DJ Basics: Where Do DJs Get Their Legal Music?

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So, after learning more about DJs I really started to wonder how DJs get their music. More specifically do DJs need to pay for it like everyone else, and is it legal to take someone else’s music to remix and manipulate for making a whole new sound?

DJ’s actually get their music from a vast listing of sources – from grabbing up great vinyl at the local thrift stores or online purchasing to finding music pools, streaming services, and artist hubs to get new downloads. Discovering new music is easy, but purchasing the music for your DJ sets and then being aware of the legalities of licensing are essential.

There are so many sources and even though the music is purchased, that doesn’t necessarily mean you have the rights to remix or perform with it. These things can get complicated. That’s why I did the research and tried to break it down for everyone.

Discovering New Music

An essential part of being a DJ is discovering, purchasing, and making sure you can use the right music for your mixing.  Discovering music is easy enough. You can follow specific genres on music applications that bring to you samples of things you may like. You can subscribe to industry podcasts and pay attention to club trends where you perform.

If you have a favorite artist or label, following their social media and even subscribing to that can keep you informed about new releases in the genres you like to use. Digital Radio is another source for new artists and songs, as it is set up by genre. 

In some cases, you may come across a song you want, but you have no idea who it’s by or what it is. A lot of audiophiles use an app like Shazam to identify a song that is playing and the app automatically saves that result to a listing.

If you don’t have the app, using your mobile phone’s assistant can work as well, you just have to take a screenshot to save the information for later. Once you know the details about a song you want to use in a mix, you just have to look that up. That brings you to the next step – getting your music.

Getting Music for Your Collection

DJs use different forms of music and therefore need to find different versions of tracks. A turntablist (at least the ones who don’t use a digital vinyl system) will want to go after actual vinyl albums. Physical albums need to be clean, unmarred, unwarped and well taken care of.

Most DJs will want digital music for their mixing. Not all DJ software is made alike. They call for various formats of music. Therefore, you need to be aware of what format to look for. When it comes to file types make sure that the music you get is at least 320kps MP3.

Keep in mind that these files are still compressed compared to WAV and other formats. For most DJs, 320kbps will be enough to make sure the integrity of the music is maintained. No matter what, categorizing and organizing your tracks can be time-consuming, so do not settle for mediocre tracks. Free or not, be sure to pick quality over quantity. 

Vinyl

Vinyl is still part of the art for many DJs. I’ve seen some famous DJs revisit the art form of turntablism, especially in the pandemic. But if you don’t already have a bunch of great music on vinyl in the genre you like to spin, where do you find them? 

If you’re lucky, in Local Classifieds, Thrift Stores, Yardsales, or maybe your parents or grandparents’ attic? 

If you don’t mind shipping charges – online sales are fantastic. There are also still some vinyl stores out there. Flea Markets to Free Markets… and don’t forget eBay.

Boomkat and Bleep offer a wide selection of underground and indie music and offer vinyl, so for scratch DJs, it’s a valuable resource for fresh tracks.

Discogs is like eBay but for music only. Many record collectors will use Discogs to buy and sell music and keep an eye out for rare records on their watchlists. It’s one of the best places to find rare releases, bootlegs, and promotional copies that are often impossible to find elsewhere.

Digital

Digital Media Purchasing & Streaming Websites

I believe everyone reading this should already know what I mean when I say, “streaming service.” But to be clear, streaming services are online sources of music content available for use by subscription or per song purchase options. Some of these might offer some freebies as well. I’ve compiled the most recommended of these services.

Bandcamp – I’m placing Bandcamp up top and center because most of the money taken in through this service goes directly to the artists themselves – it is considered an Indie Artist Hub. This is a great source of untapped and indie music – not just contemporary popular music.

They have established a reputation as the go-to place for releases from unsigned creators. It does offer some free tracks but mostly it offers tracks that you determine how much you’ll pay for. You can also find EP giveaways, especially from smaller, independent labels. 

Soundcloud – They have a reputation for having not only established artists but also up and comers set up by genre. This streaming platform doubles as a networking and social media centerpiece for musicians, DJs, producers, and beatmakers. Because of its tagging system, Soundcloud makes it easy to find the kind of songs a DJ needs. 

YouTube – I’ve written an article that covers the importance of YouTube to musicians. Because it is used often by musicians it has become a great source of music as well. And when you follow specific bands and labels, the platform will often suggest similar videos and music to you, leading you down a rabbit hole to find new artists whose music you may like. Of course, be aware of ads, unless you have premium services. 

That goes for other digital music subscription services, such as Spotify, Amazon, and Apple Music — be aware of ads, unless you have premium services.  And remember that just purchasing the music doesn’t give you the right to use it in performances. But I’ll discuss that below. 

The digital music services already mentioned are targeted more on consumer music. There are definitely similar services that are more focused on music for DJs and producers are out there. So I listed the most recommended of those as well. 

Beatport has a large catalogue of older music as well as a large selection of new releases from all the major labels. Beatport also offers suggestions on similar tracks – kind of like YouTube does. Also, with the launch of Beatport LINK you can now stream music directly to certain DJ controllers. 

