Boston’s Biggest Stage: Everything You Need to Know About Beantown Busking

There are over 1,600 miles of sidewalk in Boston, arguably making sidewalks your biggest and most accessible stage. Busking, as street performing is traditionally known, is a great way to get in front of people and work on your stage presence. Even Amanda Palmer once graced the sidewalks of Harvard Square in Cambridge as the living “Eight-Foot Bride” statue. In her TED talk, Palmer extolls the benefits of having exposed herself to the generosity of strangers and how it helped her artistic development and career as a performer.

Busking is alive and well in Boston, and it’ll give you the opportunity to demo new songs in a low-risk environment. Find out about the regulations affecting street performances in and around Boston, and how to get started as a successful busker.

Take your performance underground

Apart from staying warm in the winter, being a subway performer tests your ability to quickly grab an audience’s attention. According to the 2014 MBTA Blue Book, there are more than 750,000 riders waiting to hear you perform on an average weekday. If making people’s commutes a little more enjoyable isn’t enough to convince you busk underground, then imagine trying to find other venues that offer such a large, captive audience!

All you need to get started as a subway performer is a $25 permit from the MBTA. To get theMBTA Subway Performers Permit, you will need to make an appointment to visit the Massachusetts Realty Group office and present two IDs, a recent piece of mail, two character references, $25, and your permit application. Your photo ID permit will be good for 12 months, and will give you first-come, first-serve access to more than 60 locations throughout the network of MBTA stations. Keep in mind you will have to play by the MBTA rules, including: look neat, pay your fare, keep the sound level below 80 db(A) at 25 feet, no trumpets or drums, bring your own power, and perform only in designated areas.

Hit the pavement

Boston is a city of walkers with over 20 million visitors per year. The city’s 1,600 miles of sidewalk space is enough to run a continuous sidewalk from Boston to Miami, according to the City of Boston Department of Public Works.

With dozens of museums and tourist attractions in one of America’s most walkable cities, Boston provides lots of opportunity for buskers. Popular performance spots include Copley Square and the bridge over the pond in the Public Garden, but considering the vast amount of musical talent in Boston, there are hundreds of other spots throughout the city that are underutilized. When considering performance locations, search maps for areas of high foot traffic – these might include shopping districts, museums, parks, restaurants, and popular walking routes such as the Freedom Trail, Walk to the Sea, or Harborwalk. Foot traffic is especially high in areas near large museums and historic sites. The 3 largest Massachusetts museums by attendance are located in Boston, which each enjoyed well over one million visitors in 2013. Areas around the New England Aquarium, Museum of Fine Arts, and Museum of Science could all make enticing performance spots as well.

No permit is required to perform on the sidewalks and parks of Boston, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any rules – local noise and safety ordinances still apply. These regulations limit things such as how loud you can play and prevent you from blocking the sidewalks, streets, or building entrances. In Boston, municipal noise ordinances limit amplified sound to 70db(A). You can tell if your band is louder than 70db(A) by downloading one of the many decibel reading apps available for smartphones and tablets.

According to Stephen H. Baird, executive director of Community Arts Advocates, there are several documents you can show to police if they try to discourage you from street performing. Links are available in his detailed history of busking/street performing in Boston.

Be a tourist attraction at Faneuil Hall Marketplace

Quincy Market and Faneuil Hall have everything necessary to ensure that street performers have a large, willing audience. The area is a combined historic attraction, shopping district, and tourist area with over 18 million visitors each year. Performance slots are so exclusive and highly sought after that auditions are held every spring to determine the lineup. Performances typically include a mix of musicians, jugglers, human statues, dancers, and acrobats.

To become a Faneuil Hall Marketplace street artist, you will need to submit an application and get selected at the live auditions. Applications are due in mid-April and must include two video samples, two references, and a headshot. The live auditions are by invitation only and take place in early May. You can apply as a full-time, part-time, or traveling performer, depending on the number of days you would like to perform. As an approved performer, you will be allotted certain days and time slots, with the added benefit of having your picture and a hyperlink displayed on theStreet Theater section of their website.

Busk among the Ivy Leaguers at Harvard Square

In addition to being in the heart of a vibrant academic community, Harvard Square is also a major tourist destination with busloads of people snapping pictures of the ivy covered buildings. Because Harvard Square is located in the city of Cambridge, you will need to get a permit to perform there.

