How to Licence Music for Streaming

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The net effect of this is that low-key illegal piracy on UGC platforms is no longer something that flies under the radar. Attempts to DJ on Facebook, or perform covers on YouTube, or slip in "Eye of the Tiger" to announce the chairman opening a conference on a LinkedIn live stream may all trigger a copyright infringement process, which may often result in a live stream being terminated or a recorded video being taken down. 

Rights holders are of course commercially engaged with each of the large UGC platforms, and the decision to respond to a rights infringement may vary from "allow it, but we share ad revenue" to "take it down"—this may vary from piece of music to piece of music. This means that live streaming where you include licensed music in a stream on these types of hosted platforms is at best an unpredictable exercise, and at worst may lead to events being stopped.

It is important to note that when using a large UGC free, ad-supported platform like YouTube or Facebook, the licenses that do exist are between the rights holders and the platforms. Users and creators are not directly involved in that permission. End users generally cannot pay rightsh olders for rights to distribute on YouTube or Facebook—there is simply no way to set up that trilateral agreement.

So as a rule of thumb: If you are producing a livestream on a major platform if you want to avoid unexpected behaviour in your stream simply do not use music (even accidentally in the background) unless it has been provided by the platform's own copyright-free/copyleft music library. That is your only (fairly) safe option, since that music willhave been passed through the same fingerprinting system that will be watching out for the rights infringements and will therefore be whitelisted with permission to stream.

But what if you want to perform well-known music, either as a live musician or as a DJ, or what if you really want to play "Eye of the Tiger" as your CEO opens your company webcast?

One option is to use a service like Mixcloud (which is fully licensed in all major territories), but that will geographically constrain your distribution and many elements of your production (particularly with regard to synchronization with video, which I cover in depth later).

Another to build and license your own streaming service—which I am going to assume some readers of Streaming Media have an appetite for!

Rather than look at each territory, which many articles have done in the past and would be TL;DR, the easiest way to do this is to look at two fairly generic yet different streaming scenarios that would require music licensing and explore what license process would be involved:

  • Live performed (or live DJ performed) audio music only (internet radio/live audio stream) and live webcasts and online events (incorporating video and music), and a note on podcasting.
  • Publishing archives of the above two models available on-demand

Live Streaming Scenarios: The Live Musician, Internet Radio DJ, or Live Podcaster

This scenario applies to live musicians or DJs streaming to an online audience, in free-to-air performances only, using multiple non-original works (covers, versions, records, etc.).

On reaching out to PRS for Music for clarity on a range of issues in the article, I connected with some very helpful spokespersons there. They noted that for the classic use case of a live musician attempting to perform to an online audience whilst charging a ticket fee, until now a complex blend of licenses had been the best option, but that clearly was proving to be an encumbrance for performers during COVID lockdowns. To alleviate things for musicians and DJs, PRS for Music offers some useful small-scale UK-only options. For ticketed online events taking place in the UK (and streaming only to users located in the UK) there is a new small-scale Online Live Concert licence available that will give producers (not hosting platforms) of livestream small-scale gigs, DJ events, classical concerts, and theatrical events online a licence to do so, for a minimum fee per event of £22.50 for events generating revenues up to £250 and a second tier at £45 for events generating revenues between £251 and £500. Anyone running an event that expects to generate above £500 in revenue should contact PRS for Music directly for more information. Tracklists and rights uses can be logged retrospectively, along with details about audience/tickets revenue. 

Anyone looking to exclusively perform their own music in the UK (to users only in the UK), where they are the only songwriter/composer and there is no publisher assigned, can obtain a PRS licence at no cost for their ticketed event. It may be weird to some to discover that you need a licence to play your own music, but that is the way PRS rights work; when you join PRS, you vest certain rights in them exclusively as regards future performances, hence the need to license your own music.

The no-cost licence will be available for any individual concert, which qualifies for the small-scale licence scheme (revenues £500 or below), throughout the period the live sector is forced to close due to the COVID-19 crisis. 

