Music Licensing 101: The Pretty to the Nitty-gritty

By Amelia Lukas

Let’s face it: Music licensing can feel like scary stuff. If you’re anything like me — an artist by nature and nurture who has honed arts-business skills through my own entrepreneurial efforts — then you probably get that panicked, semi-nauseated feeling at the mere mention of “legal responsibility.” However, one thing I’ve learned in my three years working for a major music publisher (G. Schirmer Inc./AMP) is that licensing music for dance isn’t actually complicated at all. Even so, very few dance administrators have a clear understanding of how it works, why we need it, and how it can benefit them. You don’t need to be a lawyer or copyright expert to master the ins and outs of music licensing. Once you know who and what your resources are, and have a comfortable working knowledge of the process, you’re golden. Read on for a basic overview of grand rights licensing in the form of a clearly laid out “cheat sheet” to empower you for future negotiations.

First, let’s explore how licensing new music benefits dance. The big news is that an abundance of mutually beneficial promotional and financial opportunities emerges by bringing a living composer into the mix. As artists, we know that collaboration often offers a key to success. What could be more collaborative than commissioning a composer to write music specifically tailored to your artistic vision? As artists, we know that collaboration often offers a key to success. What could be more collaborative than commissioning a composer to write music specifically tailored to your artistic vision?But regardless of whether the music is newly composed or preexisting, involving a composer in your process:  1) widens your audience, as fans of that composer’s work become interested in your project; 2) allows for more promotional exposure from the music publisher, the composer’s manager, and other organizations with which the composer is involved; and 3) opens your project up to receive funding from granting organizations such as New Music USA. Widens, allows, and opens … these are great actions for any organization!

Have your business-savvy friends ever said to you, “You have to spend money to make money?” Wise words. Most grand rights fees are extremely reasonable, and are negotiated based on such factors as the size of the organization, the size of the venue, and anticipated ticket sales. If a dance company receives a grand rights quote during the planning stages of its project, it can seamlessly incorporate this expense into the budget. Still, many dance companies avoid grand rights fees altogether by only programming music that exists in the public domain. While this may seem like a practical and cost-effective solution on the front end, it is in fact neither in the long run. Have you ever weighed the cost of those fees against the amount of attention you could receive by using the music of a living composer? When companies only dance to music written prior to 1923, they are putting significant and undeniable limitations on their work. Think for a moment about what the world of dance would look like if it only used choreography, set designs and costumes that were created prior to 1920. Seriously — think about that. Pretty grim, right?

As an accomplished performing musician and the director of a successful modern chamber music series in Brooklyn, I can tell you that any company or choreographer that is not considering programming newer music is outfitting themselves with a serious handicap. Not only is contemporary music relevant, but it is thriving! Contemporary classical music has broadened its scope to incorporate all kinds of influences. In a sense, we are entering a “post-genre” era in which style is more difficult to define. Chamber music combines with alt-rock and pop. The avant-garde melds with Appalachian fiddle music. Flamenco-inspired improvisation dovetails with the neo-classical. A wonderful, natural outcome of this mixing and matching of elements is that new and diverse audiences are drawn to the music — and the dance.

Although licensing new music requires a small financial investment and a leap of faith up front, the return on that investment is often priceless. Now that we’ve looked at some of the potential benefits, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty and talk process.

What is a grand right? Essentially, the use of copyright-protected music for public performances of dance works and other types of staged works constitutes a grand right. All grand rights require a license directly from the copyright owner or publisher.

How do I know if a work is under copyright? The general rule that applies to music published in the United States is that (as of 2008) if it was published after 1922, it is protected by copyright for the life of the composer plus 70 years. For works published in European countries, copyright generally endures for the life of the composer plus 70 years. This is important to remember if you plan to tour outside of the U.S., because your piece may require a license in one country, but not another. When in doubt, check with the publisher.

How do I obtain a license? The process to obtain a license is usually quite simple and starts with an inquiry to the music publisher or with the composer if the work is self-published. If dealing with a publisher, you may receive a form on which you can outline the details of your performance. Once the publisher’s copyright department receives the form, they will send you a quote and payment options, should you decide to follow through.

How do I know who publishes a piece of music? Usually a simple Google search will bring up the information you need, but if you run into confusing or conflicting information, the websites for the performing rights societies (ASCAP or BMI), the MPA (Music Publishers Association), and the Library of Congress are all good references for publisher information. The advanced search on, a global catalogue of library collections, is also very useful.

