The FAQs of Music Licensing

The music licensing process can be intimidating. Maybe you don’t know how to begin, are afraid you don’t have the resources, or don’t think that you even need to obtain licenses. Find out answers to the most common questions, so you can be compliant with all the copyright laws for your performance, CD/DVD production, and video uploads.

Photo of Victor J. Andrew High School in Tinley Park, Ill., by Backbeat Photography

When James Hudson, now director of athletic bands at Arizona State University in Tempe, began his teaching career, he unknowingly ignored all copyright laws. Now he understands the error of his ways.

“In the early 80’s when I first started teaching, I wasn’t getting copyright clearance on anything,” Hudson says. “There was a lack of knowledge and awareness, and as a band director in Southeast Iowa, I honestly just didn’t know. After attending seminars at conventions talking about the copyright rules, it made total sense to me. It’s how it should have been all along. Now that I understand the laws, it’s the way it’s gotta be and the right thing to do.”

Like Hudson, you don’t need to be in the dark. Given that you’ll need to meet copyright laws, what are they and how do you go about accomplishing that seemingly big task? The answers to these questions will put you on the right path.

When Do I Need to Get a License?

No license is necessary if you buy sheet music for a concert or marching band arrangement and perform as is—that’s covered in your original purchase. You’re also allowed to transpose existing parts for different instruments.

Once you start changing, mashing up, remixing, and rearranging the music, you need a custom arrangement license.

“Anytime a high school or university or any other band uses a copyrighted song, and they create their own custom arrangement of it for their use, they’re required to get permission from the copyright owner,” says Jeni Paulson, president of CopyCat Music Licensing, LLC. “If they take it out of the classroom, they need permission to create that custom arrangement and perform it in a live or recorded performance.”

Why Do I Need a License?

Proper copyright and music licensing permissions are required by federal law (there are no variations by state), and now many competitive marching circuits are requiring bands to show proof of licensing before competing as well. These circuits include national organizations such as Bands of America (BOA), Drum Corps International (DCI), and WGI Sport of the Arts, as well as local and state groups.

“The concept of copyright is very hard for people to grasp,” Paulson says. “They understand you can’t borrow your neighbors’ car without permission, but they don’t understand why you can’t take somebody else’s song.”

Oftentimes, there is an incorrect perception that the big record labels or wealthy performers are making money off these licenses, but it’s actually the composers and songwriters who make a living from these royalties. More often than not, the artist is not the songwriter (or is only one person on a large team of songwriters and composers). “If you’ve got the money to pay an arranger, then you should first pay the guy who wrote the song,” Paulson says.

If you don’t obtain proper licenses, composers or publishers may send you a letter asking for payment. Hopefully they just ask for what they would have charged you anyway, but angry publishers have been known to demand up to $3,000.

“I know several band directors and situations where they didn’t get permission in advance; it came back to bite them, and then they lost their job because of it,” Paulson says. “The copyright owner went directly to the school, who paid the large fee, and then the band director was quietly not renewed at the end of the year.”

If the case goes to court and the publisher can prove that you knew you needed a license and proceeded anyway, it’s known as a willful violation.

“U.S. copyright law and the penalties for violating are extreme,” says Mark Greenburg, president of Tresóna, a company that helps music educators with digital licensing and monetization. “If it’s a willful violation, it can be $150,000 plus a penalty including up to five years in prison if the material they infringed upon has a value of more than $2,500.”

If a band is in trouble, Tresóna offers free access to its legal department to all of its clients.

How Much Does a License cost?

Paulson recommends budgeting $250 to $300 per song. Bands have obtained licenses for as little as $150 or had to pay as much as $500.

“It is expensive—my advice is to use public domain as much as possible and to do research before you marry yourself to a specific piece of music,” says Alan Barone, a percussion instructor at Victor J. Andrew High School in Tinley Park, Ill., who handles the copyrights for all the school’s marching ensembles. “Right now it is getting expensive to use the more modern stuff. It can be $500 per song, so if that’s only two minutes of your marching band show, it can get costly.”

There are some composers and publishers—including John Williams, Prince, Guns N’ Roses, and Bruce Springsteen—who will not grant custom arrangement licenses under any circumstances, according to Paulson.

Do I Need a License to Make a CD?

Yes, in order to produce audio recordings of a song, you must obtain a mechanical license, whether or not you are selling the recording for profit. The good news is: Mechanical licenses are compulsory (meaning they have to grant it to you) as long as the song has been previously produced. The rate is 9.1 cents per track per CD for each track that is under five minutes. For songs longer than five minutes, each minute is 1.75 cents.

Do I Need a License to Make a DVD?

For making a DVD, you must negotiate to obtain a synchronization license from each copyright holder—and they are under no obligation to grant it to you. You must obtain a license even if you are not selling or profiting from the DVD.

“Most publishers will accept 15 cents per song per DVD on average,” Paulson says. “Some will charge as much as 25 cents per song per DVD or a minimum licensing fee of $50 for the song.”