Getting the Cambridge permit is easy, and you do not need to be a resident of Cambridge to apply. Permits cost $40 and expire at the end of December of the year they are granted. Thestreet performer application is available online, but must be submitted in person at the Cambridge Arts Council office. The application is simple, only requiring basic contact information and a few details about your performance. If there is more than one person performing, each person must apply for a permit and display it when performing. Regulations including approved performance hours and and noise level are available in the Street Performer Ordinance.

In addition to granting you permission to perform in Harvard Square, a Cambridge street performer permit also opens the possibility of performing in areas such as Kendall Square,the dwelling place of many creative startups and big tech companies such as Google.

Tips for successful busking

Aside from landing a prime performance spot, there are a few things you need to know to maximize your success as a street performer:

  • Don’t block the sidewalks or doorways.
  • Try find performance spots in areas with a lot of foot traffic.
  • Always display some flyers, CDs, and/or business cards.
  • Remember to give people a performance, not just a practice session.
  • Put out a hat or an open case so that people can show their appreciation.
  • Be prepared to take requests (children especially love to ask for their favorite songs).
  • As a busker you are always on stage, so be kind and mindful of your actions in between songs.
  • You will never have a more diverse testing ground for your songs, so pay attention to people’s reactions. If adults stop to listen and kids start to dance, then you’re probably doing something right.

Borrowing Success: How to Legally Sample Music

Often associated with ’80s rappers, sampling occurs when songwriters and recording artists use borrowed sections of music from other compositions or recordings in their new works. The motivations for using clips of preexisting music and recordings in a new song are varied; sampling can lend new songs a sense of nostalgia, quickly give artists and producers a desired sound or riff, and even help new songs benefit from the proven success of a hit. To hear sampling in action, listen to this medley compiled by William Goodman for his Huffington Post article entitled “12 Hit Songs You Never Knew Used Samples from Older Songs.”

There’s a reason, however, that sampling isn’t as widespread among mainstream artists today. Contrary to popular belief, the US courts have ruled that sampling in commercial recordings is NOT fair use (no matter how short the sample) and have even referred infringers like Biz Markie, whose story is below, for criminal prosecution. So if you’ve ever considered using a sample in one of your recordings, make sure you do it legally.

How do you legally sample a song?

It’s important to remember that samples typically contain two individually copyrighted works: the underlying composition (the song itself, usually owned by the songwriter or publisher) and the recording (usually owned by the artist or record label). When you sample, you must get permission from both the owner of the composition and the owner of the recording beforeyou release any copies of your new recording. If both parties approve your request to sample, you’ll need to enter into a sampling agreement with each copyright owner.

Getting permission to use the composition (the song itself)

To record songs that don’t belong to you, a mechanical license (typically available through theHarry Fox Agency) is usually all you need. When combining two or more songs into a single song/recording, however, you need special permission from each song’s owner because you’re making a derivative work, which renders a standard mechanical license insufficient and forces you to go directly to the song owner/publisher.

Find out who the publishers are for each song you wish to use (try ASCAP’s ACE title search) and request a license to sample the song. To be successful in your request, be prepared to offer them as much information as possible about your planned use of the material. Be ready with information such as which section of the song will be sampled, how many seconds the sample will last, timing of the overall recording, the number of units you plan to create/distribute, and what types of media you will use (CD, ringtone, streams, etc.).

Getting permission to use the recording

As with the request to license the song itself, when you seek to use part of someone else’s recording in your new recording, you’re making a derivative work. Artists and labels may be wary of requests to sample because of the possibility that the new song will diminish the value of the original recording. Find out who owns/administers the master recording that you want to sample (start by contacting the record label) and request a license to sample. Just like the request to sample the underlying composition, you have a greater chance at success when you’re prepared to offer them as much information as possible about your planned use of their recording. In addition to the information listed above, you might even be asked to include a demo of what your new recording might sound like if it were to include the sample.

How to be a good copycat

Although it’s illegal to actually use someone else’s recording, it’s not illegal to sound like someone else (just think of all the Beatles tribute bands). So if you’re able to get permission to use the composition but not the recording, you could create your own soundalike recording and sample your own recording instead of the original. It might not be as authentic-sounding, but it’s legal!

How much does it cost to legally sample a song?

