The short answer is venues most commonly pay for live music licenses from ASCAP, BMI and/or SESAC. 

Bands performing live cover songs, and the venues that host them, are sometimes unaware of the issues behind having the proper legal rights in place for public performances of such music.

In music, there are two copyrights at play: (1) the copyrights to a sound recording (also known as the “master” rights) and (2) the copyrights to a song’s underlying music and lyrics (also known as the “composition” rights).

Copyright is not a single right – it’s generally known as a “bundle of rights.”  One of those rights is the right to perform the copyrighted work publicly.  So when a live band decides to publicly perform the copyrighted composition of another artist’s musical work, there are a few things the band should keep in mind.

What’s a band to do? 

Most of the time, bands don’t need to worry.  It’s industry standard that the venues acquire what’s known as Public Performance Rights – a license that allows cover songs to be played at that location.

Sometimes, venues don’t allow covers to be played.  While part of this may be their artistic preference that only original music be performed, another reason may be that they’d prefer not to pay for a license.

While most venues that regularly host live performances will have the appropriate Public Performance Rights license for live music, don’t make that assumption.  Always confirm with the venue before performing.  Although a claim against a band is rare, if the venue doesn’t have a license, technically both the band and the venue could be liable for copyright infringement.

What’s a venue to do? 

If a venue wants to add live music to its space – including performance of cover songs – it should acquire what is known as a “blanket license” for live performance from the three major performing rights organizations, or PROs: American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI), and SESAC.

Do I need licenses from all three? 

Technically, you don’t need licenses from all three organizations if the music your band will be performing was created by songwriters that are only registered with ASCAP and BMI.  Most U.S. songwriters belong to these two.  Although, the safe and easy way to go about this is to just pay all three of the PROs, but if you want to see which songwriters are represented by each of them, you can check their databases: BMIASCAP and SESAC.

How much does that cost?  Can my venue afford it? 

Prices vary, but fortunately, they are primarily based on the size/capacity of the venue and how often the venue hosts live music.  An 80-person café hosting an acoustic artist covering songs only on the weekends will not pay the same amount as a 5,000-person theater hosting cover bands almost nightly.

For a list of ASCAP Music License Agreements and rate sheets, click here.

For more information on licensing from BMI, click here.

For more information on licensing from SESAC, click here.

It may seem like a lot, but taking these few extra steps to make sure you and your band or venue are covered will go a long way.

Samuel P. Madden

Associate Attorney

(212) 865-9848

Email Samuel

See his full profile

Comments are closed.