Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Studio Owner Buzz: Music Licensing FAQ

Musica comprimida  -  Compressed MusicAfter just receiving my ASCAP licensing fee invoice for 2011, I thought it might be a good idea to do a post about music licensing.  I dove into researching the topic and came up with the answers to my own questions along with some interesting other facts.

Full Disclosure:  I only researched copyright laws of the United States, so if you have any information about international music licensing, please comment!

So without further ado, here are some frequently asked questions about music licensing (after the jump):

Q: What is music licensing?
A: Music licensing ensures that the creators of musical works (singer/songwriters) get paid for their work.  A purchaser of recorded music (YOU) owns the media on which the music is stored, not the music itself.  You can play your purchased music in your car and in your home, but that's it. Music licensers collect fees on behalf of songwriters, composers and music publishers and distributes them as royalties to those members whose works have been performed. (paraphrased from Wikipedia & BMI's website)

Q: Who needs to purchase rights?
A: If you are making money while playing music, you will have to pay some sort of licensing fee.

This includes dance studios/schools, athletic clubs, competitions, recitals, dance stores who play music in the background, and more.  Here is ASCAP's list of available music licenses.

Q: Yeah, but do I REALLY need to pay for music licensing?
A:  Do you play music while you teach?  Do your teachers or aerobics instructors play music while they teach?  Is there music playing in your lobby or locker room?  Do you plan to use licensed music in a recital?  If you answered yes to any of these questions, then.. yes - you can be sued if you do not pay the licensing fees.  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 (yikes!).

Q: Is my dance school exempt from music licensing because it is an educational facility?
A:  Nope.  The exemption in the copyright law only applies to nonprofit educational institutions. Studios that are using music and profiting from the performances must obtain proper licensing of those performances.

Q: As a studio owner, do I pay for the music licensing, or do my teachers pay?
A: Since your business is being enhanced by the use of music, you are responsible for obtaining a music license, similar to other permits you must obtain as a business owner.

Interesting side note:  The Copyright Law of the United States assigns the responsibility for obtaining authorization for copyrighted music played in rented or leased areas to the owner/operator of the establishment.  So the owners of banquet halls, buildings where rooms are rented to dance teachers, or room where a DJ is playing is responsible for obtaining music licenses.

Tower of Terror, aka CDs (2)
Q: What type of license do I need to obtain?
A: Most dance studios will need a General or Blanket music license.  Instead of paying per song, you pay an annual fee to cover all songs played during the year.

Q: How is my fee calculated?

A: Your annual fee is based on the average number of different students per week who attend classes using music. Your fee will depend on whether the music is instructional or background and the number of floors comprising the licensed business.

Q: Is there anyway to get a discount?
A:  Check with the companies and any dance-related associations you belong to.  I believe DMA members receive a discount on licensing fees by paying one check to DMA, who then distributes the money to the licensing companies.  Other dance organizations may have discounts.

Q: If I pay one music licensing company, will that cover all music?
A:  No.  SESAC, ASCAP, and BMI are three separate and distinct Performing Rights Organizations. Each organization represents different copyright holders (songwriters, composers, publishers) and licenses only the copyrighted works of its own respective copyright holders. Most businesses obtain licenses with all three to obtain proper copyright clearance for virtually all of the copyrighted music in the world.

Q: Ok, so how do I know if a song a represented by a licensing group?
A: Most current artists are licensed.  You can also search and see if your artist or song is represented on the websites: SESAC, ASCAP, BMI.  Songs that are produced by dance companies such as MusicWorks or Kimbo Records may not be registered - you can contact those companies to find out.

You can also find music that is royalty-free or public domain (songs not represented by licensing) by searching online (Royalty free music).

Q: What songs are considered public domain?
A: Music enters the public domain 70 years after the death of the author in most countries other than US.  In the United States, any song or musical work published in 1922 or earlier is in the public domain.  No sound recordings are public domain in the US due to a tangled complexity of Federal and State Law.