How much it costs to legally sample a song will depend on the owners of the underlying composition and the recording you’re sampling. Because there’s currently no compulsory license for sampling, there’s also no statutory rate. So unlike typical mechanical licenses, which cost 9.1 cents per copy for songs of five minutes or less, you’ll have to negotiate sampling rates for each song you sample.

The 2010 edition of Kohn on Music Licensing suggests that royalty rates for samples of sound recordings range from a fraction of a cent to five cents per unit and carry advances starting at several thousands of dollars, but the rate you negotiate will depend on several factors including the success of the initial song and recording, your own success, the length of the sample, how it will be distributed, and more.

Upon receiving your request to sample, both the owner of the composition and the owner of the recording may refuse to license, or they might try to negotiate one of the following payment methods:

  • Mechanical license for a flat fee or for a royalty
  • Mechanical license for a royalty and share of performance royalties
  • Co-ownership in the new composition/recording
  • Complete ownership of the new composition/recording

As always, if you’re considering entering into any type of legal agreement concerning one of your songs, consult an attorney specializing in entertainment law first.

What happens if you sample illegally?

In a 1991 landmark case on sampling, a federal judge ruled against rapper Biz Markie for his sampling of Gilbert O’Sullivan’s song/recording of “Alone Again (Naturally)” in Markie’s “I Need a Haircut.” In addition to an injunction (taking all copies off the market) and a huge fine, the court actually invoked the seventh commandment, “Thou shalt not steal,” and referred the matter to the US Attorney’s office for criminal prosecution, resulting in the case Grand Upright Music v. Warner Bros. Records, Inc., 780 F. Supp. 182. But for his next album, Markie made it clear that he understood the court’s message, titling it All Samples Cleared.

There’s still a streak of defiance from some musicians such as Girl Talk’s Gregg Gillis who, along with his record label Illegal Art, purposely and unapologetically samples in the name of artistic freedom. Although he doesn’t seem to have been the subject of a scathing legal action (yet), the laws regarding sampling haven’t changed, and illegal sampling can be difficult to cope with financially.

According to the precedent set by the O’Sullivan and Markie case, if you sample illegally, you could be taken to court, made to pay profits and damages, have all copies taken off of the market, and be criminally prosecuted. So before using a sample, make sure you ask for permission (and get it in writing), and don’t use the sample if your request is refused.

Copyright and Your Band: Using Someone Else’s Music in Your YouTube Video (And What to Do if Someone Uses Yours)

YoutubeCopyright_600After reading previous Copyright and Your Band posts, you’ve learned all about song ownership, recordings, and who gets paid for public performances. But where do sites like YouTube fit in?

Syncing music to visuals adds a layer of complexity: if you want to sync up someone else’s song to images/video, you need a special license called a sync license. And if you want to use an existing recording, you will need permission from both the owner of the recording and of the song.

So how did countless throngs of amateur videographers create nearly 5 million YouTube videos featuring Psy’s hit song “Gangnam Style”? And more importantly, did Psy get any money from the videos? Let’s talk about how to use someone else’s music in your video – and what you can do if someone uses yours.

How to Legally Use Someone Else’s Music In Your YouTube Video

Serious about following the law and respecting copyright? If you want to upload a video to YouTube that features music you don’t own, here are the steps to follow:

  1. Go to to ASCAP’s Ace Search or BMI’s Repertoire Search
  2. Look up the owner/publisher of the song you want to record
  3. Contact them directly to request a sync license

When you speak to the song owner/publisher, you will be negotiating a license. Be prepared to discuss information such as:

  • How the song will be used
  • Who/how many people are likely to see the video
  • What visuals will accompany the music
  • How many copies of the video will be made
  • How many times the video will be shown
  • Whether you prefer an upfront payment, royalties, or some combination
  • If/how credit will be given to the songwriter

Note: If you want to use someone else’s recording of a song in your video, you will also need to contact the owner of the recording (most likely a record company or the artist who recorded it), and request a master license.

What to Do When Someone Uploads a YouTube Video FeaturingYour Music

Very few YouTube users (or any other video posting site) go through the rigors of sync and master use licensing – so what can you do when someone rips your best single and syncs it to a video of their cat? YouTube provides a lot of tools for copyright owners to monitor, protect, and monetize their content.

YouTube’s solution for detecting infringing videos is its content ID system. This system allows copyright owners like you to identify videos that contain your copyrighted music and visuals. Once identified, you can track, block, or monetize the infringing videos.

