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What is a DJ license and how to get one

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DJ-license

Compounding an unforgettable soundtrack for your next gig is key to the profession of a DJ. Therefore, figuring out whether you need a DJ license for the show may be a serious distraction from your craft. Additionally, performing without a license in situations where you need one may turn out extremely costly for your DJ business. Are you a DJ trying to gain more insight into DJ licensing? This article will give you all the information you need.

What is a DJ license and when do you need it?

While to become a professional DJ, no special training or an official certificate is required, other things need to be considered and taken care of. Performing in a public venue in front of a live audience in particular is crucial to the profession of a DJ.

That’s when a DJ license, more correctly known as a public performance license, becomes relevant. A DJ license could be described as permission given by the owner of the composition’s copyright to the music user (aka the DJ). Such permission will then allow the user to perform the copyrighted music (or use their beats) in public.

Although in our case we’re covering the topic of such permission provided to DJs, a public performance license is actually required any time recorded copyrighted music is played anywhere in public. This includes restaurants, stores, bars, concerts, radio stations, or online streaming sessions.

It’s also important to note that the license is needed regardless of how small a portion of a song is used. Therefore, even if you use the beat of a recorded song, you will need a license to play it at an event in a public venue.

Speaking of events, it’s important to distinguish between a public and private audience. While in a public setting, a DJ license is always required (as long as someone else’s copyrighted music is performed), if a performance is intended for a private audience, no permission is necessary. That means if you, as a DJ, are performing at a private party, a wedding reception, or some other kind of private event, you can do it freely without any license.

Generally speaking, the main difference between a public and private event is that a public event is held in a public venue, usually attracts a big audience, and is more likely to charge an entrance fee. Having said that, however, some events, such as corporate events or weddings, may impose particular regulations or be more confusing as to which category of events they belong to.

Therefore, if you happen to be unsure of the type of event, don’t hesitate to contact your local Performing Rights Organization (PRO). We will talk more about this a bit later!

Public-performance-license

Speaking of a DJ-/public performance license, it’s crucial to consider the importance of music rights and copyright protection. Music copyright laws are implemented to ensure that musicians, songwriters, lyricists, producers, and other copyright owners, are paid when other people use their work for commercial purposes, such as sampling, distributing, or performing.

Therefore, using someone else’s copyrighted music without a proper license is illegal, leading to copyright infringement. This, if detected, may result in a fine or even a court trial that may not only be costly and time-consuming but can also seriously harm your DJ career. It may cost hundreds or thousands of dollars to settle in a case of copyright infringement.

Important note: Some may think that by purchasing a song from authorized music stores, such as Beatport, iTunes, or Traxsource, you also pay the respective licensing fee. However, that’s not the case! Purchasing the song does not legally allow you to perform it in front of the public, meaning you still need to arrange your public performance license.

Public performance royalties

Public performance royalties refer to the fees that are paid by licensees to the relevant copyright holder in exchange for a right to perform or broadcast their recorded music composition in a public setting. This means that every time someone’s copyrighted music is played on the radio, streamed via a streaming platform, or performed at a live event by someone else, performance royalties are generated.

Traditionally, performance royalties are split into two shares - a writer’s share and a publisher’s share. The writer’s share usually goes to the songwriter(s), while the publisher’s share is paid to the respective publisher or publishing company. However, the recording artist or the record label may also fall under the relevant copyright holders in this case - it very much depends on who owns which rights.

The exact percentage of the royalties share that each party receives may then differ, mostly depending on a mutual deal they have as well as the territory. For example, in the US, public performance royalties are usually split equally between the songwriters and the publishers. Meanwhile, in France, songwriters generate 66% of the performance royalties.

Performance rights organizations (PROs)

The public performance royalties are collected and then split to individual copyright holders by the public performance organizations, which we’ve already mentioned above. PROs, also known as performing rights societies, refer to organizations that offer intermediary functions and services to copyright holders and their customers. One of their key functions is the collection and distribution of performance royalties to the relevant copyright holders.

Generally, the list of PROs changes depending on the country you’re located in, and in most cases, they operate as not-for-profit organizations. In the USA, some of the most important PROs are ASCAP, SESAC, and BMI.

BMI is by far the biggest and one of the oldest one, having been established in 1939. ASCAP is a bit smaller than BMI yet still includes over 850,000 members (songwriters, composers, and music publishers) with more than 16 million registered artistic works. SESAC, unlike the other two, is a for-profit organization and only accepts new members that have been personally invited.

In Canada, the SOCAN, Re:Sound and CMRRA are particularly relevant, while in the UK, PRS for Music Limited is the most important British music copyright collective, managing collective rights and royalties for more than 160,000 members. There’s also a global non-governmental, not-for-profit organization, the so-called CISAC, which aims to promote the interests of creators worldwide while protecting their rights.

