Do DJs Need A Permission or License To Play Songs?


To be a successful DJ, you need to know your stuff- or at least be adequate before you build a business around yourself. However, there are a few legal aspects of copyright that you need to know, to ensure that you don’t get grounded before taking off!

One of the biggest questions newbies have is: Do DJ’s need permission to play songs?

In most cases, no. DJ’s do not need any permission or licenses to play songs legally, since the club/restaurant/bar where the gig takes place are responsible for it. Also- if playing at a private event, such as a wedding, licenses are not required at all. There are a few caveats though. Let’s look at them in detail.

Disclaimer: This article should not be taken as legal advice and is based on my own understanding. You should consult a copyright professional to be 100% sure

Don’t download songs through torrent

As a DJ who’s wondering about copyright laws, the first thing you need to do is ensure that all your songs are downloaded legally.

The dual benefit of doing this is that first, you’re protected by law, and second, you can claim a tax write off on your music downloads.

Check out this article for more on tax write off’s for DJ’s

In most cases this is all you need to do. Technically, a DJ also needs to be registered with a Performance Rights Organization(PRO) to be able to play music in public spaces.

However, this is usually taken care of by the club or restaurant where you’ll be playing. It’s always good to check with them though, in case you’re unsure.

What are PRO’s?

Performance Rights Organizations(PRO’s) are bodies that represent artists. They ensure that if music written or composed by a particular artist is being played in a public space, then the artist gets adequate royalties.

A public space may be a bar, club, restaurant, or even an open air gig at the park. Any place where the public can gather.

A private event, on the other hand, would be a wedding reception, for which a PRO registration isn’t required.

PRO’s collect a subscription fee from members, and in return, allow them legal licenses to play songs from their database. Remember, they represent artists, so if Drake is represented by ASCAP, you’ll find songs written by him in their database.

How many PROs are there in the US?

There are 3 major Performance Rights Organizations in the United States:

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

While the first two- ASCAP and BMI are non-profit organizations, the third one(SESAC) retains some income as profit.

Between these three, you can safely assume that almost all the music from American artists is licensed.

Should the venue have licenses from all 3 PROs?

Ideally, yes, they should have licenses from BMI, SESAC, and ASCAP.

Say you want to include Shakira’s new song in your mix. Now, that song could have 20 different artists working on it- from composers to lyricists to backup singers, etc. They all could be represented by a single PRO, or, as is more common, they’ll be spread across all 3 PROs.

In this case, if you play the new Shakira song, all three PRO’s can claim royalties from the venue. With all the different songs you’ll end up playing in your mix, you can only imagine how messy the web of copyright holders would look for just one 30 minute playlist.

This is why you ought to ensure that your club has all 3 licenses.

Over time, as you do more and more gigs, you’ll come to realize which spots are compliant and which aren’t. You can then decide, basis your own risk appetite, where you’d like to play

What if the venue hasn’t paid royalties to PROs?

If the venue you’re playing at doesn’t have license from PROs, you have a clear choice- either don’t play or get your own licenses. Keep in mind that you might end up spending over $5,000 for licenses from all 3 major PROs. So definitely not the recommended path.

Until sometime ago, the authority of PROs over music being played in restaurants or clubs wasn’t enforced, and hence it wasn’t a big issue. However, since they started to regulate even small cafes and bars heavily, a lot of small business owners have started to feel the pinch.

This is why a lot of the small places readily tend to take the risk of lawsuit rather than pay the license fee. Logic being that no PRO is going to waste their time and money to collect the revenue from a small business owner- which is negligible benefit for them.

Larger the establishment you’re playing at though, the more probable that they’re compliant with the PROs- because they cannot afford to be non-compliant and risk legal action.

What if you’re playing abroad?

There are different PROs in every country and, it depends how strictly they enforce their authority. Again, you should ensure that your venue is compliant with the copyright laws by asking them about this.

The venue/organizing authorities are going to be responsible for this, and you probably don’t need to worry about it.

Related Questions:

Do wedding DJ’s need to play royalties?

No, wedding events are private and hence, do not require any license from BMI/ASCAP/SESAC.

Can you record and upload your mixes?

Yes you can. There are DJ friendly sites where copyright issues won’t crop up. Soundcloud used to be one, however, they’ve recently partnered with the same firm that works with Facebook to remove copyright violating posts. Post that, a lot of DJ’s have noticed their mixes being deleted.

Unless your composition is completely original, I wouldn’t try uploading them on this platform.

The DJ friendly platforms I was talking about earlier are:

  • Mixcloud
  • Beatport Mixes
  • Official FM
  • Youtube(don’t monetize your videos though- unless you have original music compositions)
  • Mixcrate

Can a DJ play another DJ’s music?

Yes, they definitely can. As long as the music track is downloaded legally.

Conclusion

There is a lot of flexibility in interpretation of copyright violation for a live performance by a DJ. So, as long as your venue has taken care of a PRO license and you have downloaded songs legally, you’ll be fine.

In the recording studio, however, you need to strictly ensure that you either compose your music from scratch or get the official rights for mixing the song.

And like I said earlier, go talk to a copyright lawyer. This article is just meant to provide a starting point for your research.

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