In the YouTube Copyright Center, there are a variety of links to help you and your band manage your copyrighted music.  They also have some amusing Muppet-inspired videos to help explain copyright.

So if you find an unauthorized cat video on YouTube featuring your music, you basically have three options:

  1. Track the viewers. YouTube lets you track who has watched the infringing video. This data can help you sell merchandise, tickets, recordings, or raise money for your next album. Maybe you have an unknown fan club in some other part of the country (or the world)! Information is power, and tracking views can help you get to know your audience better.
  2. Take it down. If someone puts your recording on YouTube without your permission, you can request that YouTube take it offline or remove the soundtrack. The Digital Millenium Copyright Act forces companies like YouTube to promptly remove infringing content when notified by copyright owners, which means the video will be removed quickly (no questions asked), and the infringer is notified to contact you if he or she thinks the takedown notice was unwarranted.
  3. Monetize! If you want money from YouTube videos featuring your music, you canmonetize the video by instructing YouTube to include advertisements. If you choose this option, you will be sent money for each view. Keep in mind that many people will skip the video if the ads are too long, so don’t get greedy by requesting a two-minute ad for a 15-second video – if people don’t watch, you don’t get paid!

Why Not to Take Down an Infringing Video

Monetizing videos or simply tracking views can sometimes be a better solution than taking down all videos that include your music. Videos and songs that go viral are often helped along by a lot of amateur copycats, and the more people who hear your music, the greater your potential pool of buyers for your next recording or concert. You won’t get recognition until people hear your music, so as long as you get credit it may be worth giving up some control in favor of more exposure.

In the case of Psy and “Gangnam Style,” it’s obvious that the vast majority of YouTube users who uploaded videos featuring his song did not acquire a sync license. Instead, Psy receives money for each view and benefits from the exposure of the viral craze, resulting in a boost to other sources of revenue such as paying gigs.

Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide what kind of action to take if your music is being used in an unauthorized video. Regardless of what you choose, the most important thing is to be aware of the process and the options available to you so that you can make smart decisions for your music career.

Copyright and Your Band: Cover Songs (Part Two)

Record Store PictureDISCLAIMER: This post is not intended as legal advice, for specific information pertaining to your situation consult an attorney who specializes in entertainment law.

Copyright often remains in effect long after the death of a song’s writers: U.S. copyright protection currently lasts 70 years beyond the life of the writer. Most songs you will wish to perform and record are still copyrighted. Songs protected by copyright earn money for their owners (even after the actual writer has died.) To perform, record, or alter copyrighted songs you and your band will need to seek licenses from the song owners, and/or the publishers and agencies that administer their copyrights.

Mechanical Licenses from Harry Fox Agency

Fortunately for you, the mechanical rights to many songs are managed by the Harry Fox Agency this organization allows you to pay for the mechanical licenses you need to make recordings. Limited quantity licenses, for fewer than 2,500 physical copies or 10,000 interactive streams, can be purchased through Harry Fox Agency’s online mechanical licensing system called Songfile. There is a processing fee of $14-$16 for each song licensed through Songfile, and you will need to know how long your version of the song will be, what media you are using (CD’s, ringtones, or interactive streams), how many copies you plan to make, and basic information about the original song. Use the Songfile Public Search database to find out if Harry Fox can give you a license, and watch the Songfile demonstration video to get started. For larger quantities (more than 2,500 CD’s) you will need to set up an HFA License Account. You can then register use their eMechanical online license request system.

Negotiating Rates

If Harry Fox Agency is unable to grant you a mechanical license to record a cover song, perhaps because they only represent some of the song’s owners, then you will need to contact the copyright owner or publisher directly. You will also need to contact the owner/publisher to negotiate anything other than the statutory rate; Harry Fox Agency can only grant licenses using the statutory mechanical rate. In order to find out who owns and publishes songs try searching databases from the PRO’s and Harry Fox Agency (see research links below.)


Medleys or songs with samples can be expensive to record. For example, if you decided to record a Christmas medley including excerpts from 3 different songs, then you would have to pay 9.1¢ to each of the 3 songowners for the medley if you license it through Harry Fox Agency. So instead of paying 9.1¢ for a 5-minute song you will end up paying 27.3¢! Although Harry Fox Agency is unable to negotiate lower rates, by speaking with song owners/publishers directly you may be able to persuade them to negotiate a lower licensing rate in proportion to the use of their song in the medley.


