Law: Playing music at your private, corporate and nonprofit events...could cost you?
Updated: Jun 24
Recently we’ve been asked by our clients if our DJ’s and musicians could provide proof of licensing of the music they’re going to be playing and performing at events such as a wedding ceremony, cocktail hour, dinner, wedding reception, corporate event or other social events. We knew that our DJs purchase their music and have access to paid song libraries, but this is the first we heard of needing a license to use that music at special events. We dug deep into the situation and came up with the answers.
The short answer is that it is impossible for a DJ or performing artist to supply a license for the performance of cover songs (songs written, copyrighted and registered with a “PRO”- Performing Rights Organization). The 3 PRO’s are ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC. Most of the time, the venue itself is responsible for paying those organizations a blanket fee based on a survey of their events, event space size, etc. However, some venues are choosing to place this responsibility on their direct clients for their private events.
In this case, the client can request that artists play only original music that they’ve written and/or own the copyright for. In this case, no license is necessary. If they will be playing covers, it is unlikely they’ll be selecting from artists only registered with one PRO, which makes it necessary in order to be in compliance, to request a license from each PRO.
Emily from the ASCAP office was asked what licenses are available to people having a private event from themselves. Each license can be downloaded as a PDF and the fee structures are listed there, as well. “Fees can range from anywhere from $50 to $130 and in the thousands.” -Emily from ASCAP
Q: If musicians are playing live music, aren’t they responsible for public performance fees?
Since it’s the business or organization that’s benefiting from the performance of music, management is responsible for ensuring that the organization is properly licensed. This responsibility cannot be passed on to anyone else even if the musicians hired are independent contractors. -BMI Website
Q: If a business has a license with another performing right organization, do they still need to license with BMI?
A music license with another performing right organization allows you to perform only copyrighted music represented by that organization. It does not cover public performances of the award-winning music licensed by BMI. This is because each songwriter or composer may belong to only one performing right organization at any given time, so each PRO licenses a unique repertoire of music. -BMI Website
Q: Why Should I Have a SESAC Performance License?
If you are using someone’s property (song) there is a moral and legal obligation to obtain the owner’s permission. Under the Copyright Law of the United States, anyone who publicly performs copyrighted music is required to obtain advanced permission from the copyright owner, or their representative. If you publicly perform any copyrighted song without proper authorization you are breaking the law and can be held liable for damages from a minimum of $750 up to a maximum of $150,000 per song played. -SESAC Website
Q: If I have licenses with ASCAP and/or BMI, why do I need a license with SESAC?
SESAC, ASCAP, and BMI are three separate and distinct Performing Rights Organizations (PRO). Each organization represents different copyright holders (songwriters, composers, publishers) and licenses only the copyrighted works of its own respective copyright holders. Licenses with ASCAP and BMI, DO NOT grant you authorization to use the copyrighted music of SESAC represented songwriters, composers, and publishers.
Since a license with ASCAP and/or BMI does not grant authorization to publicly perform songs in the SESAC repertory, most businesses obtain licenses with all three to obtain proper copyright clearance for virtually all of the copyrighted music in the world. -SESAC Website
Q: Who is responsible for music licenses for rented/leased areas such as meeting/banquet rooms, reception halls, or ballrooms?
The Copyright Law of the United States and subsequent case law assigns the responsibility for obtaining authorization for copyrighted music played in rented or leased areas to the owner/operator of the establishment. -SESAC Website
We have attached the conversation had, and want to state again, this is only for any type of corporate event! If you have any questions, please contact your event planner.
Transcript from ASCAP conversation on 10/9/15
05:02:13 PM [Natasha] Who would pay for the licensing of a DJ or band performing at a special private event? 05:02:57 PM [Emily] If it is a private event such as a wedding reception or birthday party, etc. no licensing is needed 05:03:24 PM [Emily] If it is any type of corporate event, the company holding the event typically pays for the licensing 05:03:26 PM [Natasha] If it’s a private event for a corporation or something like that 05:03:39 PM [Natasha] Can you send me a link to that information? 05:03:59 PM [Emily] The license they would need? 05:04:08 PM [Natasha] Yes, and how to obtain it 05:04:28 PM [Emily] Is the event specifically for company employees, or is it for clients as well? 05:05:54 PM [Natasha] Sometimes for employees only and sometimes for clients. Is there a difference? 05:06:42 PM [Emily] The Music in Business License is probably the best license to look into, it is a blanket license for all company events 05:06:50 PM [Emily] Music in Business Blanket License 05:06:57 PM [Natasha] Would that also be for non-profit events? 05:07:23 PM [Emily] If it is an internal company event, yes, however, if the events are open to the general public, a different license would be needed depending on the type of event 05:07:54 PM [Natasha] Would they need to get licenses from BMI and SESAC as well? Is there a one-place that explains this to direct clients? 05:08:57 PM [Emily] There is not a single company that can issue licensing for all three organizations 05:09:15 PM [Emily] They would also need licensing with BMI and SESAC if they are performing songs from their respective repertories 05:09:19 PM [Natasha] So if a client hires a DJ then they’d need to get licenses from all 3 to comply? 05:09:48 PM [Emily] Correct 05:09:56 PM [Emily] But the licensing would really depend on the type of event 05:10:14 PM [Natasha] Can you give me a list of types of events and licenses? 05:11:06 PM [Natasha] We send talent out for all types of corporate/social private events and one of our venues is having their clients source the correct licenses. Thank you so much for your help! 05:11:14 PM [Emily] ASCAP License Types 05:12:19 PM [Natasha] Thanks- but I would never have found the “Music in Business” license when searching this. Can you tell me which ones would apply for our things? Special Events? 05:13:21 PM [Emily] It is actually called a “Business Blanket” on that list. 05:13:33 PM [Natasha] What is Special Events for? 05:14:03 PM [Emily] It truly depends on the nature of the event. So a company 5k would be classified as an “endurance event”, a one-day festival open to the general public would be a “festival license” 05:14:07 PM [Natasha] Also, how do you determine costs and what are they in general? 05:14:45 PM [Emily] A special event license is valid for up to 3 events per year. We typically use this if there is a fundraiser open to the general public with a band or DJ, where the music is not the main focus of the event 05:14:57 PM [Emily] Most of our licenses on our websites have the rate schedules included 05:15:21 PM [Emily] Fees can range from anywhere from $50 to $130 and in the thousands 05:15:51 PM [Natasha] Great. THANK you so much. I happen to be an ASCAP member too. I won’t even begin to ask how we’re factored in the payout 05:16:07 PM [Emily] That’s good because I couldn’t even begin to tell you! 05:16:31 PM [Emily] I wish I knew distribution well enough to be able to tell you, but unfortunately, that is out of my scope of knowledge 05:17:08 PM [Natasha] OK, thanks much. Appreciate it! 05:17:42 PM [Emily] No problem!