Everything you Need to Know About Music Licensing But Were Afraid to Ask!

September 23, 2021 - By 

We have noticed a lot of discussion recently about the complexities and difficulties around music licensing and copyright. Many choir leaders find this a very confusing and frustrating subject area, which is not surprising given the amount of seemingly conflicting information which is out there and how prone that information is to interpretation.

At ChoirCommunity, helping to solve this problem is one of the most important objectives we have sought to achieve since starting up in 2018. We wanted to make it easier for talented choir leaders and musicians to legitimately share the arrangements they have written with other choirs, while also making the proper purchasing of great choral music easier and more affordable for as many singing groups as possible around the world.

In order to do this, we have taken on many of the complexities and costs involved in ensuring the music available on our website is fully licenced and that all the artists and rights-owners get properly rewarded for their work.  We have also tried to explain as clearly as possible how the licencing of music works and how we have set things up at ChoirCommunity (for example in our FAQ page), but I’m aware that we have never actually explained everything all in one place, so here goes!

If you have the patience to read to the bottom, you should end up knowing everything you need to know about music licensing!

Purchasing Choral Arrangements as Sheet Music

Sheet music is licensed on a ‘per copy’ basis which means you need to purchase one copy of music per singer in your choir. There’s no getting around this if you want to ensure you are properly covered. Printing off lyric sheets separately is not a legitimate way of avoiding this requirement for example (in fact lyrics under copyright are often more heavily protected and more difficult to licence separately than the music).

There is even a pretty strong argument that a choir who learns an arrangement by ear should still purchase the same number of copies of the music. Every singer is still ‘making use’ of the arrangement after all. We accept that there is probably some room for argument here, but if you look at this from the point of view of the arranger who created the music, they are not getting the proper recognition or reward for their work if copies of their arrangement are not being fully purchased. In creating an arrangement, musical notation is usually the way the work is written down and ‘stored’, so it makes sense that this represents the best way in which ‘copies’ can be purchased (and royalties distributed from).

Arrangements of Works Under Copyright

Copyright for music generally lasts for 70 years after the death of the author (whichever is the most recent if the music and words were written by different people). If a piece of music is under copyright, then you don’t have the right to make and perform an arrangement with your choir without permission from the rights-owners.

This seems to be the most often misunderstood element of copyright in that “just making an arrangement for your own choir’s use” has been assumed to be okay. It is true that this practice is effectively impossible to police, but from a legal perspective it is clear cut. (Don’t forget, this practice also prevents the original artists or right-holders from obtaining any recognition or reward for their work).  Getting this permission, as many of you have no doubt found, is incredibly difficult. Even if you do track down the rights-owners for a particular piece of music (not an easy process in itself), it’s very unlikely you’ll get any joy as an individual in getting any kind of reasonable agreement to use the music.

That’s where ChoirCommunity come in! We have managed to secure a deal with Hal Leonard (the largest publisher of sheet music in the world) which gives us the ability to obtain clearance for the vast majority of popular music written in the last hundred years or so. Hal Leonard is able to offer the digital rights to us to publish the arrangements of a huge range of copyrighted titles, mostly on a Worldwide basis.

The nature of our contractual agreement with Hal Leonard brings with it certain restrictions which we felt it was worth sharing here:

  1. Pricing – all titles with copyright licenced through Hal Leonard cannot be sold by us for less than £1.50 per copy.
  2. Quantity – all titles with copyright licenced through Hal Leonard are bound by a minimum quantity threshold. At ChoirCommunity this is 10 copies.
  3. Territory – all digital licences are offered on a territory basis. Most licences we obtain are worldwide, but occasionally some territories are restricted. Usually this is where the licence for certain countries is held by a separate organisation with no agreement with Hal Leonard. This situation is quiet changeable so we are also contractually bound to check the country that a customer is logged in from and compare this with the licencing status of any piece of music (which we also update from Hal Leonard’s database on a daily basis).

