What Should You Know About Royalties & Licensing?

Now that I’ve researched a bunch of information about my new obsession – Untapped Music – I want to know more about the legalities. DJs, EDM Producers, Beatmakers, and Cover Artists are using music made by other people to create something new or to make money performing that music themselves.

So, is it legal to remix or cover another artist’s music? It is legal to use another artist’s music to re-record, mix, or cover music. All tracks should be legally sourced and licensing/copyright rules should be adhered to depending upon your venue; be it social media or at a live event. These licensing requirements give the artists royalties and credit for their work.

This subject can get very complicated, but it’s also very important for anyone that uses another person’s music to create something new that may make them money in any shape or fashion. So please keep reading! 

First off, let’s get some terminology out of the way. My focus has been on cover artists who sing or perform full songs written and performed by more mainstream musicians or remixes by DJs, EDM producers, or other beat-makers. So just read as though this applies to most of them. 

The Creative Commons license is a kind of copyright that lets creators keep their rights to and ownership of the work, while at the same time allowing others to copy, distribute, and use that work for free. When applying for a Creative Commons license, the music producer chooses whether or not the song can be used commercially, and whether or not the song can be used in a derivative manner.

A royalty-free license means that you can use the music without having to pay a royalty or license fee each time you use it, and you can make derivative works of it and use it in commercial settings as well. There still are a few limitations though: for example, you can’t sell the sounds and pass them off as your own creation. 

These contrasts are important to know because if you use music, especially posting it online, you need to give credit where it is due – even if the music is listed a particular way by the owner of the copyright. It’s also important to know your limitations with said music and also whether or not you need to look into further licensing.  

In several countries, the law is very specific about purchasing a digital license for the use of music  (the UK, Canada, Finland, and Italy among others are included in this).  In many cases, the venue or the club keeps a licensing agreement on hand for all performers that come to their stage. However, if they don’t, it’s the responsibility of the performer. Many DJs, Cover Artists, or EDM Producers just keep a license to be sure they are covered. It can get complicated, but it’s very important that performers using music that came from other sources cover themselves. 

In these countries, paying a fee and obtaining a license allows various uses of copyrighted music depending upon the license chosen. PRS for Music is the home of BOTH the Performing Right Society (PRS) and the Mechanical-Copyright Protection Society (MCPS). 

PRS pay royalties to our members when their works are:

  1. broadcast on TV or radio
  2. performed or played in public, whether live or through a recording
  3. streamed or downloaded

MCPS pay royalties to their members when their music is:

  1. copied as physical products, such as CDs and DVDs
  2. streamed or downloaded
  3. used in TV, film or radio

PRS for Music and the Phonographic Performance Limited (PPL) are separate organizations that license different sets of rights in the use of music.

PPL pay royalties to their members when their music is:

  1. played in public
  2. broadcast on radio or TV
  3. used on the internet, on behalf of record companies and performers.

PPL and PRS now operate under “TheMusicLicense” to gather the license fee and then distribute royalties to record labels and artists. This is one of the main sources of income for musicians and producers. 

Then, you have the laws and licensing in the United States, where I’m from. When it comes to the U.S., performers who use another person’s music to make their own generally don’t have to pay for this licensing to play copyrighted music. It is the venue or event organizer’s responsibility to pay for the rights to play copyrighted music. Of course, they still need to keep it legal and purchase all the tracks they plan to use. 

Who do they pay?

Performing Rights Organizations (PROs), that act like a middle man between the music producers, songwriters, artists, and the venues are the holders of the licenses and distributors of royalties. In the U.S., such organizations are the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP), Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI), Society of European Stage Authors and Composers (SESAC), and SoundExchange.

After the venues or event producers pay their fees to the music’s respective owners, they will be allowed to play it for the crowd. When a DJ works for such a place, they are also automatically allowed to play these tracks without paying any fee. 

If a performer who uses copyrighted music in the U.S. plans to play music outside of a licensed venue, they will be held responsible for the royalties and other fees that would otherwise be paid by the venue. In this case, if they don’t have proper licensing, they risk a lawsuit from the PROs.

Also, it pays to know the limitations of the services you use for gathering your music before you actually use it in covering or remixing. When you use music from a streaming service or subscription service, like AppleMusic, Spotify, Amazon Music, or YouTube Music you’re not really buying the track, you’re leasing it for the length of your contract with that service. You can use them, but you don’t own them – so it’s illegal to sell or copy these digital files. 

And in case of downloadable purchases through sites like Beatport or Bandcamp, their terms tell you that you are not allowed to copy or resell their digital music files. So you can use the music to DJ, but if you want to make money off of a mix you’ve created using someone else’s music… sorry. 

Streaming has become a huge business in the last few years, and with that comes a new set of copyright issues. Introducing the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DCMA). 

Because this act offers safe harbor to platforms that take steps at ensuring copyrighted materials do not get posted, a musician that uses other people’s copyright materials in their own work must protect themselves. For each reported infraction of copyright, a creator on social media gets a “strike” and the material in question is removed from their channel.

After a specified number of “strikes”, the creator’s channel can be banned for a certain amount of time or even removed forever from the platform.  This can be detrimental to a musician, as you may note from my article on YouTube and its importance to musicians. 

If you want to discover how using copyrighted music will affect your YouTube channel then be sure to watch the video below:

It is important that DJs, cover artists, and EDM producers know that most social media platforms (YoutTube, Twitch, etc…) do not pay a license fee on your behalf. This means if you upload or stream a mix or covered song it will often be removed for copyright reasons, even though you legally purchased the music. Remember – there must be a license in place, as well.

The use of DMCA strikes against online platforms and content creators has garnered a lot of attention from the media. YouTube is one example where record labels and artists have actively monitored and reported YouTube channels for copyright infringement. This report results in the channel owner getting a strike against their channel and also losing all potential monetization related to those videos that were reported. In some instances, the content creator has had their entire channel removed as a result of too many DMCA strikes.

While YouTube is the biggest platform to take the brunt of this legislation, it is not the only one having to deal with the issue. The streaming platform Twitch is the most recent to get run through the DMCA obstacle course. Many streamers have had their channels banned because of the use of copyrighted music found on their clips and past stream libraries.

The record labels are also working with software companies that can monitor live streaming and DMCA strike channels in real-time, preventing them from streaming copyrighted music live and then deleting any clips or VODs (Video on Demand) before the record labels are able to find it.

Some platforms like Mixcloud – sites based specifically on uploading mixes, remixed songs, podcasts, and radio shows – have agreed to pay a license fee to the big record labels and so you are able to host recordings without the worry of breaking the law. But as a content creator that uses music, it would be your responsibility to legally cover yourself by reading the service agreements and making sure that the licensing is provided.  

And even though I have written an article that covers how to possibly get free promotional songs to use in your mixes, please be careful with that promo material. Make sure you know what their rules are for handling it. There is usually a contract in the terms and conditions (you know the part almost no one reads and yet will sign?) also known as the “small print”.

Failure to comply with their rules is often a legally liable breach of contract. So if they give you music, but tell you not to copy or distribute any of the music you receive? Guess what?  

The most important takeaway: A DJ or performer who uses songs that belong to someone else must use legally sourced music and work under a license to make the whole system successful. And a smart artist will always be sure to cover themselves and not get into trouble because of not understanding and adhering to the license agreement involved with other people’s music.


"I would have previously thought of myself as an audiophile. But by gaming and listening to my children and their friends, I've been introduced to an entire realm of artists that are not on the radio. I wanted to share them and things I learn about music as I research - with you!"