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Music Rights for a Live Show – Entertainment Law Asked & Answered



Ben has a question about music rights for a live show he's planning…

Hi, I'm attorney Gordon Firemark, and this is Asked and Answered, where I answer common entertainment law questions, to help you take your career and business to the next level.


Ben wrote in with this:

I am “planning” a musical variety show next year, with a variety of genres – the genres include- Country, Broadway, Gospel, Pop, Patriotic, Opera, Jazz and who knows what else.

Is there one place I can go to get permission and usage fees for all of the music used?”

OK, Ben, here's the situation…

First off, it's great and appropriate that you're asking about the rights.  Almost any popular song from the last century or so is likely protected under copyright law.  Generally, a copyright owner has the exclusive right to make or distribute copies or derivatives of the original work, or to display or perform the work publicly.  That's what we're talking about here.

But with musical works, in particular, there's also an important distinction made about HOW the work is performed publicly.  You see when the performance is made in a concert-style its handled differently than when performed on stage as part of a dramatic work.  So essentially we have nondramatic performance rights (sometimes calls “small” rights) and dramatic performance rights, which are also known as “Grand Rights”

So, with a Variety Show as you've described it, we're probably talking about those “small” rights.  And that's great. You see there are groups called Performing Rights Organizations that administer the small rights for most songwriters and publishers.  Now, these differ from country to country, but here in the US, there are three of them:  ASCAP and BMI, and SESAC.

What these organizations do is collect royalties for all of the various nondramatic performances out there.  Radio, Television broadcasts, Coffeeshops, restaurants, night clubs, hotels, auto-repair shops, and yes, Variety shows… As long as the variety show doesn't cross the line into the Grand Rights arena.

What distinguishes Grand from Small rights?

Well, it's sort of a totality of the circumstances kind of analysis.  If your show has lots of costumes, props, sets, dialogue in between songs, choreography, stage directions, and a story line.  Then it's going to be considered a Dramatic Performance, and you'd need Grand Rights licenses obtained directly from the copyright owners.

But if it's more like a concert, without those kinds of elements, and it's just about the songs… Then it's more likely to be viewed as nondramatic, or small rights.  And those rights fall under the licenses obtained from the PRO's I mentioned.

And here's the interesting wrinkle.  For the small, nondramatic licenses, in most cases, the VENUE in which the works are being performed is the party that gets the license.  So, if you're performing in a theatre or performing arts center, check with them… But the rights may already be taken care of.  If you're in a school setting, you'll need to confirm that the school or district has the necessary licenses in place. (most do).

Typically, Small Right in these situations are handled through “blanket” licenses that cover everything for an annual fee.

But If you're performing in a space that isn't usually used for such things, it might be necessary to get a specific purpose license to cover your show.  But even that isn't overly complicated. Just contact the organizations and they'll help work out which license you need.  True, it's not exactly one-stop shopping, because there could be songs that are part of ASCAP's repertoire, and others in BMI's, while still others are licensed by SESAC. But even so, it's a heck of a lot simpler than getting the rights from each individual publisher, songwriter, or songwriter's heir.

And that's exactly what DOES have to happen if you're dealing with a Grand Rights scenario.  If that's what you're up against, you'll want to have help from a qualified, and experienced professional.  It's what we do here, so give us a call.

If you have a question you'd like to see here on Asked and Answered, just visit and let me know.

See you next time!

This is intended as general information only and does not establish an attorney-client relationship. It is not a substitute for a private, independent consultation with an attorney selected to advise you after a full investigation of the facts and law relevant to your matter. We will not be responsible for viewers'’ detrimental reliance upon the information appearing in this feature.

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