The idea of releasing music that has no copyright attached to it would probably seem absurd to most people working in the music industry.
The point is to at least try to earn money from all uses of music, right? NoCopyrightSounds (NCS) would disagree.
The label, based in Preston, UK and now 10-years-old, allows video creators across platforms like YouTube and Twitch to use anything from their catalogue for free, with a small ask of a credit.
As a result, NCS has music in 150 million videos, which have generated 550 billion views, and its catalog tallies around 120 million streams per month.
The premise behind the unconventional model is that the NCS credit is in millions of videos (although not all of the 150 million — not everyone will credit), which then have a chance of turning into paid streams, generating income for both artist and label.
This approach suits up and coming talent who need the promo best and NCS doesn’t (yet) have a host of known signings. Names to have released music through the predominantly electronic label include Lost Sky, Elektronomia, Koven, Curbi, JPB, Cartoon and Deaf Kev.
That said, NCS signed Alan Walker’s Fade which went on to be reimagined (as Faded and released via Mer Recordings) and reached No.1 in countries around the world.
The label has also been leaning into artist development territory and last year released its first artist-led album from German duo Unknown Brain.
Services offered to signings by the seven-person team are full service, spanning distribution, pitching, sync, marketing, promotion, royalties/publishing and accounting.
NCS was founded by Billy Woodford in 2011, who was struggling to find copyright free music for his gaming videos on YouTube. He started a YouTube channel to service this need for other creators, uploading all the copyright free music he could find.
After a while, Woodford realised he needed to sign the music so that NCS could guarantee that it was free to use and the label was born.
Today, the NCS YouTube channel has racked up over 31 million subscribers. Artists who release through the label are on 50/50 deals, which also cover publishing and are often for one single.
The label typically releases three new tracks per week and has enjoyed a 15% increase in streams and views during the pandemic — believed to be due to the fact that consumption of content and listening to music increased with people being at home more.
Here, we chat to Label Manager Pete Torrington and General Manager Dan Lee about the NCS business model, music copyright and their future plans and ambitions.
The commercial music industry hasn’t always been friendly with YouTube in particular or too enthused about the idea of unlicensed music being used in user-generated content. Is there anything that side of the business could learn from your approach?
Dan: TikTok has completely changed the music industry, whether for the better or not. You can use pretty much any song you want in your TikTok video and we have that same approach with YouTube and I believe that should be the case [across the business]. But you should also be able to monetise that as a creator.
With major labels, their core focus is revenue generation and they can put a million dollars into a marketing campaign. So they don’t necessarily need that exposure on YouTube, whereas it’s something we’re heavily leaning into. Throughout the last 10 years, we’ve had lots of people in the more traditional industry disagree with our approach but I believe that everything is now heading in the same direction.
“Throughout the last 10 years, we’ve had lots of people in the more traditional industry disagree with our approach but everything is now heading in the same direction.”
Dan lee, ncs
Pete: UGC is now dominating campaigns — it’s so focused on, ‘Oh, we need to get this track trending on TikTok or we want you to be using YouTube Shorts’. For Ed Sheeran’s latest campaign, he released short snippets of the album on YouTube to encourage people to use that for their own creations. A marketing or promotion strategy will now feature TikTok, YouTube Shorts and Instagram Reels heavily and then you’ve got ByteDance in China and all of that sort of stuff.
When the track’s out there, it’s about what fans and creators can do with that to put their own stamp on it. It’s a really exciting time to see all these unique ways that people can use the content and mess around with it.
Where is the line drawn between tracks being used for free and promotion happening as a result and just pure exploitation?
Dan: I don’t know if it’s unfair for anyone really. An integral part of what we ask for when a content creator uses our music is that they credit it. I would appreciate if artists are having their music used all the time but they’re never getting any credit or money for it, I get that. Perhaps that’s where the line is — if you’re using the music, you at least have to give credit to the original creator of that music.
Our policy is that if you’re an independent content creator, you can use music for free on YouTube and Twitch. But if you’re a company like Samsung, or whatever, and you want to use our music, we’ll do a commercial licence. There has to be some sort of way of tracking that [difference] but I don’t know how you could systemise it.
Would you make any changes to the current music copyright framework?
Dan: You can sign up to a distributor and distribute pretty much any track you want, even if you don’t own it. The issue you then run into is that you get people distributing tracks that they don’t own for a quick money grab. A copyright claim will come about because someone’s stolen our song and we then have to deal with that.
When we go to the distributor and say, ‘You’ve allowed this track to be distributed which you don’t have any rights to, nor does the artist who distributed it,’ they pass on the blame, and go, ‘Well, we’re just the distributor, it’s the artist that’s infringed.’ That framework, that means anyone can take something and make it appear like they own it, needs to change.
“The framework that means anyone can take something and make it appear like they own it, needs to change.”
Pete: That issue can cause havoc. A typical NCS release will be used in 150,000 or 250,000 videos by creators within the space of a fortnight of being released, if not more, if it’s a popular track. If someone uploads it and claims ownership of it, our claims channel is inundated. We’ve got a community of 100,000 to 200,000 to half a million a million content creators who are like, ‘Hey, we’re using this music because we like it and on the provision that it’s copyright free’.
We then have to go in there and try and mitigate the damage. We’d like something to change that would make it much easier for us to be able to jump on these issues quicker, as opposed to us doing like a lot more investigative work.
Dan: It’s showing proof of ownership and perhaps with things like the blockchain, you’ll be able to prove where the original source came from and who the original owner is. There’s some sort of technology that could definitely be built.
Is there anything else you would like to change about the music industry?
Pete: When we did our first album campaign in 2019, as part of that, we were reaching out to lots of published artists to explain our model to them and the benefits of releasing with us. There’s always a sticking point when it comes to the publishing and we spoke to a guy and he said that copyright free music was a race to the bottom.
We understand that’s an old school mentality and that what we do is untraditional, which is what’s unique about it. But when you hear the term ‘copyright free music’, there is still a stigma attached that it’s of poor quality, cheap and mass market.
Our goal has always been to remove that stigma because we’ve had some amazingly talented people release music with us from all over the world and some of the tracks that have signed with us have gone onto achieve immense commercial success, as well as having this really strong copyright free element.
That’s the thing that bugs me sometimes — I understand that someone might be a bit dubious of free music, but ultimately, it’s copyright free to allow people to experience it and create their own creations from the track, supporting their livelihood as well as that of the artist.
What are your future ambitions and plans for NoCopyrightSounds?
Pete: We also want to have the traditional model of developing artist careers. We have done that with artists such as Unknown Brain, who we worked with on a longer-term basis, but we want to be able to have marquee artists who are signed to NCS and who we help fund and support with album and EP deals and encourage them to grow in the live sector.
We want artists we’re working with to come to us for anything, not just in regard to music, but also touring, merchandise and branding. We want to be a full service label that enables people to fulfil their creative goals.
Dan: Also, we launched a brand about a year ago called NCS Arcade and this is turning into a bit more of an educational and informative thing for up and coming artists. Through it, we showcase our artists and how they work with tutorials and interviews about artist backgrounds. We’ve found that up and coming artists who want to work with us see that as a great resource and we want to grow that and empower creators in any way we can.
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