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First published in Classical Singer.

Dear Erda,

As a charity fundraiser, I would like to record some crossover music and sell the CDs. All proceeds would be donated to the charity. What are the copyright rules governing this?



Dear Michele,

Making recordings can get pretty complicated. Although you can get away with performing copyrighted material for free if you get the proper permissions, recording music, even for a benefit, is a whole different story. Plus, we’ve all heard various rumors about what is and isn’t legal in music licensing (aka copyrights). Time to go to the source!


First, some basics. The two major copyrighting agencies are ASCAP (American Society of Composers and Publishers) and BMI (Broadcast Music Inc.). ASCAP tends to represent more of the classical composers and older Broadway material. BMI tends to represent a lot of the more modern Broadway and pop.

The websites of both organizations are virtual treasure houses of easy-to-access information, including useful publications and email addresses so you can ask your questions of just the right person. Staff are friendly and helpful, so don’t hesitate to contact them for help --- after you’ve looked for the answer on the website.



Now, down to the nitty-gritty. First, even if you're singing music for which the copyright has run out, chances are the copyright on the ARRANGEMENT hasn't. Are you performing from a Schirmer or a Ricordi score? You may have to pay royalties. Yes, even on opera.

Secondly, you cannot create your own arrangements without permission from the copyright holder. To find out who holds the copyright, check out ASCAP’s website at ACE, their searchable database, provides all sorts of information, such as composer and publisher names, contact information, and lists of performers who have recorded the piece. If your song is not at ASCAP, chances are BMI has it ( Many of those old torch songs and Broadway chestnuts are still copyrighted, so if you want to be legal, check.

You can legally perform copyrighted music without getting permissions or paying a fee if you’re performing for a small gathering of family and friends; as part of a worship service that is not transmitted to other locations via TV, radio, or Internet; or if you are teaching, face-to-face, at a non-profit educational institution. Concerts and recitals are not exempt from licensing, even when they’re benefits. ASCAP’s licensing fees are modest and based on size of venue and ticket price. You can order a license through their website. BMI is more expensive; the last time I checked it started at $100. Licenses are generally good for a year and grant permission to use any songs from the organization’s catalogue. You can also contact the publisher or songwriter directly for permission to perform a song; they might not charge you at all for a benefit performance.



Now, if you want to make and sell an original recording of copyrighted songs, acquaint yourself with the Harry Fox Agency at This organization handles music licensing for recordings, and will act as an agent for the copyright holders (music publishers) whose permissions you need. The site has a great FAQ and downloadable applications for licenses, as well as current royalty information. Right now you can expect to pay 8 cents per copy (i.e., per CD you burn) for every song on your CD less than 5 minutes in length. The country in which you are making the recording also influences your rates and regulations. You will need to obtain a Mechanical License, which you can download on the Harry Fox website. For a benefit, you will also need to obtain releases from the other musicians who perform on the recording.

If all this sounds complicated and scary, buck up! It really isn’t that bad. The websites have quite enough information to get you started, and a staffer will probably talk you through the rest. Do your research and you’ll be just fine. Happy burning!


PS --- here are some helpful resources:

ASCAP Building
One Lincoln Plaza
New York, New York 10023
Tel: (212) 621-6000
Fax: (212) 724-9064

ASCAP LA Office:
7920 W. Sunset Boulevard, Third Floor
Los Angeles, CA 90046
Tel: (323) 883-1000
Fax: (323) 883-1049

BMI classical music fax: (212) 262-2824.
BMI musical theater fax: 212) 262-2824.

BMI NY office: 320 West 57th Street
New York, NY 10019-3790
(212) 586-2000

BMI LA office: 8730 Sunset Blvd. 
3rd Flr West
West Hollywood, CA 90069-2211
(310) 659-9109

The Harry Fox Agency, Inc. 
Mechanical Department
711 Third Avenue, 8th Floor
New York, NY 10017
FAX: 212-490-3728