Demystifying Music Licensing
By Kaitlyn Wallace
Music licensing regulations can often seem baffling and contradictory to the lay user. Why can you use Pandora for Business, but not Spotify, to play music publicly? Why do I need licensing for more than one Performing Rights Organization, and how many are there anyway? What defines a public space?
We’re here to help. Read on to demystify music licensing regulations and to ensure your compliance for your next meeting or event!
What is a performing rights organization?
Performing rights organizations (PROs) are institutions responsible for collecting royalties for songs played publicly under their domain and passing them on to artists. There are four primary PROs in the United States– ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers), BMI (Broadcast Music, Inc.), GMR (Global Music Rights), and SESAC (originally the Society of European Stage Authors and Composers). To publicly use or play music protected by any of these four organizations, you must obtain a license specific to your type of meeting or event.
When do I need a license to play music?
Generally, PROs charge licensing fees for any copyrighted music under their domain that is played publicly. ASCAP defines “public performances” as “one that occurs either in a public place or any place where people gather (other than a small circle of family or its social acquaintances).” This includes audio transmission via Internet, radio, or television broadcasts. There are a few exceptions to this rule– namely, nonprofit education, places of worship, and select eating and drinking establishments– but, in general, the vast majority of meetings, events, and conferences fall under this definition. This means that if you are planning to use any copyrighted music, at any type of public meeting or event, you will need to get a license.
How do I know if the music I want to play is copyrighted?
This is an area in which it’s best to err on the side of caution. The vast majority of popular music that planners want to use is copyrighted; the only exceptions are songs or tracks that are under public domain (created before copyrighting laws or in use more than 70 years after the owner’s death), under Creative Commons licenses, or are royalty-free (paid for with a one-time fee). To check if your track is copyrighted, you can check the Public Domain Information Project, which houses a list of all public domain songs, or check the song’s copyright policies on YouTube, which has a rich algorithm for preventing illegal or unauthorized music use.
How can I ensure compliance with PROs?
The best way to remain compliant is to err on the safe side when dealing with licensing companies. PROs are dedicated to protecting the copyright of their artists and are not afraid to slap fines on non-compliant events and organizations, creating financial and reputation-based disincentives for refusing to adhere to their guidelines. Detailed information is available online regarding fees for different types and sizes of events, but the best way to ensure compliance is to contact your local PRO representatives, who can guide you through the protocols for your specific meeting and event.
I don’t want to deal with licensing! Can I still play music at my event?
If you don’t want to deal with the complexities of licensing, there are several options for streaming licensed or royalty-free music. Pandora for Business offers streaming without ads for $26.95/month with all licensing covered; this means that once you set up a Mood Media account and create your Pandora stations, you have access to every track on Pandora with unlimited listening hours without having to deal with any external licensing agreements. Soundtrack Your Brand is a similar option that operates internationally; with a $34.99/month subscription, you can access over 58 million fully licensed songs, with thousands of business-friendly playlists and tools (like explicit-lyric filtering and mood stations) at your fingertips. If you want to avoid a subscription, you can visit sites like Purple Planet, which freely provides mood-specific tracks and industry-specific recommendations, and AudioJungle, which charges a single fee for track ownership and use.
The music licensing industry is complex, but you don’t have to forge forward alone. Do your research on the regulations for your specific event type, contact your local PRO representative, and err on the side of caution, and you’re sure to remain compliant with licensing regulations. For more specific questions, visit the ASPCA, BMI, GMR, and SESAC websites.
Kaitlyn Wallace is a contributing writer from St. Louis.