Do I need a license for my singing business?

January 8, 2013

Dear Music Lawyer,

I am starting up a new business where people hire me and other performers to sing for them at their events (both public and private). What do I need to do in terms of getting a license to perform songs that aren't my own? For example, what if I sing well-known Christmas carols?


Dear Lauren,

When you are performing music that is not your own, you may need a public performance license. That's because the right of public performance is one of the exclusive rights of the copyright owner pursuant to the U.S. Copyright Act.

In the U.S., public performance licenses are usually granted by the performing rights organization (ASCAP, BMI, or SESAC) that controls the particular song(s) you wish to perform. However, you can also seek permission to publicly perform a musical work directly from the copyright owner of the song.

If you are performing in a traditional music venue, it's likely that the venue already has the requisite public performance license. You can read more about that in my December 6, 2011 post.

If you are performing in non-traditional music venues that are open to the public, you (or the event's host, if not you) may be responsible for obtaining a public performance license for the event.

Caveat: Copyright owners do not control the right of private performance. For example, if you are performing at a house concert that is open only to a small circle of family and friends, then it's unlikely you need to obtain a public performance license. Also, no license is required when performing songs in the public domain (i.e., songs that are no longer protected by copyright).

Since each situation is different, you may wish to contact the applicable performing rights organization(s) directly about your potential licensing needs. According to their websites, you can direct general licensing questions to the following:

ASCAP: 1-800-505-4052
BMI: 1-888-689-5264
SESAC: 1-800-826-9996

—Amy E. Mitchell is maintained by experienced Austin music lawyer Amy E. Mitchell. Please feel free to ask any music law related questions. You will be notified by email when your question has been selected for response, and the response will be posted on this site.

Please note that no responses are guaranteed, and responses provided on this site do not constitute legal advice and may be edited or removed at any time. The purpose of is solely to educate and inform musicians and music professionals about legal issues in the music industry. Accordingly, any posted responses are merely intended to give you general legal insight in order to point you in the right direction.