If you sample other artists’ recordings you will need to obtain a master use license directly from the owner of the soundrecording, this is in addition to the mechanical license you will obtain from the songowner/publisher. Unlike mechanical licenses, there are no statutory rates for master use licenses. The owners of sound recordings have the right to prevent you from using their recording at all, or to charge you high upfront fees and/or royalties to sample their recording. Get your master use license before adding samples into your final recording for more leverage when negotiating.

Making Changes to Cover Songs

To put your own mark on a cover song you may wish to change things such as the lyrics. As with negotiating a lower mechanical licensing rate, you will need to contact the song owner/publisher directly in order to make alterations to the song. Changing aspects such as tempo and key do not normally require permission, but for changes to the melody or lyrics consult the song’s owner/publisher; be prepared to pay a fee for the privilege and to submit your intended changes for approval prior to recording.

Copyright and Your Band: Cover Songs (Part One)

Record Store Picture

DISCLAIMER: This post is not intended as legal advice, for specific information pertaining to your situation consult an attorney who specializes in entertainment law.

The holidays are upon us and with the plethora of Christmas albums released every year this is a great time to talk about the copyrights involved when you and your band choose cover songs. Almost everyone, from the guys at an open mic night to superstars like The Beatles, perform and record cover songs. Bands sometimes even change the lyrics to suit their personal styles. Covering songs by other writers expands your rep and gives audiences something to hum along

with, but performing, recording, and altering songs written by someone else requires copyright licensing, familiarly known as getting permission in exchange for money.

Copyright often remains in effect long after the death of a song’s writers: U.S. copyright protection currently lasts 70 years beyond the life of the writer. Most songs you will wish to perform and record are still copyrighted. Songs protected by copyright earn money for their owners (even after the actual writer has died.) To perform, record, or alter copyrighted songs you and your band will need to seek licenses from the song owners, and/or the publishers and agencies that administer their copyrights.

Performing Cover Songs Live

Suppose you and your band decide to perform a holiday show including Irving Berlin’s classic song “White Christmas.” Although Berlin died in 1989, the Irving Berlin Music Company owns and administers the rights to his music. Because “White Christmas” is still copyrighted someone needs to have a performance license for the cover song to be performed.

Lucky for you performance licenses are usually obtained by the performance venue. Restaurants, clubs, concert halls, and stadiums purchase blanket licenses from Performing Rights Organizations (PRO’s) including ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC to allow them to perform songs written by PRO members. For more on PRO’s and performance licensing see Copyright and Your Band: PRO’s collect money! The performance license ensures that songwriters, lyricists, and publishers get paid when their songs are performed. If a venue tells you not to perform cover songs its probably because they do not have a performance license.

Make sure you or the venue have a performance license from the PRO’s or do not perform cover songs (there could be legal consequences if you don’t have a license!) If your venue does not have a performance license you can obtain one directly from the PRO that represents the song/songwriter you want

to perform. Use ASCAP’s Ace Search to find out who most songwriters are affiliated with (even many who do not belong to ASCAP), then contact the appropriate PRO to request a license. Visit ASCAPBMI, and SESAC for details on purchasing a license to perform music by their members. You only need to purchase a performance license if the venue does not already have one.

Recording Covers

Congrats, your holiday show was a hit! Now you want to record your first Christmas Album for your adoring fans (including lots of cover songs of course!). In order to record any song you need to get a mechanical license; this gives you permission to mechanically (or electronically) reproduce and distribute copies of a song.

After an initial recording is made and publicly distributed, U.S. Copyright law allows anyone to record any song for a statutory rate . Basically you can record a John Lennon song as long as it has already been recorded once, and the fee will be the same for any song you choose from Madonna to Elvis to someone you’ve never heard of. However, if you discover a long lost Lennon song that has never been recorded before, then you will need to negotiate permission and a fee directly with the song’s owners. The rule of thumb is, if you’ve heard it on a CD, LP, or iTunes, then you can cover it and pay the statutory rate.

The current statutory rate to record a song (highest fee legally allowed in the U.S. for a previously recorded song) is 9.1¢ for each copy made of a song that is 5 minutes or less. Longer songs have a rate of 1.75¢ per minute for each copy. Harry Fox has a complete explanation of statutory rates.