Do I Need a License for a YouTube Video?

To legally post a YouTube video of your band’s performance, you must also obtain a synchronization license. Instead of charging per stream, publishers grant the license for a certain time period, such as one to two years. If it’s a fan video, you are not responsible; however, you hopefully have the custom arrangement license.

Tresóna sells sync licenses to its clients and runs a revenue-sharing online video program. “We also partner with YouTube, so our clients can send us their videos, and we can put them up,” Greenburg says. “They can earn money through the exploitation of their videos and make sure they are in copyright compliance when they upload materials. We are a multichannel network, so our colleges and universities have their own channels. Each channel on the network has its own identity.”

How Do I Obtain These Licenses?

Search the databases on the ASCAP (The American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers) or BMI (Broadcast Music, Inc.) websites for information on who the songwriters, composers, and publishers are. Next you contact the publishers; they send you the price and a license; you fill it out and send it back with your money. That’s it!

For a classical or single-author song, it might end there. But unfortunately, it’s almost never that simple. Most songs are collaborations by multiple songwriters or composers. A pop song could list four different writers and eight different publishers. On top of that, a sheet music publisher such as Hal Leonard or Alfred may have exclusive print rights to their catalog and therefore the exclusive right to grant permission to others. It can be difficult to figure out who to contact, and your requests may get bounced around for weeks at a time.

“The rights could be all over the place, depending on how many composers there are,” Paulson says. “It can be time-consuming, which is why a lot of bands will hire us to deal with it.”

CopyCat and Tresóna are both well-known agencies working with marching groups. You could also speak to any copyright lawyer.

CopyCat obtains traditional custom arrangement licenses and has partnerships with BOA, DCI and WGI. “The advantage of using us is that I know who all the companies are and can go straight to them,” Paulson says. “We’re quick, and we’ve got contacts with every single publisher. I’ve been doing this for almost 15 years. There’s nobody that I don’t know, and by extension my staff. When there’s something weird, like Japanese anime music, we know what we’re looking for in the info and what clues to look for to take us to the correct person for the license.”

Duane Hill, director of athletic bands at Texas Tech University, started working with CopyCat when he found the licensing process to be too time-consuming on his own. “The advantage is that we can just submit and then not have to worry about it,” Hill says. “It depends how much you value your time. For some, the cost to use the services of a third-party vendor may not be suitable, but since we have the funds, it’s more convenient for me to focus my energy on other things.”

CopyCat charges a $350 fee to high school bands to cover all the songs in their show and $350 for every five songs needed by university groups. “Since [college bands] typically need new songs for every home game, we charge them based on a sliding fee scheduled for the number of songs that they need to license.”

Tresóna obtains a new type of custom arrangement license called a DDVR (digital display of a visual representation of musical notation). This gives the band permission to make an arrangement and digitally display it. Band members are given access to a secure website where they log in and then may print a copy of their individual part only.

Tresóna operates completely in the digital space—bands search for songs on the licensing exchange database and can either select a pre-approved song and instantly buy the license or can submit a request for a license to be approved online by the publisher.

“Publishers in recent years have stepped forward almost en masse and want to make it very easy for schools to obtain arrangement licensing because they want to meet the needs of the schools,” Greenburg says. “If they’re OK with schools using it, we don’t have to ask each time; we just send the money. All the paperwork happens electronically. It’s a fast and painless procedure.”

Band directors can look at the licensing exchange list of pre-approved songs before even starting to design a show. “It helps me to know what’s already been done and already pre-approved, so it makes things more efficient on everybody’s end,” Hudson says. “That stuff is great to know before you even start. People get in trouble because they start to work on a project before they get copyright clearance. It’s changed my creative process.”

Tresóna’s system for obtaining custom arrangement licenses is free of charge for the bands. The company makes money from the publishers, who pay Tresóna a fee to aggregate the market.

When Should I Start This Process?

Most bands start in April or May for the following fall season. “We tell them to start no later than May,” Paulson says. “Some publishers can take three months or more to respond. If directors are going to do it themselves, then definitely the earlier the better. Your request can be denied or take forever, so start early.”

About the Author

Elizabeth Geli is the assistant editor for Halftime Magazine and a freelance journalist and communications professional in Los Angeles. She marched flute at Valencia High School in Placentia, Calif., and in the University of Southern California (USC) Trojan Marching Band, where she now works as a teaching assistant. She has a bachelor’s degree in print journalism and a Master’s in Specialized Journalism (The Arts) from USC.

About author

Elizabeth Geli

Elizabeth Geli is the assistant editor of Halftime Magazine and a journalist/communications professional in Southern California. Her 11 years at the University of Southern California (USC) Trojan Marching Band included time as a flute player, graduate teaching assistant, and student advocate. She holds a bachelor's degree in Print Journalism and master's degree in Specialized Journalism (The Arts) from USC.