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  • Writer's pictureLindsay Spiller

How Music Licensing Works: A Comprehensive Guide for Startups

Updated: Dec 31

Music licensing written as text on the back of a book
Music licensing is a mystery to most startups

Starting a business in the music industry or as an independent artist requires passion, creativity, and a solid understanding of music licensing. This guide simplifies the intricacies of music licensing, offering insights for music startups and artists seeking to safeguard their creations. By the end of this post, you'll have a foundational understanding of the legal aspects of the music industry, propelling your success in this ever-evolving landscape.

The Importance of Music Licensing

Music licensing is crucial in ensuring the rightful music owners get their due credit and compensation. Licensing is a legal agreement between the rights owner (typically an artist or record label) and the licensee (the person or company wanting to use the music). This process safeguards intellectual property, maintains industry standards, and ensures fair compensation.

Types of Music Rights

The world of music licensing hinges on two fundamental types of rights: copyright and performance rights.

  • Copyright: This encompasses both the musical composition (lyrics and melody) and the sound recording (the song's actual recording). Usually, the composer or songwriter holds the composition rights, while the recording rights belong to the record label.

  • Performance Rights: These rights are associated with the public performance of the music. Performance rights apply whenever a song is performed publicly - be it a live concert, a radio broadcast, or background music in a café.

Critical Types of Music Licenses

In the realm of music licensing, four primary licenses are of interest to startups:

  • Mechanical Licenses: These are required when you plan to cover, reproduce, or distribute a song. Royalties from mechanical licenses are typically paid to the songwriter or music publisher.

  • Synchronization Licenses: Often referred to as sync licenses, they grant the right to pair a song with visual media like films, commercials, or video games.

  • Performance Licenses: A performance license is mandatory if you wish to play a song publicly. Performing Rights Organizations (PROs) like ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC manage these licenses.

  • Master Licenses: When you aim to use a pre-existing recording in a visual project, you need a master license. The record label generally controls this.

How to Obtain a Music License

Obtaining a music license involves contacting the copyright holder or a representative, negotiating the terms, and paying the required fees. Alternatively, you may acquire licenses through PROs, music licensing companies, or platforms specializing in music rights management.

The Role of Music Licensing Companies

Music licensing companies are intermediaries between the rights owners and those seeking licenses. They simplify the licensing process by offering catalogs of pre-cleared music, thereby reducing the time and resources spent on individual negotiations.

Music Licensing and Startups

Understanding and managing music licensing is crucial for music startups, whether you're developing a music app, hosting live music events, or starting a record label. Neglecting this aspect can lead to legal implications, including hefty fines and potential lawsuits.

  • Music Apps: If your startup involves streaming music, you must obtain the appropriate licenses to avoid copyright infringement.

  • Event Organizing: If you host live events, you'll require a performance license to play copyrighted music. This also extends to playing background music at your event.

  • Record Labels: If you're launching a record label, understanding the dynamics of music licensing will be paramount. You'll need to manage the rights of your artists and negotiate licensing deals.

The Role of a Music Lawyer

Given the complexities of music licensing, hiring a music lawyer can be a game-changer for your startup. Music lawyers guide you through the legal intricacies, assist with contract negotiations, help avoid legal pitfalls, and protect your business interests.


Understanding music licensing is an essential step in navigating the music industry. This guide serves as a stepping stone, providing you with basic knowledge. However, music licensing is intricate, and you may benefit from professional guidance. As your startup grows, consider engaging the services of an entertainment, music, and startup business lawyer to safeguard your interests and ensure you're on the right side of the law.

Whether you're an artist or a music startup, understanding and implementing music licensing principles can mean the difference between success and potential legal troubles. Ignite your journey in the music industry with confidence and legal assurance.

Need more guidance on music licensing? Reach out to Spiller Law, and let us guide you through the labyrinth of music licensing laws.

Spiller Law is an advisor to startup businesses, entertainment and media companies, and artists. Feel free to schedule a free consultation.


Spiller Law is a San Francisco business, entertainment, and estate planning law firm. We serve clients in the San Francisco Bay Area, Silicon Valley, Los Angeles, and California. Feel free to arrange a free consultation using the Schedule Appointment link on our website. For other questions, call our offices at 415-991-7298.


The information provided in this article is for general informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice or opinion. Readers are advised to consult with their legal counsel for specific advice.


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