharing. I can understand why it’s a hard thing for people in the industry to get over – I totally sympathise. But at least for someone in my position, it’s the best thing I could have done. Every month I get more traffic, more donations/sales, and more fans. I’m quite certain that having a CC license on all the music has really helped that process. If someone who’s never heard my music before gets a free mp3 (or twenty) and likes it, chances are they’re going to pass it along to some friends, blog about it, maybe even make a video for it. Each one of those outcomes means more exposure, more fans, and more chances for people to pay me – something that wouldn’t have happened as easily if the music was all locked up with DRM and the full battery of copyright restrictions.

If you’re interested in learning more about how musicians can use Creative Commons, a good place to start is the Creative Commons Musician Wiki. Or if you prefer listening to reading, check out the podcast How Musicians Can Use Creative Commons. And don't forget to check out the book that started it all: Free Culture.

Creative Commons may not be for every musician or every piece of music. Is it for you? Have you used it to license any of your music? How are you making money from your Creative Commons licensed tracks? Let us know in the comments.

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