In terms of the commercial agreement with Hal Leonard, we pay a royalty of 60% of the sale value to them for every copy of sheet music sold, as well as paying a full royalty to the arranger as well.

Arrangements of Works in the Public Domain

If the words and music of a song are out of copyright, then it is perfectly legitimate to make your own arrangement of that song to use with your choir, or to share it for use by other choirs as well. There are no restrictions to doing this from a copyright perspective.

When we were setting up ChoirCommunity, we were having all the same difficulties obtaining clearance for copyrighted material as everyone else (in fact, the deal with Hal Leonard wasn’t signed until 2020). As a result, we initially put a lot of effort into being a digital marketplace for high-quality arrangements of music in the public domain.

We have continued to do this (and will always continue to add more titles of public domain material) as it allows us to provide a great selection of music at a much more affordable price. We have maintained the price of nearly all our own self-published sheet music at 50p per copy and have no intention of changing that in the foreseeable future.

Our growing team of contributing arrangers are also a great source of some really interesting and lesser known traditional music from all over the world, so ChoirCommunity will continue to be somewhere you can find excellent arrangements of music you would probably never know about that reflect cultures from a different time and place.

In terms of the purchasing of these arrangements, the requirements stated in the section above still stand. The original music and words may be out of copyright, but the arrangement published on ChoirCommunity is copyrighted by the arranger and so enjoys all the same protections and requirements as set out above for all sheet music sales.

Purchasing Choral Arrangements as Audio Learning Tracks

The licence to distribute recordings, whether that be individual parts or an ensemble recording of an arrangement, is managed completely separately from the sheet music licence. This is managed through PRS for Music via a licence called a LOML (Limited Online Music Licence).

If you want to make a recording of an arrangement to send out to your choir members, either as parts or as an ensemble, you need to be covered by a LOML.
ChoirCommunity have purchased a LOML from PRS which we renew annually based on the number of audio learning tracks which are downloaded from our website. Purchasing learning tracks from us therefore covers you in terms of distributing these files to your singers, either via your own website or by email.

From a commercial perspective, we have decided to sell our audio tracks in the same way as sheet music (e.g. on a per copy basis), partly to be consistent with the sheet music products and to prevent confusion, but also to ensure that we track the number of ‘copies’ sold so we can purchase the scale of LOML to cover the correct download volumes.  It also helps us to pay the same level of royalties per copy sold to our arrangers.

The one exception to this is the growing number of backing tracks which we offer on the website.  Since these really are used just once per choir, we sell these as single copy licences for use by a single group.

Performances

If you organise a concert it is generally the venue’s responsibility to make sure that there is a licence in place for performance. If this is the case, they should ask you for a list of music which you are performing, so this is a good think to check for.  If you are organising the concert yourself, then it is your responsibility to make sure the performance rights are paid to PRS.

This is something we don’t get involved with at all so, if you have any questions, PRS are the best people to talk to.

Uploading Videos of Performances

Yes, even this is licenced! Putting a video of your performance of a copyrighted song online requires something called a ‘synch’ licence from the publisher or rights-owner. Fortunately, this is beginning to get easier on platforms such as YouTube and Facebook as these platforms are beginning to get their own licensing arrangements in place which cover most material now. It is likely therefore that as long as you are not trying to ‘monetise’ the video in any way there should be no problem in putting it up on your YouTube channel or Facebook page.

We’d be very interested to hear your thoughts on any of the points raised above so please add a comment below or email us at [email protected]

Thanks also to Emma Rowland for her great post on the Creative Choir Leader Facebook Page which inspired this blog post!

Posted In:  Blog
2  comments
2 Comments
  • Fiona Watson, Ballarat Singers September 23, 2021 at 10:03 pm

    Thank you for this blog. Very comprehensive and helpful. I shall forward on to the “team”!

  • Thanks so much for writing this out in a very easy to read and understand way! I shall now be able to pass it to all those members who are grumbling about costs!!

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