Music Licensing for Live Events

…and the Decibel December Mix Tape

It should go without saying that music is an important part of any event. It quite literally sets the tone. You know for example, not to throw on a Slayer mixtape at a silent auction unless it’s on the unlikely occasion you’re trying to move some Metal-Memorabilia. But the issue with music that we’d like to address today isn’t about what is appropriate to play, but rather what is legally allowed.

We’re going to hazard a guess and assume you may not be an expert in the exciting field of music licensing. That’s ok, don’t feel bad, you still have a lot of other great qualities and we have done our part to bone up on the subject. At this point in the article, we should stress that we are not lawyers (please consult with your lawyer, they love this stuff), but we can tell you what you need to know to make legal arrangements for music at your next event.

First let’s consider the difference between public and personal listening. Whether you buy a track from iTunes, stream from a service like Spotify or Pandora, or own physical media (wow!), you are in the clear to play that stuff for personal use, but not public performance. ‘Public Performance’ covers pretty much any kind of corporate event, meeting or conference even if it is an internal meeting and no tickets are sold. As you might imagine, any circumstances in which you are selling tickets, livestreaming, or broadcasting an event publicly, fall outside the legal spectrum of personal use.

In short, you need a license.


While we’re on the subject, hop on over to our Spotify December Doors Mix Tape and make personal use out of the most recent mix we used for one of our corporate events. You can’t use this for public performance (as you now know), but you can still put it on blast as you digest the steps needed for proper licensing below.

So, who do you have to deal with to make sure you’re in the clear? In the US there are three main groups that manage the licensing of music. You’ve likely heard of ASCAP and BMI, but the third is SESAC. We could get into the minutia of the differences between each group but the bottom line is that you’ll want to go ahead and get blanket licenses for all three. Why? Music licensing is messy. Sure, a songwriter might be attached to ASCAP, but the producers and various performers also involved on a track may well be attached to other organizations. Play it safe and cover all your bases.

But this isn’t as bad as it sounds. The costs are actually pretty reasonable all things considered. Blanket licenses as described above are based on a per attendee basis. Expect to pay a minimum fee as low as $35, or a per-attendee fee as low $0.05 each. There are different levels of what is allowed and under what circumstances, and there are nuances to how each of the three groups approach public performance licensing rights, so the best thing you can do is work with each group to get a clearer idea of actual costs.

As event managers, we handle a lot of organizational details, but we cannot contract this for our clients. Licensing groups require clients contract directly. Check within your own organization before going down the licensing rabbit hole though! We’ve found more often than not, there is already an existing agreement for other uses like commercials, videos, or music for retail locations that may well apply to your event.

We hope this primer showed you that this isn’t a daunting process. This is totally doable. Check out our additional links and resources to determine licensing costs below!

BMI Rules