Meeting Management

It’s the (New) Law: Licensing Music at Your Meetings

ASCAP has revised its licensing fees and reporting process for using music at meetings and conventions.

During the 20 minutes leading up to your opening keynote, you play a medley of bright, peppy pop songs designed to energize and entertain the attendees who are filtering into the room. Then you cue up the same medley right after the keynote, and use it to bookend the closing keynote two days later.

Do you have to pay a licensing fee to use the songs? How much? And is that an individual fee for each usage of each song? Or more of a flat rate?

The answer to the first question most likely is yes. For all the others — it depends, based on licensing guidelines established and enforced by the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP), Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI), and SESAC (originally the Society of European Stage Authors and Composers), which collect royalties on behalf of their members. Especially noteworthy is the fact that ASCAP has simplified licensing fees for use of its members’ copyrighted music at meetings and conventions. Previously, ASCAP had different formulas for calculating fees for live music, for recorded music, and for use of copyrighted music streamed or archived on an event website. Now, there’s one rate schedule for everything.


How does music licensing work? Performance-rights organizations issue a license that grants the licensee the right to publicly perform/use the catalog of their members’ music, providing blanket coverage for a contracted period of time, usually a year. Up until about 25 years ago, the music license obtained by convention centers, hotels, and other venues was thought to cover the usage of copyrighted music by event organizers. But after several lawsuits against organizers filed by ASCAP and BMI, a meetings industry task force negotiated a fee schedule with ASCAP and BMI.

According to Leah Lupo, BMI’s public relations director, BMI doesn’t have any plans to change its rate schedule for event music licenses. BMI charges a flat fee based on total attendance, including exhibitors, for use of copyrighted music, whether it’s performed live, used as a recording, or archived on an event website.

Meanwhile, ASCAP’s new fee schedule is based on total attendance at an event, including all attendees and all exhibitors. In the past, the formula for use of recorded music required tallying half the number of exhibitors plus all non-exhibitor attendees. In addition to updating its fees, ASCAP has streamlined the reporting process, so that an event organizer sends in a single report for all its events during the calendar year along with payment, instead of being billed after filing a report.

“The redesigned license is more efficient and less confusing,” said Pam Gibson, ASCAP’s senior licensing manager. “The administration process is smoother, and having a flat fee per event makes it easier for organizers.” For example, the lowest rate in the tiered schedule is $121, for events with fewer than 1,500 attendees, including all exhibitors; the highest fee is $9,592, for events with more than 100,000 attendees.

“We haven’t made changes to our event license in more than 20 years,” Gibson said. “Most of the customers I work with love the new licensing. Very few people are unhappy with it.” She added that groups that pay fees for live-performance rights typically pay less under the new rate structure, while those using recorded music pay more.

David DuBois, CMP, CAE, president and CEO of the International Association of Exhibitions and Events (IAEE), said that IAEE is starting to get calls from members asking about the new ASCAP fees. “At IAEE, our ASCAP fee has increased from $130 to $420. Nothing to cry over, but for events with a large number of exhibitors, the fee hike can be substantial,” DuBois said. “Outside of something like a class-action suit, we don’t think this is something that our industry can really do anything about. We learned decades ago that event organizers have to pay for copyrighted material, like it or not.”

Exhibitor contracts routinely require exhibitors to obtain a license for using copyrighted music in their booth. Yet both BMI and ASCAP say that isn’t required of exhibitors.

On its website, BMI states clearly that exhibitors are covered under the show organizer’s license. While ASCAP’s website doesn’t address this question specifically, Gibson pointed to the following language in the organization’s license agreement: “The term ‘function’ as used in this Agreement shall mean any activity conducted, sponsored, endorsed, approved, or presented by, or under the auspices of LICENSEE as part of or in conjunction with any LICENSEE event that is open only to attendees.”

“Since the exhibit program is under the auspices of the event organizer, exhibitors are covered under the event organizer’s music license,” Gibson said. “We get calls from exhibitors all the time asking if they need a license. The only time they might is if they are hosting a private event during the convention or trade show.”

So why do meeting organizers say otherwise in their exhibitor contracts? “Rights to use copyrighted material are interpreted very narrowly by the courts — they are usually nontransferable and apply exclusively to the entity signing the agreement,” said Paula Cozzi Goedert, a partner with Barnes & Thornburg LLP, which works with nonprofits on a variety of legal issues. “License agreements often use ambiguous language in this area, so I think event organizers want to be safe. They want to be sure they are complying with the law.”

Goedert’s advice to exhibitors who are concerned about using copyrighted music in their booths: Be able to show the event organizer written proof from ASCAP or BMI that such usage is covered under the event organizer’s music license. “That,” she said, “should take care of any problems.

Regina McGee

Convene Contributing Editor Regina McGee is a writer and editor based in Massachusetts.