Most people know you can earn money from posting videos and images on the likes of YouTube and Instagram. But few are probably aware that there is a hidden army of “gig economy” entrepreneurs who are earning a bit of extra cash – or in some cases as much as £30,000 a year – by composing the music that soundtracks our lives in the digital age.
They specialise in creating music that can be licensed for use in everything from YouTube videos, computer games and movie trailers to TV adverts, corporate promotional videos and PowerPoint slideshows. It’s known in the trade as “stock music”, but is also known as library music, production music and royalty-free music.
Stock music can pop up everywhere – you might hear it playing when you are in a shop or waiting to be put through on the phone, or listening to your favourite podcast or meditation CD. It might be a short clip or a long piece, or take the form of a simple keyboard motif, an epic orchestral track or anything in between.
Businesses and individuals looking for the right piece of music to underscore a particular shot or moment will often approach a music library – and this is where people such as Elliot Middleton come in. The 27-year-old, who is based in Manchester and works with a number of companies, says writing and producing stock music is now his full-time career, and he makes “a good income” from it.
Middleton is one of a number of UK contributors signed up to the US company Shutterstock, which specialises in providing licensed imagery and music to businesses, and its Canada-based music library arm PremiumBeat. He has been producing and recording bands and creating his own music for the past decade, but early last year started taking a closer interest in the world of music licensing. “The websites provide numerous genres, but I tend to focus on indie pop/ambient music as well as film score/trailer music-style tracks, as these are the styles that I love to write,” says Middleton, who started working with Shutterstock/PremiumBeat in November.
He says he provides music to the company every month, “and I love it ... I’m fortunate in that the music I most enjoy writing is requested and is currently in demand.”
So how do people make money – and how much can you earn? There are lots of music libraries out there – Pond5, The Music Case, Productiontrax and Audio Network are just a few of the bigger names – many of which say they are looking for composers. How much you get will vary. For example, with Pond5, when you upload your work and it has been approved you set your own price and earn 50% of each sale, while The Music Case offers 43% commission on sales. With Productiontrax, meanwhile, you get paid every month – 65% of the price you set – when your music is bought by someone. It claims to offer the “highest royalty split in the industry: 65/35”.
It’s less clear what Shutterstock/PremiumBeat contributors receive – a spokesman for the company says it is cautious about issuing information about how much it pays. How it typically works is that the company will commission a contributor to compose a track, based on the types of music that its clients – which range from creative agencies to individual YouTubers – are looking for. The contributor is paid a fee and the track is added to the library, where it is available for people to buy for £34 ($49), which is the cost of a standard music licence.
Middleton says he is “fortunate to be among the most popular artists on the site”, and adds that his music has been used in a variety of places, “but definitely a lot on YouTube and Vimeo”. It has popped up in real estate videos, wedding videos, etc.
He says: “I’d rather not go into figures with how much I make, but I can definitely say that working with Shutterstock/PremiumBeat enables me to support myself financially and stay up to date with industry standard studio equipment.” He adds: “If you are very proactive and your music is in demand by the site, then you can earn an income of about $30,000-$40,000 [£23,000-£30,000] a year.”Oliver Lyu: ‘I aim to write 60 tracks a year.’
Another of the company’s UK contributors is Oliver Lyu, 22, who graduated from the University of West London last year and works full-time as a composer. He works in a number of genres, including electronic, folk, rock and hip-hop, and has built his own studio in west London. “I am hired to write tracks, so the workload and how much I earn varies each year based on the volume of music I create, along with any other external jobs I get outside of the libraries … I aim to make around 60 tracks a year for the two companies, give or take a few private projects taking over.” Lyu says that last year he earned about £24,000 from the work he did for Shutterstock/PremiumBeat, plus some external projects.
One possible downside of this line of work is that the composers often don’t find out who is making use of their music and what they are doing with it. Occasionally, however, they will stumble upon something they wrote. Lyu was recently amused to learn that someone had used one of his pieces, an electronic track called Breaking Down, on the YouTube trailer for a raunchy-sounding novel called Attracted to a Woman, about a seemingly perfect, churchgoing couple secretly addicted to “fortune and flesh”.Oliver Lyu’s studio, which he recently built in his home in west London, where he now works full time as a composer. Photograph: Oliver Lyu
When someone sells a track, Shutterstock/PremiumBeat gains full rights to it, “allowing us freedom to license the music for all types of client needs”. However, the contributors retain their share of rights and royalties for public performance of their music. “They are getting paid for the creation of the song,” says the spokesman.
While some people are making a living out of this, most contributors are musicians and creatives for whom this is a way of making some extra cash. He adds that these musicians “are making money with the freedom and flexibility to work from home, anticipating what customers – entrepreneurs, agencies, YouTubers and more – will want before they ask for it”.
About 10% of the company’s stock music artists are based in the UK, and some of them, such as Lyu, were invited to join the roster of composers. However, there is also an opportunity to submit work to a music library via its website.