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Hudson & Saleeby - Paying the Piper: Music Performance Licensing
Chris and Doug on stage with an audience

Meeting Planners:

Paying the Piper:
Music Performance Licensing

As published in Convention South and Midwest Meetings
Written by Chris Hudson and Doug Saleeby

Other Articles by H&S:


Performance licensing is the legal means that allows you to use someone else's musical creations with freedom. While it is possible to gain permission directly from the writers, arrangers, and publishers of each piece of music, licensing is a convenient way to give you the freedom to use music legally. Legal licensing for the use of intellectual property is a sensitive and somewhat complicated subject with regard to music. Meetings of all kinds use music to enhance the event's success, momentum, and energy. As with any copyrighted, patented, or trademarked materials, U. S. Copyright Law requires that permission must be obtained before using these protected materials. This law is in place to protect, reinforce, and encourage the American people's spirit of invention. You are not required to get a license from the three licensing organizations (ASCAP, BMI, and SECAC), but you are required to get permission to use these works.

If you are not experienced with music performance licensing, you probably have some questions, concerns, or apprehension about the topic.

"How do I know if I am within the law? When are licenses not needed? Who gets the licenses? Where do I get the licenses? How much will it cost me or my organization?"

These questions are part of a touchy subject that we, as musical entertainers, are sometimes asked by CMP's concerning whether we have obtained the proper licenses allowing us to use legally the music in our performances. Please understand that we do not report our performances or anyone else's performances to any organization. While there has been much written on this subject, we have consolidated the knowledge we have on this topic as a way to further de-mystify your questions on this subject.

In gathering this information, we encountered many direct contradictions. For instance, we read on the licensing organization's web sites that if you lease space from an establishment, such as a hotel or a restaurant for your event, their own license would not cover your use of music. Then, a licensing expert told us that the establishment's license would cover your use in some cases. As you can see, dealing with these licensing organizations could be quite frustrating, and we can only recommend that you consider dealing with them on a per event basis.

The writers and publishers of the music you use consider their music is being performed whenever the attendees hear music. This includes not only a live performance, but also music used in audio/visual and multi-media presentations, music piped into a meeting area or trade floor, or simply playing a CD over your own system for the benefit of the attendees. While this paragraph may cause you to roll your eyes or make comments under your breath like "Oh please, give me a break!", the reality is that over the years, the federal courts have not ruled in favor of the various defenses used in the copyright infringement cases brought against music users. The fee to keep all of your necessary music performance licenses current could be as low as $300 per year, a much smaller fee than a potential law suit for using copyrighted materials without the proper permission. The information presented here is not intended to be legal advice and should not be considered as a substitute for legal counsel on specific copyright issues.

Under what conditions is a license not needed? A public performance is defined as a performance "at a place open to the public or at any place where a substantial number of persons outside of a normal circle of a family and its social acquaintances are gathered". Using this definition as a guide, and realizing that a company or organization's employees and supporters constitute a "public", you can probably feel comfortable organizing wedding receptions and other family social gatherings and parties without permission or a music performance license.

If a corporate event you are planning is being held at the company's office, campus, or other company-owned facility, there is most likely a "Music in Business" license already in place. Companies are required to keep this type of license in place so they can have music in all areas of the office, telephone "music on hold", and for other internal uses. Just for your protection when planning a meeting at the company's place of business, it is a good idea to ask if the office has a "Music in Business" license in place. This license, however, may not cover performances in areas generally open to the public.

Performances used by instructors or students during face-to-face teaching activities of non-profit institutions, music in the course of religious services at a place of worship, and in some cases, the use of radio and television broadcasted transmissions will most likely not require any music performance license agreement. Performances at charitable functions are exempt only if there is no commercial advantage and no person is paid, including the musical performers. If there were piped-in music or other type of subscriber service supplying music, you would only be required to obtain a license if you are charging admission for your event. If the music or its arrangements are old enough to be in the public domain or have never been copyrighted, you may not need permission. Also, you would not need to obtain a license if the music is part of a dramatic presentation such as an opera, musical comedy, or other musical theater.

Who gets the license? Licenses are geared toward the people who stand to gain the most from using music at their establishment or event. There is no license available to musicians and performers. According to information we obtained from the licensing organizations, unless the venue is also the promoter of an event, they are not expected to license the music being used at their venue. It is usually the organization, company, promoter, or meeting planner who is responsible. Different types of license agreements are granted for different types of music users. Generally, the "Convention, Trade Show, Exposition" - type license agreement is the one you need either to get for yourself, or make sure the organizations or companies you are planning events for have in place. Even if you are planning an event in a hotel, restaurant, club, convention center, or other leased space, the agreement the establishment has for their own use may not cover the music you use at your private event.

