Music Licenses for Events: Why They Matter and How to Get Them

Whether you’re hosting a swanky social event or a week-long corporate conference, chances are, music will be pumping through the speakers at some point. There’s nothing better than finding the perfect soundtrack to your event — so it’s important that those tunes are being played legally. Event planners should always be aware of music licensing requirements to ensure that those fun playlists don’t come with some unintended consequences. 


Who owns music, anyway? 

Just like any creative work, compositions belong to their creators. Songwriters, composers, and publishers have the right to play their music publicly through what’s known as the “performing right,” but the rest of us have to pay to play. You have a moral and legal obligation to get permission to use someone's song. Not to mention, music can be an incredibly valuable part of event production, which is why it’s so important (and well worth it!) to obtain a music license. 

Copyright law states that any time music is performed, played, broadcasted, or otherwise communicated to the public, a license is required. As you can see, this goes far beyond what we might consider “public performances” or live artist events – from walk-up music at sporting events to the background song in your conference video to playlists on the dance floor, when music’s playing through the speakers, having the right license matters. 


Who provides music licenses? 

Music licenses typically come from one of three major Performing Rights Organizations (PROs). These organizations offer licenses, and use those proceeds to compensate artists and publishers for their work. Almost any song you can think of will be covered by one of these three options. They are: 

  • ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers)
  • BMI (Broadcast Music, Inc.)
  • SESAC (​​Society of European Stage Authors and Composers)

All three of these organizations run standard schedule fees, but they’re each calculated differently. BMI Fees are calculated by multiplying the number of events and attendees by their per-song rate, which requires a bit of math. ASCAP and SESAC are a little more straightforward, calculating their fees based on attendees and event length, respectively. 


Do I need all three licenses? 

The short answer? Maybe. Technically, you could look up the writers, artists, and publishers for songs you plan to use and determine which PROs they’re affiliated with — and then purchase the licenses you need for those specific tracks. This can be a great idea if you’re using a single song at your event, but if you plan to play multiple playlists or need music in the background for hours on end, it’s simplest to just pay for each license. That way, you’re legally covered for anything you decide to play, and those in the music industry are being fairly compensated for that airtime, which is what we’d call a win-win. 


Who’s responsible for obtaining music licenses? 

The end user is required to get the license – which essentially means that the person playing the music (as an event planner, that means you, taking the responsibility off of your client’s plate) is who’s on the hook for making sure those songs are being broadcast legally. What that means: even if your event is booked in a facility with its own license, you’ll be required to get one, too. This is true for any kind of commercial event, regardless of size, scope, and whether or not it’s open to the general public. And one more thing — even if you pay for a paid streaming subscription, you’ll need a license to stream that music commercially. It’s a totally separate fee from your Spotify or Apple Music membership. Our suggestion? When in doubt, obtain the license. 


What could happen if I don’t get a music license for my event? 

Nothing good! If you ignore the obligation to obtain the right licenses for your upcoming event, you could be looking at a whole list of consequences, including: 

  • Court appearances
  • Owing up to $150,000 in legal damages
  • Paying the legal fees of the copyright owners
  • Other criminal sanctions

Trust us on this one — it’s easier to just get the license, and it’s more ethical, too. To ensure that your events are above board and to make sure that creatives are compensated for their work, grab the licenses you need and let your event attendees dance the night away without a worry in the world!  


Need help with your next event? At Redstory, we do so much more than just secure music licenses. We’re a full-service ​​experiential & event marketing agency, offering everything from brand strategy to experience design to event marketing and execution. We’d love to help you build the event of your dreams. Reach out below and we’ll be in touch.