If you record a 10-song album of cover songs and each song is 5 minutes or less, then you would have to pay 91¢ for every copy of the album that you make (10*$0.091=$0.91). If you order 1000 copies of the album it will cost you $910 in mechanical licenses. When you consider alternate methods of distributing your recording the rates vary: interactive steams (such as Spotify) enjoy the statutory rate of 1¢ per copy, and ringtones are 24¢ per copy.

(End of Part One. Stay Tuned for Part Two.)

Copyright and Your Band: PRO’s Collect Money! (Part Three)

Part Three has been published, read it below or at SonicBids.comcopyright image

The right to perform your songs is one of the six copyrights that can get money delivered to your mailbox. Live concerts, radio, television, restaurants, and elevators all count as public performances. Every time you or another performer sings your songs in a live concert, or a recording of your song plays in a restaurant or elevator, or as background in a TV show, you are earning performance royalties. The easiest way to collect mailbox money for your songs is to affiliate with a Performing Rights Organization (PRO) such as ASCAP, BMI, or SESAC. These organizations collect license fees from clubs, arenas, concert halls, universities, restaurants, and more; later they distribute that money to songwriters and publishers. All you have to do is join a PRO, tell them what songs you have written, and wait for your checks to be delivered!

The Best PRO

You can only affiliate with one PRO at a time, so talk to your fellow musicians about their experiences with their PRO before deciding which to join. Although there are many PRO’s worldwide, in the U.S. you can choose from ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC. The two largest PRO’s in the U.S. are ASCAP and BMI, some differences between them include the way that they calculate your performance royalty payments.

The payment formulas are complex and change periodically. ASCAP divides the total licensing fees collected by the number of ASCAP performances during the quarter, with some performances earning a higher royalty. Your portion of the licensing fees will be based on the type of performance (themes vs. background, etc.), and the medium (radio, live performance, network vs. local television, etc.) in proportion to how often your songs are performed. Your royalty payments are based on more than just the quantity of performances, a featured performance on a national hit television show will give you more money than being performed on a local radio station.

BMI’s payment formulas are different, with certain types of performances earning a fixed dollar amount. Like ASCAP the value of each performance varies based on type and medium, but with BMI it may also be affected by factors such as the audience size and time of day. Each quarter BMI also pays voluntary bonus payments to certain types of performance areas, such as when a song achieves hit status on national radio. Here is a detailed account of their royalty payment system.

Leaving Money on the Table

While you consider which PRO to join you also need to make sure to collect all the money owed to you. PRO’s divide the licensing money for a song into two parts known as the writer’s share and the publisher’s share. For example, out of each dollar that your song earns in performance royalties, 50¢ goes to the group of writers and 50¢ goes to the publishers. If you have a publisher they will want to collect their share, and will probably register your songs with a PRO themselves, but if you don’t have a publisher you might be leaving money on the table!

If there is no publisher listed for your songs then ASCAP or BMI will keep the publisher’s share, and you will only be collecting half of the royalties available to you. Working with a publisher can have its benefits, especially if you don’t have the time or connections to effectively promote your songs. A good publisher may be able to get your songs performed or recorded by other bands, and may earn you more licensing fees than they will cost you. However, if you choose to self-publish (aka you don’t work with a publisher) make sure to register yourself as a publisher with your PRO so that you can collect both the writer’s share and the publisher’s share. The registration process for publishers is very similar to registering as a songwriter; fill out an application and pay the fee, and you could potentially double your royalty payments.


Each songwriter in your band will need to affiliate separately, you can choose to joint different PRO’s, when you register the songs the organizations will automatically split the payments up. For example, if you and your bandmate co-author a song your PRO’s will send you each a separate check for your half of the performance royalties. Each writer can only be affiliated with one PRO at a time, but you don’t have to remain with the same PRO for life. You can switch PRO’s when your affiliation contract period ends (although this might mean additional fees and paperwork).

ASCAP To join ASCAP as a writer you will need to pay a one-time registration fee of $50 via credit card and provide basic identification information including you social security number. If you choose to join as a publisher you must fill out a separate application complete with a social security number or company tax ID, and pay another $50 registration fee. Make a list of all the songs you have written so that you can register them once you join. Visit ASCAP for details.

BMI Songwriters can join BMI for free, however if you choose to self-publish there is a $150 one-time fee ($250 for publishing companies). The BMI application process is similar to ASCAP’s, visit BMI for details. SESAC The smallest of the U.S. PRO’s, SESAC has a selective application process to affiliate. Instead of filling out an online application you must email the SESAC staff directly. SESAC touts exclusivity and personal service among the benefits of joining their roster. Visit SESAC for details.