How much will the license cost? The cost of a grand rights license can be quite modest. Music publishers determine their fees based on factors that include the size of the organization, the duration of the music, the cost of tickets, the capacity of the performance space, and the number of performances. We negotiate quickly on a case-by-case basis, taking each customer’s unique circumstances into consideration.

In general, music publishers large and small want the music in their catalogues to be heard and celebrated, and thus will work with you to make that happen. However, flexibility and respect flow both ways. Music is under copyright so that artists are protected and can be fairly compensated for their work. Having respect for music means recognizing its intrinsic value. Music is under copyright so that artists are protected and can be fairly compensated for their work. Having respect for music means recognizing its intrinsic value. Dancers dance because they love music. It’s not the only reason, but it’s a vital aspect of the art form and deserves to be supported and cultivated the same way a company supports its dancers and choreographers.

It costs more, of course, to use the music of a famous composer than it does to program music by an emerging composer. Instead of balking at fees that are out of your league and stopping there, discuss them and negotiate. That emerging composer may very well be the famous composer’s young protégé who has a rock band on the side and a huge following. She might be great in video interviews, and willing to attend rehearsals and work with a dance company on her own time. And you might only learn about her by first making the inquiry to the publisher, engaging in friendly and honest conversation about your project, and having this alternate suggestion made to you. Everyone wins!

When should I obtain my license? You should make inquiries with the publisher as soon as you choose the music. This is important for a number of reasons:

  • Some compositions are restricted from dance, typically because they are intended for concert performances only. In these rare cases you will learn that you cannot legally gain permission to choreograph to that specific music.
  • Early planning will help you budget for the fee. Also, with composers and managers now monitoring performances with Google alerts, the days of flying under the radar as a small company are gone, so it’s best to work together upfront. You will always be in a better bargaining position with a publisher prior to performing a copyrighted work rather than trying to negotiate after the fact.
  • When you contact the publisher, a representative  will explain how to obtain performance materials (scores or parts for the players) if you are using live musicians. You will also learn whether separate licenses are required for touring to other countries.

Did I hear someone say I need two licenses, one for the music and one for the recording?
It’s true. If you are using a recording as opposed to live music, you will need to license the music composition and the sound recording separately. Publishing houses do not grant permission for the rights to use audio recordings in performance, only the underlying rights to use the music contained on the recordings. For permission to use an audio recording, you will need to inquire with the master owner of the recording directly. This is usually the record company or organization that released the recording.

You are independently responsible for reporting any additional aspects of your performances that require further licensing, such as broadcasts (Internet, radio, or television), touring outside of the country, an intention to record and distribute performances, and any text translations. The best course of action is to include a cover letter to the music publisher outlining your intentions so they can let you know what is covered in your grand rights license, and what requires separate permissions.

And, finally, Amelia’s helpful hint! Don’t forget, music publishers are your friends.The promotional staff at music publishers work particularly closely with composers and performing organizations, and are often active performers and programmers ourselves. We love hearing about your ideas and gain a lot of satisfaction from helping you achieve your vision. We are happy to offer free advice about repertoire and commissioning, and we can advocate for you in the negotiation process if we are well informed of your project. Develop a relationship with someone who works at a music publisher and you may find yourself with a music specialist who champions your work and is there to help you navigate the vast, inspiring world of music for dance.

Flutist Amelia Lukas performs with “a fine balance of virtuosity and poetry” (Allan Kozinn, The New York Times) and has “a buoyancy of spirit that comes out in the flute, a just beautiful sound” (The Boston Globe). Recent projects include performances at Carnegie’s Zankel and Weill Halls, The Stone, Bargemusic, (Le) Poisson Rouge, the Norfolk Chamber Music Festival, the Orford Sound Art Festival, and premieres of works by Columbia University composers at Lincoln Center. She has appeared with such ensembles as the London Sinfonietta and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Ms. Lukas is a promotion associate for music publisher G. Schirmer, managing their chamber and dance music catalogues. As a respected curator, she produces modern chamber music concerts throughout New York City. Time Out NY deemed her monthly Ear Heart Music series as “scintillating,” “impeccably curated,” and “a staple in the New York new-music soundscape.” Ms. Lukas also acts as the music advisor to Chicago arts service organization and performance venue, High Concept Laboratories. She holds degrees from the Manhattan School of Music and the Royal Academy of Music in London, where she won three prizes for musical excellence.


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