Currently, around 228 authors’ societies from around 119 countries fall under the CISAC organizations. Altogether, these societies represent over 4 million songwriters and publishers from all geographic locations as well as all artistic fields, including music, literature, visual and audiovisual arts, and drama. If you’d like to know more about PROs and learn some valuable tips on how to choose the right one, our guide about music licensing will help you!

Public performance license and fair use

While we know now when a public performance license is required, there might occur situations in which you won’t need one, although you’re to publicly perform someone else’s music. One such situation is when the song you choose to perform falls under fair use. The term ‘fair use’ refers to a legal exception to copyright protection which, under limited conditions, allows for the use of someone’s copyrighted work without the copyright owner’s permission.

The thing about fair use, however, is that it’s extremely subjective. Officially, in the USA, certain uses of copyrighted material for criticism, commentary, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, or research may fall under the fair use doctrine. Nevertheless, even based on the doctrine, fair use can be very case-specific, and eventually, only a court may officially claim the work to be really fair use.

Some sources may argue that publicly performing only a small portion of a copyrighted song you like, too, falls under fair use. Therefore, no DJ license should be required in such a case.

Although the amount of the used portion of the entire copyrighted work generally presents an important factor for the consideration of fair use, we would not recommend relying on it (there are 3 more key factors that are further considered). Be aware that a failed fair use defense is legally considered a copyright infringement and may not be worth the risk!

Royalty-free music

Although the concept of fair use will most likely not be applicable to your case as a DJ, you may decide to use so-called ‘royalty-free music’, for which no public performance license will be required. However, be aware that despite the word ‘free’ in its name, you cannot use such music free of charge. Instead, you will need to purchase an alternative license, called a ‘royalty-free music license’ which, in comparison to other types of licenses, is available at a much lower price.

Such licenses are also freely accessible on the internet, with the price depending mostly on what kind of music you’re looking for and what purposes you’ll use it for. If you’re interested in knowing more about royalty-free music and getting some recommendations for companies providing such licenses, our guide about music licensing may once again help you with that!

What is the cost of a DJ license?

The price for a public performance license always varies and is generally based on a number of factors. These include the size and the holding capacity of the venue; the type of business, the business hours; the method of music transmission (whether the music played is live or recorded); the presence of an entrance fee; and many more. However, the venue's type, location, and capacity are the most determining factors in the cost of a public performance license.

Each PRO usually has a listing of all possible types of public venues, from concert halls to restaurants, to clubs and night bars, and their respective prices for licensing. On average, for a small business, an annual public performance license fee may range from around $300 to $500 (for example, a typical BMI annual license costs around $250-$400). For a large establishment, the yearly fee can go up to $2,000 to even $9,000 per location.

How to get a DJ license?

Before we get to the process of getting a public performance license, it’s important to note that the venue where you’re performing should, on principle, be the one responsible for handling the licensing. Having said that, it’s still crucial to always double-check with the venue before you book your gig.

Only assuming that the venue has taken the proper steps to acquire the license may be risky and turn out costly. No matter the reasons, performing someone’s music without their permission when it's required is always considered copyright infringement!

If you find out that the venue has, in fact, not purchased the relevant public performance license, you will have to do it yourself. As you’ll see, getting a license may be very easy yet rather bureaucratic.

All you need to do to acquire a public performance license is to contact the relevant performance rights organization active in your area. As mentioned above, in the case of the United States, it would be the ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC. Naturally, each of these organizations is responsible for different music catalogs.

Therefore if you are about to play music from one certain musician and you know which PRO is responsible for their catalog, feel free to directly apply for a license at their website. Each PRO should also have the list of their members and the works they represent available on their websites. For example, you can check which musical works are represented by ASCAP in their ASCAP Repertory Search.

DJ-licence-ASCAP-Repertory-Search

ASCAP Repertory Search

If, which is more likely, you’ll be using music from a variety of artists, get in touch with all your countries' relevant music licensing organizations. They will provide you with valuable consultation and help you identify which licensing agreement will be the appropriate one for you. You will most likely be asked to share your playlists with these agencies. Afterward, you can fill in the relevant forms on the organizations’ websites and submit them to apply for the license officially.

As outlined before, after the request is approved by the organization and the license is purchased, the PRO will collect the license fee, split and distribute it to the relevant copyright holders. Naturally, a certain portion of the fee will also go directly to the PRO covering their ‘operating expenses'.

Conclusion

Music copyright and related licensing regulations may seem like complicated topics, but having enough knowledge about them may, in the long run, save time, money, or even careers. While this guide helps you learn more about DJ licenses, our other guides and articles may give you valuable, music-copyright-related information.

If you, as a DJ, want to live to stream your music, you may find our article about which license you need for your live stream insightful. If you, on the other hand, are more interested in royalties, their types, and how they are calculated, our royalties guide will be precisely what you’re looking for. The guide on how to remix a song will provide you with some great tips on perfectly making a remix.

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