Celebrity Affiliations

ASCAP: James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich from Metallica

BMI: Germanotta Stefani (aka Lady Gaga)

SESAC: Bob Dylan

ASCAP also has a great (free) database that allows you to discover the writers (and their PRO affiliations), performers, and publishers of your favorite songs. This information can be vital if you want to do cover songs for your next album, or find out whom you should approach for permission to alter lyrics. Find out who owns the songs you love.

Copyright and Your Band: What is it and how do you get it? (Part 2)

copyright imageRegistration

Although you don’t need to register your songs with the copyright office, registering offers you much more protection in the event that someone else tries to claim them as their own. In order to sue someone for infringing on your copyright you will first need to register the song. Depending on when you register you might be entitled to legal fees if you win the lawsuit. Upon registration your songs will also be deposited with the Library of Congress, making it harder for plagiarizers to claim that they didn’t know your song existed.

In order to register songs and recordings visit the U.S. Copyright office website for details. Once there you can complete an online copyright registration, which will require a form, fee, and copy of the song you want to register. Currently copyright in the U.S. lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years. After copyright expires songs enter the public domain and no longer require permission and/or license fees to be performed. But don’t assume that all Public Domain works are free to use, because newer edited versions of public domain works can gain new copyright protection, making it possible for new editions of works by Mozart to earn licensing fees for their editors.

International copyright
Unfortunately there is no such thing as a universal international copyright registration and laws about copyright vary by country. If you want protection for your songs in another country you will need to follow the procedures set by their government.

Simplifying ownership
As a singer-songwriter/recording artist you probably work with other musicians and band members to write and record your songs. Copyright ownership can get tricky when multiple people are involved in the creative process, especially since copyright materializes at the moment you put pen to paper or push the record button. When multiple people are involved in the creative process they may gain joint ownership in the songs and recordings, giving them the right to veto certain decisions about what can be done with the songs and recordings in question. Consolidating copyright ownership will make your life easier.

Working with session musicians. If you hire ringers for a recording, make sure they sign a session release form before you start recording. These forms release the musician’s right to control the fate of the recorded songs, and since copyright ownership can only be transferred in writing, if you fail to get a session release form from a musician they may automatically become a joint owner of the recording copyright. But just because someone isn’t a copyright owner doesn’t mean they can’t share in the economic success of the recording: if musicians are hesitant to sign a session release form you can still offer them a percentage of royalties in exchange for control of the rights.

If you don’t make sure that the band consolidates copyright ownership then licensing and record companies might be wary of making a deal with you. No one wants to chase all over the country trying to get permission from the drummer on track 3 of your demo, and failing to control all of the rights might cause you to be passed over when it comes time to sign the record deal.

Having the talk. Everyone hopes that their band has what it takes to endure, but even the most amiable bands may have members that leave to pursue other gigs or interests. When band members leave they may retain joint ownership in the songs and recordings you created together, which means you might owe departed band members money years after they’ve left, and even worse: you may need their written permission to make a record or publishing deal.

Imperfect copyright ownership (when you do not control all of the rights) can scare off publishers and record companies and generally make your life difficult. Consider setting up an LLC or other business entity to be the owner of the copyrights, with written agreements about revenue sharing and what happens when band members leave or join the group. This consolidation of ownership makes it easier to license your recordings, although as a singer-songwriter you may want to keep ownership of your songs and grant your band permission to perform and record them. As with all legal matters, you should consult an attorney specializing in entertainment law to advise you and help you set up a business entity and written agreements. Although you may be reluctant to spend the time and money early on, remember that it’s much easier to come to an agreement while you are all still friends.

Understanding copyright and licensing can help you have a more lucrative musical career. Copyright is automatically created when you fix your songs in a tangible form, making it vital to consolidate copyright ownership through written agreements before undertaking activities such as recording. Consolidating copyright ownership of both your songs and recordings will make it easier for your band to take advantage of new opportunities to spread your music

Stay tuned next time for more on royalties and how to make money from your copyrights through licensing.


This article is for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. You should contact your attorney to obtain advice with respect to any particular issue or problem. The opinions expressed in this article are the opinions of the individual author and may not reflect the opinions of any affiliated organizations.


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