A Beginner’s Guide to the Free Music Archive

Posted on June 28, 2012


The Free Music Archive is a terrific resource for creators who want to find music they can confidently use in their videos or other projects (and also just for listening). The FMA specializes in music that has been “pre-cleared for certain types of uses that would otherwise be prohibited by copyright laws that were not designed for the digital era.”

Here are a couple of things this site has going for it (it offers a lot of reasons to love it):

  • Curated content. Unlike user-centered services, such as Soundcloud, which allows users to upload their own content at will, the Free Music Archive is a curator-centered service. A host of FMA curators solicit contributions from musicians, netlabels, artist collectives, and radio stations worldwide. On the surface, this may not seem like such a big plus, but when you consider the vast info-landscape of the Internet–having a even a little guidance can make the world of free internet music much easier to manage.
  • Clear licensing information. Another benefit of having curated content is that each track in the archive also includes a clear description of how you may use it. Other sites may allow members to attach CC licenses to uploaded music, but visitors to the site can’t be sure that the license information is correct (say, if a person affixes a CC license to an unsanctioned remix). By contrast, because the FMA curators deal directly with the creators of the music, you can be confident that the licenses specify which uses are allowed and encouraged by the rightsholders. The significance of this cannot be overstated.

The FMA is one of the best and most forward-leaning resources on the Internet, but there is one caveat to all this greatness: it is so different from iTunes that it can be overwhelming to a newcomer. Arriving at the site for the first time and having very few traditional signifiers (like none of your favorite musicians or blinking banners) can be frustrating. Let me help you out. I’ve spent hundreds of hours browsing the FMA over the last few years, and I’d like to share a few tips I’ve learned along the way.

  1. Create an account. I know this sounds obvious, but many of my students don’t do this. Creating a free account offers you a number of benefits unavailable to the casual browser. With an account, you can track your listening, rate tracks, mark favorites, leave comments, and participate in the social aspects of the site. You can even make and share playlists. (Like this one I made just for you.)
  2. Change the way you listen to music. If you’re on the hunt for music to use in creative projects, you need to listen with an ear for a particular track’s potential as soundtrack or background music, which is not necessarily the same as “good party music.” If you listen with open ears, you might be surprised by what’s out there waiting for you to use it.
  3. Commit to listening to a lot of music, and commit to maintaining some sort of music database on your own to manage this music. When I first started listening to music from the FMA, I knew I wanted music that I could use for my videos, but I didn’t know where to start looking. So I began by downloading every “tracks to sync” playlist. I kept those tracks separate from the rest of my digital music library, and I listened to them. All the time. When I found tracks I liked, I moved them to another playlist called “CC Keepers.” As my collection of licensed music grew, I eventually subdivided that playlist (mellow instrumental; ambient; beats, etc.)  Right now, I have hundreds of songs set aside for personal use. I don’t know when I’ll use them–or if I’ll use them–but if I need music, I know where to go.
  4. Play by the rules, please. The Free Music Archive is premised on the idea that everyone benefits from free cultural exchange. If you share that value, you need to help show the world that we can devise viable alternatives to traditional copyright law (which, let’s face it: not working). The artists share their work under the understanding that you will abide by the permissions granted by the license they’ve attached to that track. And in exchange for using their music, you need to do only what you’ve been permitted to do.

I recommend that you point your browser to the FMA and read up.