Resources & Further Reading


  1. i never thought of this, one more reason to be thankful for dancers' efforts to teach. this explains why so many middle eastern dancers/oriental use live musicians, as well as added ambience of live music.

  2. Thanks for sharing your research! Did you pursue the question of music in public schools? No money changing hands, either for classes or year-end performances.

  3. GREAT post. Coming from the world of artist management, it's always nice to see folks stepping up and being proactive in the interest protecting artist's copyrights. Especially when it's so easy to just fly under the radar or claim ignorance. KUDOS!

  4. Thank you all for your comments.

    harleygypsy - Live music is a great alternative to pre-recorded music! I didn't think of that.

    mm - I didn't research extensively into public schools, but there is an exemption in the copyright law for nonprofit educational institutions. I know that music teachers often have to purchase the rights to perform musicals or orchestra pieces, even if their performance is free.

    James - Thank you!

  5. @mm I was researching issues related to music licensing earlier today, and came across something (I can't remember where), that stated that these licensing companies don't require non-profit public schools to pay for use of music within the schools. Here's something related from ASCAP:

  6. I have come across a new source for Royalty Free Music, video for Wedding Photographers, Portrait Photographers, Wedding Videographers, Non-Profit Organizations, Ministries & Churches, and Production Companies.

  7. My take on this whole issue is this: ASCAP, BMI and other like organizations are a bunch of opportunists. Shame on them for going after small businesses that require music to function.EX: dance studios,nightclubs, aerobic instructors,etc. Studies have shown that people who go to nightclubs,dance studios or have aerobic instructors are more apt to go and purchase that 'great beat' or 'hot tune' after attending the such establishments, and as far as I'm concerned, these businesses are owed royalties for playing THEIR music and putting some more money in THEIR pockets...just goes to show you...greed has no limits or conscience...shame on you !!
    Hot in Orlando

  8. Hot in Orlando...I agree! I am a small dance studio. Been in the business of teaching dance for nearly 30 years and recently started receiving demands from ASCAP again. I'm close to retiring and yet they still want their share. I usually edit the piece of music I use to fit my use so it may not be the same as the original. Should I still pay? Hey...I'm just trying to encourage, develop and entice those that I teach to go beyond and find expression and freedom of movement and interpreation to the goal of their self expression. Usually, they end up pursuing more music. I should be rewarded for spreading the music too!

  9. As a small studio for classical ballet only I too am being pursued by ASCAP. Although I understand the need to protect the right of the artists and their royalties, there is still too much open to interpretation regarding definition of law, especially in aspects of "public performance". I am aggrevated by the threats from ASCAP and alarmed at emergence of federal involvement in this part of the music industry. I have a hard time believing that the artists themselves would condone suing an educational arts organization over use of music in instructional settings!

  10. Interesting point, Anonymous - my students also end up purchasing much of the music heard in class... mostly BECAUSE they heard it in class.

  11. Does anyone have a copy of the ascap dance studio blanket agreement? I would like to see what their rates are for small studios.

  12. Part of my studio is for profit (however we had to ask our landlord to accept a much lower rent due to the economy. Therefore we have not had a profit in the last three years. Part of the studio is under a not for profit (which is where most of our classes are). Also, we rent the building. Do we still have to pay ASCAP?

  13. @Anonymous - I couldn't find my agreement, but looking at what I paid last year for my school, ASCAP ended up being about $0.60 per student. BMI came out a little cheaper at $0.48/student and SESAC was $0.30/student. I believe it is calculated by a few variables, so don't quote me on that (ha) but that is a rough estimate.


  15. DEFINITELY! we are promoting their music! Happens every time, students come up to me and say miss what is the name of the song? I want to include it in my music library!

  16. I plan on opening a studio a couple of years after I graduate from college and I'd never even heard of music licensing fees! Do you have to pay fees for every single solitary song you play in class? From center, to across the floor, combinations, etc...? What if you have a cd? And is it a one time yearly fee, or is it based off of how many songs you that case how would they know? Sorry, so confused right now!