Other great sources for DJs include Juno Download for electronic and metal.

Traxsource for underground or if your tastes are more house. I’ve been told, they often have exclusive tracks that you can’t get anywhere else.

Boomkat offers a wide selection of underground and indie music and even allows purchasing of vinyl, CD’s and cassettes. They also offer an impressive selection of music from eclectic, emerging genres that you may not find anywhere else. 

Bleep is another good choice for eclectic tastes and a wide range of genres. They also offer vinyls so for scratch DJs it’s a valuable resource for fresh tracks.

Now, these are all considered music distributors, where you purchase digital music or the right to play digital music through a sort of leasing agreement or subscription.

Beatport has also teamed up with a record pool DJcity to make Beatsource – which promotes ready-to-go playlists designed for any occasion and genre.  

Record Pools

Record pools aka DJ Pools or Music Pools are popular and regionalized digital collections of promotional music sent by labels and artists specifically for DJs and clubs to play. In exchange, the label or artist wants feedback and exposure. Back in the 1970’s these pools began as vinyl record pools in New York City and simply evolved. For a beginner DJ, this may not be the best place to start.

It’s a subscription service that is updated with new music for you to download. The pricing and quality can vary. Also, there are a lot of choices out there so be sure to do your research before committing. While it will work out cheaper these record pools are usually reserved for working DJ’s and can be an expensive option for a beginner.

There are so many more pools out there, but I’ve highlighted a few that I saw multiple times during research. DJcity adds new music almost daily, has a great in-house producing team, but also outsources to new up-and-comers for remixes to provide. The only drawback for most is the expense and the length of the subscription.

Digital DJ Pool is one of the cheapest pools to hop into and has the most intuitive website along with a trial period available.

BPM Supreme is where all subscribers have access to both audio and video files (so a great boon for VJing). They also offer edits of tracks made by in-house producers and have a huge back catalogue. 

Direct Music Service has been around so long that they have a back catalogue that spans decades. They also provide both audio and video files depending on the subscription tier you choose. And speaking of those subscription packages – they are kind of expensive. Obviously, a lot of DJs and producers feel it’s worth it.

Club Killers has become extremely popular worldwide. They even have their own podcast on Mixcloud that promotes their exclusive music. They are one of the pools that also has excellent edits of popular tracks available.

Digital Music Pool offers multiple genres and a huge back catalog.

Download Gates can be a great way to get some free music for your DJ sets. These gateways are where fans can take a call-to-action for an artist or a label and in return, they get free downloads. Usually, the trade-off is an email address or a follow on social media or even a repost of promotional material. The artist and possibly their label want to get “hype” out for new products and want people to talk about it and get it trending. This is one way to do that.

Some well-known download gates are Hypeddit, Click.DJ, Tuneboost, and Followgate. Of course, there are several more. A large range of genres are available to choose from but be sure to double-check the licenses on tracks so you know what you can use them for.

The Free Music Archive or FMA is an online repository of royalty-free music. While the Free Music Archive is free and open to anyone regardless of registration or other requirements, written and audio content is curated, and permission to upload/edit content is granted on an invitation basis. With over 100,000 free tracks available and growing, this collection offers DJs a great sampling of music to choose from, searchable by genre, with no subscriptions necessary.  

There are several other such sources of free or royalty-free music and I’ll only be listing a few of them, here.

Bensound is popular not only for the royalty-free content but also because you are allowed to use this music on most video and streaming services. Therefore, content creators, as well as DJs, are happy to use this website.

CCTrax is considered “creative commons” licensed songs, but there are varying degrees of usage designated per producer.

Jamendo is a bit newer, but people really like their community and features. Artists can place their music on this site for consideration of TV, film, and other content. All songs are free to download for personal use and come with a creative commons license, which means you can spin with it during your DJ sets.

Demodrop operates like a community for producers and DJs. They encourage feedback to artists who have provided free music in exchange for support for producers. Additionally, if you do get into creating your own music it can be a great place to get your music out there and also get feedback on your productions. 

As always, even on these websites (FMA’s warning is on the first page, just scroll down) that offer “free” or “royalty-free” music to use on your projects and in DJing, there are license requirements. 

SoundCloud Profiles is also a great place to find free music. As mentioned earlier Soundcloud can be a good place to get free music and remixes. You can literally use the search engine on this site to ask for Free Downloads – and voila!  Sometimes you’ll need to like the artist profile or other social media pages to gain access to a free download. On the upside, other than that, there usually are no strings attached. There are a lot of talented unsigned artists out there as well so I encourage you to dig around Soundcloud to find free music to add to your collection.

Keep your own Promo Lists of artists that you want music from. Independent and undiscovered artists will often offer their music for free if you simply ask. Sometimes even established artists and labels will give out some freebies. It’s good to keep these resources up your sleeve especially if you’re on a tight budget. Following an artist or label on social media can have its perks. Often, to promote a new drop, a record label will give away free samples from an album to fans. They are also known to give away freebies when there are milestones reached or a celebration is happening. 

