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Public Music Legal Hurdles

When it comes to planning an event, music can set a mood and fire-up the crowd. However, if you share music with the public via internet, advertisement or at a gathering, get the correct music licenses, or get ready for an expensive legal headache. The good news is obtaining a proper music license doesn’t have to be hard.


You may be asking, does it matter if I play live music, versus prerecorded, or DJ style music, at my event? The simple answer is no! If you play a song at a conference, festival, holiday party or even a restaurant, those are considered public performances of the song, regardless of whether the performance is generated by a live band, recording, by a DJ, or through your laptop. That musical performance requires a public performance license.

Most public performance licenses are issued by one of the Performing Rights Organizations (PRO).  In the United States, the big two are:

  • BMI

Two smaller PROs are

  • GMR

Each PRO manages a different catalog of songs.  Typically, the PRO will issue blanket licenses, allowing you to publicly perform any of the songs in that PRO’s catalog. It is the job of the PRO to collect the fees from organizations that use music and then to distribute those royalties to the artists. If you are only going to be playing a few songs, you may be able to research and pay only the applicable PRO. Most of the time it is easiest just to get licenses from all of the PROs. If you have a longer set list, it will take a significant amount of effort to track down the correct licenses for each song.

Getting a license for public performance music is serious business. Music is protected by United States copyright laws. Organizations that run afoul of the laws risk hefty fines—the ASCAP minimum fine is $750 per song, plus attorney fees and court costs. Ouch!

Like most complex laws, many people have some misconceptions about music copyright laws.

Some Common Misconceptions:

  • Non-profits must be exempt. Incorrect! If an entertainer or music professional is paid, a music license is necessary.
  • If I contracted with a band or DJ to provide the music, they must already have the correct licenses. Nope. Most bands and DJs state in their contracts that it is the responsibility of the event’s host organization to secure the music licenses. It’s not that entertainers are lazy, the law states that the license must be held in the organization’s name. Venue contracts also routinely shift the responsibility of getting a music license to the client.
  • If I get a license for my event, then surely I can also use that same license to cover the usage in my event or promotional video. Sorry, using music in a video is considered sync rights and that is a separate form (and expense).

There is some good news. United States copyright law defines “public performance” as any music played outside a group of family and friends. So weddings are generally considered exempt from music license laws.

More good news. If you do need music licenses they are pretty easy to obtain. Each PRO’s website offers the ability to download the appropriate license. Fees are based on the number of people at the event, and each license covers all events for one year at one location, and they are very reasonably priced.

Relevé Unlimited has been successfully navigating the choppy waters of music licenses for quite some time. It is our pleasure to answer your questions and make sure your event is properly covered, so you can relax, pump up the tunes and watch as attendees party into the night.


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