  17. We pay a fee based on the number of students walk through our door each week.  This post might help you out:

  18. I would double-check with ASCAP to see if you may qualify for a discount, but as far as I know, they do not care if you are making a profit or not.  You still have to pay licensing fees. :(

  19.  Thanks, that definitely cleared up some things! I love your posts regarding the business aspect because i'm clueless about it!

  20. I am currently being chased by ASCAP. I have a very small dance studio, meaning I rent space and teach 4 times a week. What are the costs now a days for this ASCAP stuff?

  21. ASCAP doesn't publish their fee schedule, but they will give you a quote on their website: It is based around how many students you have I believe (although they don't come right out and say it). I pay approx $0.60/student when I look at my invoice and divide by my kids.

  22. I've spent two days reading as much as I could gather from the internet. Here are my questions:
    1. a non-profit dance association rents a space from the City to put on dance performances using copyrighted music. who has to have the license? the City who owns the building? the Association who is renting the space to put on the shows? the actual performers who are dancing to the music?
    2. the non-profit dance association hires a videographer to make a master DVD of the performances which includes the dancing and the sound tracks of the copyrighted music. Is this a separate license?
    3. the non-profit dance association hires another person to make copies of the master DVD to sell to members of the association. does this person have to have a special license?
    4. the non-profit dance association puts all the dancers' music onto an IPod for ease of playing the music. is this a separate license?
    5. members of this non-profit dance association often perform at other venues such as bars, restaurants, nursing homes, weddings (I understand that weddings are considered private and not public performances?), renaissance fairs, etc. Who all has to have a license and what kind of license?

    With all the licensing, this is going to be the end of non-profit organizations putting on shows that involve any music other than original live music.

    ASCAP is harassing a friend who runs a small coffee shop and has a few dancers come and dance in her courtyard to recorded music. ASCAP is telling her she has to have a license and that all the dancers have to have individual licenses, too. Is this true?


  23. Dear Confused... those are very good questions! Unfortunately, I am not a legal expert in copyright laws, so I think your best bet would be to contact ASCAP or BMI directly with your concerns. I did find this information from the ASCAP website that might answer a few of your questions:

    "Some people mistakenly assume that musicians and entertainers must obtain licenses to perform copyrighted music or that businesses where music is performed can shift their responsibility to musicians or entertainers. The law says all who participate in, or are responsible for, performances of music are legally responsible. Since it is the business owner who obtains the ultimate benefit from the performance, it is the business owner who obtains the license."

    Here are my thoughts on your situations, but again - I am not a lawyer!!
    1) I believe the City or the non-profit dance organization would need to obtain the music license, since they are benefitting from the performance
    2-4) I've never considered these scenarios... perhaps your DVD producer would know if they already pay a licensing fee for music. I think ultimately the license would fall to the non-profit dance organization, since they are benefitting from the sales of the DVDs?
    5) Wedding venues, bars and restaurants usually already pay a music licensing fee to play music in their stores. I'm not sure if they need to pay an additional fee if they have performers coming in to play / dance in their stores as well. Not sure on individual performers needing the license - it seems like ASCAP is contradicting itself with the above paragraph.. however - ultimately they do seem that they will chase after whoever they think is trying to evade copyrights... its truly an necessary evil!

    Best of luck getting your answers - hope I helped a little.

  24. Hello, I recently entered into the world of fitness and became a group fitness instructor. I am planning on holding small group fitness classes in local parks and in my home. I hope to have about 10 clients on average 2x a week. Do I still have to pay to all three companies, seems expensive considering I haven't made a single penny yet. Music is a huge part of the way I teach my class, I want to make videos and post them on youtube but I am afraid I might get fined.

  25. Is the price you are estimating per month or for the year?

  26. I didn't research extensively into public schools, but there is an exemption in the copyright law for nonprofit educational institutions. I know that music teachers often have to purchase the rights to perform musicals or orchestra pieces, even if their performance is free.

  27. Live music is a great alternative to pre-recorded music! I didn't think of that.

  28. It's all a ploy to get more money! I wouldn't be surprised if this blog was paid to promote this!


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