Where do I get the licenses? Composers, lyricists, arrangers, and publishers usually join one of three performing rights organizations. By joining, they are giving the organization the right to license the use of their original intellectual property and the right to prevent others from using it without permission. If you do not know to which organization the creators (writers, publishers, and arrangers) of the music being performed at your event belong, then the easiest and safest approach is to have agreements in place with all three organizations (ASCAP, BMI, and SECAC).

ASCAP, The American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers, is a membership society founded in 1914 and is headquartered in New York City. It also has offices in six other U. S. cities and licensing managers located throughout the country. ASCAP has a prolific membership of over 110,000 and collects royalties on over four million copyrighted musical works. It also has agreements with foreign performance rights organizations. (www.ascap.com 1-800-505-4052)

BMI, Broadcast Music, Inc, also made up of composers, lyricists, arrangers, and publishers, was formed in 1939. It operates as a non-profit organization and is located in New York City with offices in six other cities. Its membership is over 300,000 and the repertory covers more than three million copyrighted musical works. BMI also has agreements with foreign licensing organizations. (www.bmi.com 1-877-264-2139)

SESAC, originally standing for Society of European Stage Authors and Composers, was founded in 1930 and is a for-profit corporation headquartered in Nashville, TN, with offices in New York and London. SESAC also has agreements with foreign licensing organizations. SESAC is the smallest of the three licensing organizations. It previously had a considerable portion of works from the religious music category but now has a catalog that is as widely varied as the other organizations. (www.sesac.com 1-800-826-9996)

If you use only a limited number of songs or musical works at your events, you might need an agreement from only one of these organizations. The organization's websites are useful in determining if the songs you are using are in their repertory. The various creators involved with one piece of music, however, may make it necessary that you have agreements with more than one licensing organization. In this case, your best option could be to get permission directly from the writers and publishers on your own, apart from the licensing organizations. Remember, as we said before, you are not required to have a license; you are only required to have permission. You may have to contact the U. S. Copyright office for further information on a piece of music. ( www.lcweb.loc.gov/copyright 202-707-3000)

How much will this cost? The three licensing organizations, ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC, have made it relatively simple for you to get licenses and pay your fees. They have yearly blanket agreements for a minimum fee. If your events that use music, whether live, recorded, or part of a multi-media presentation, do not exceed the minimum requirements in terms of attendance, you may not have any other obligation financially beyond the minimum. The BMI agreement costs around $105 annually, which covers an attendance of around 2100 people. If more than 2100 people attend your events that use music, you would pay 5 cents per additional person. Your BMI agreement alone would be calculated using those numbers. These blanket agreements may not cover your use in all different venues and situations. You would have to check with the licensing representatives on a per event basis.

For instance, according to the information on BMI's website, if you had 3,000 attendees annually at similar events and venues that use music, you could multiply 3,000 x .05 = $150.00. If you then subtract your paid minimum of $105.00, you would then owe $45.00 more for that year's events. You or your organization would also have similar agreements with ASCAP and SESAC. The various organizations state that they return more than 80% of the collected fees to the songwriters and publishers after operating expenses.

There are some licensing management facilitators that take care of some of this for you, as well as offer expert advise. Some of them only represent a certain catalog of material, while others will cover all the bases for you. For example, Bill Slantz, who was formerly a licensing representative with ASCAP and now has his own company, can offer you expert advise on licensing issues. (www.wgslantz.com W. G. Slantz Co. 636-922-1600). You can set up a BMI seminar for an association or group by calling BMI.

Conclusion As a disclaimer, we would like to say that our years of experience have presented some conflicting results and sometimes it does seem that the licensing organizations have a tendency to be vague or unsure when it comes to this subject. Therefore, the information presented here cannot be deemed to be applicable to all situations. Some of the obvious "gray" areas, as in the possibility of overlapping licenses and exemptions can be confusing. We do not report in any way to the licensing organizations, we simply perform across the USA for all kinds of events. This discussion is intended for your information, hopefully giving you a better understanding of why the licensing organizations exist, who would win in a battle with them, and how to play by their rules. It is obvious that they are not able to monitor every use, every performance, and all times in which the music they represent is being used, however, as part of the cost of doing business, and to be in compliance, you will have to consider if you are comfortable with their fees and the premise of their efforts. In the event that you are ever approached by one of the representatives from a licensing organization, hopefully this information will be useful to you.

Chris Hudson and Doug Saleeby are the performers in Hudson & Saleeby, America's Keyboard and Vocal duo. We make our living performing for conventions and other special events. Working with the many meeting planners and agents in our career, we have seen how hard you work to put your events together and we appreciate all you have done to include us in your functions. The purpose of this article is to address some of the issues important to you and to keep the communication lines open between us on improving our service to you.

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