Just remember to keep up to date with these artists when you use their music – just in case they sign on with a label. Why? Because when a label buys an artist’s work, it becomes their property. And if they find that you’ve used any of their property, they may claim a copyright violation against you.  Always have your licenses in order and cover yourself. You can read more about that below.

Is it Legal to Remix Another Artist’s Music?

What you need really depends upon where you live and what you plan on doing with the music. Obviously, you should always purchase the music you plan to use. That’s a given. But also, to re-record it or play it and remix it at any live event/venue, in a studio, or online there need to be licenses purchased that give the artists royalties.  No matter what, there should always be two things made clear before a DJ performs: 

  • Each track should be a legally sourced track – meaning it was legally purchased as an MP3 by the performer or leased (as the case may be through streaming companies).
  • A license for the public performance of copyrighted music should be in place before performing. Sometimes this falls to the owner of a club or the holder of the social media/digital platform used. But it’s in the DJ’s best interest to be sure there is one. 

First off, let’s get some terminology out of the way. 

The Creative Commons license is a kind of copyright that lets creators keep their rights to and ownership of the work, while at the same time allowing others to copy, distribute, and use that work for free. When applying for a Creative Commons license, the music producer chooses whether or not the song can be used commercially, and whether or not the song can be used in a derivative manner (a remix by a DJ). 

A royalty-free license means that you can use the music without having to pay a royalty or license fee each time you use it, and you can make derivative works of it and use it in commercial settings as well. There still are a few limitations though: for example, you can’t sell the sounds and pass them off as your own creation – credit should be given. 

In several countries, the law is very specific about purchasing a digital license for the use of music  (the UK, Canada, Finland, and Italy among others are included in this).  In many cases the venue or the club keeps a licensing agreement on hand for all performers that come to their stage. However, if they don’t, it’s the responsibility of the DJ. Many DJs just keep a license to be sure they are covered. 

It can be complicated. And then, you have the laws and licensing in the United States, where I’m from. When it comes to the US, DJ’s don’t have to pay for this licensing to play copyrighted music. Of course, they still need to keep it legal and purchase all the tracks they plan to use.

After the venues or event producers pay their fees to the music’s respective owners, they will be allowed to play it for the crowd. When a DJ works for such a place, they are also automatically allowed to play these tracks without paying any fee. 

Who do they pay? Performing Rights Organizations (PROs), that act like a middle man between the music producers, songwriters, artists, and the venues are the holders of the licenses and distributors of royalties. In the US, such organizations are the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP), Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI), Society of European Stage Authors and Composers (SESAC), and SoundExchange. 

If a DJ in the US plans to play music outside of a licensed venue, they will be held responsible for the royalties and other fees that would otherwise be paid by the venue. In this case, they even risk a lawsuit from the PROs.

Also, it pays to know the limitations of the services you use for gathering your music before you use it in DJing. When you use music from a streaming service or subscription service, like AppleMusic, Spotify, Amazon Music, or YouTube Music you’re not really buying the track, you’re leasing it for the length of your contract with that service.

You can use them, but you don’t own them – so it’s illegal to sell or copy these digital files. And in case of downloadable purchases through sites like Beatport or Bandcamp, their terms tell you that you are not allowed to copy or resell their digital music files. So you can use the music to DJ, but if you want to make money off of a mix you’ve created using someone else’s music… sorry. 

Streaming has become a huge business in the last few years, and with that comes a new set of copyright issues. Introducing the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). Because this act offers safe harbor to platforms that take steps at ensuring copyrighted materials do not get posted that illegally circumvent the purchase of licensing for royalties, a DJ must protect themselves from having their mixes removed from the platform in question and having their channel removed.

Whether we’re talking about YouTube or Twitch (or many other social media platforms), it is important that a DJ know that they do not pay a license fee on your behalf. This means, if you upload or stream a DJ mix it will often be removed for copyright reasons, even though you legally purchased the music. Remember – there must be a license in place, as well. 

Some platforms like Mixcloud – sites based specifically on uploading mixes, remixed songs, podcasts, and radio shows – have agreed to pay a license fee to the big record labels and so you are able to host recordings without the worry of breaking the law. But as a streamer, it would be your responsibility to legally cover yourself by reading the service agreements and make sure that the licensing is provided.  

And even though this article covers how to possibly get free promotional songs to use in your mixes, please be careful with that promo material, as well. Make sure you know what their rules are for handling it. There is usually a contract in the terms and conditions (you know the part almost no one reads and yet will sign?) also known as the “small print”. Failure to comply with their rules is often a legally liable breach of contract. So if they give you music, but tell you not to copy or distribute any of the music you receive? Guess what?  

The most important takeaway: A DJ or performer who uses songs that belong to someone else must use legally sourced music and work under a license to make the whole system work. And a smart DJ will always be sure to cover themselves and not get into trouble because of not understanding and adhering to the license agreement involved with other people’s music.

Rachel Adams

I would have previously thought of myself as an audiophile. But by gaming and listening to my children and their friends, I've been introduced to an entire realm of artists that are not on the radio.