Remember that if you don't geoblock your streams (i.e. allow people to access from outside the UK), you will need to repeat the above PRS process with each similar organisation in every other country worldwide (or, perhaps, not—which carries some risk). 

In the U.S., PRS has not one but five counterparts: ASCAP, BMI, SESAC, GMR, and Pro Music Rights—and, annoyingly, every online service has to get the same licence from all five, at considerably higher costs. A reasonable guess is that even a very small service will get all five licences for its U.S. audiences at total costs of around $2000 per year

For European countries, it is possible to use the hubs for multinational licenses—such as ICE (which covers the UK, Germany and Sweden) and Armonia, which covers France and much of southern Europe—but these are expensive fees and are not suitable for a service that permits only livestreaming. Also, there are no reasonably-available web-based solutions like the LOML—everyone must use a formal offline process. 

Beyond Europe, it's possible to obtain a pan-African licence (though only offline) but there is no easy solution for the rest of the world—every other country must be licensed on a case-by-case basis.

The ICE service points users trying to contacts for licensing beyond Europe and the U.S. (CISAC) as a starting point, and while it is likely that musicians will relatively easily find out how to license for distribution to their local market, there is little coordinated support (beyond CISAC and ICE) for licensing your music to a global audience online.

A note for the event webcast producer who uses music in a video webcast

So far we have looked at licensing a live/linear stream such as an internet radio stream or a live music concert. When it comes to combining music and video, we have to reconsider our licensing options.  

In most cases, if the webcast is only live in real-time (no pre-record or archiving), the above licensing will apply. Be mindful of sync licensing.

Whatever you manage to do for your live event licensing, you must also think before you publish the recorded archive, for which a totally different set of synchronization AND mechanical copy rights may well come into play. See the On-Demand Scenario below.

On-Demand Scenario: The Archived Webcast Provider

Whenever music is on-demand streamed with accompanying visuals, a sync license must be obtained—for which there are no easy solutions. The only notable exception worldwide is the PRS' LOML (and related online licence offerings) which will permit some audio-visual music for small users in the UK but only for audiences within the UK. Any use of music and video outside the UK will always require licensing on a song-by-song basis, which is expensive and time-consuming.

For the purposes of this scenario, I want to focus on the licensing you need to be able to distribute archives of webcasts produced in the live scenario, be that delivering pre-recorded concerts, or making a catchup version of a live event. 

To be clear the examples we are looking at here do not relate to downloads or streams of individual tracks. We are focusing on archives of live events or programs that are a few minutes to several hours long that may include several music tracks in numerous ways.

For these models we find, in the US and UK at least, that the same licensing bodies we might approach to blanket license a live stream in the live scenario, are also able to blanket license the use of the music in the archive in one go, since these are in effect a continuation of the performance of the music.

In the UK, the PRS for Music LOML licence covers most of the scenarios relating to on-demand audio streaming, so long as video is not involved. As soon as music is in any way synchronized with video the licensing models become more complex and bespoke, and require sync licensing.

The basic LOML licences from PRS for Music can cover both webcasting and interactive webcasting, but only for a UK audience. For audio-only services these will address most streaming scenarios covering the live and on-demand playback of recorded performances of all types. However, they won't cover any use associated with video.

For that you will need a synchronization licence, and these are POA from PRS for Music—or more commonly from each relevant publisher on a song-by-song basis. Note that the new licensing only covers sync licensing for the live event, and not for catchup archives or scheduled linear play out of pre-recorded events.

So, whatever happens with your events' live licensing, you must obtain sync clearances to offer video on-demand archives of live events or distributed video of pre-recorded music performances.

Ultimately this means that music licensing for use of masters in asynchronous content (download/stream/on-demand) must be obtained from each record label on a one-by-one basis, which is expensive and time-consuming.


As you can see, licensing is complex, and when all you are trying to do is entertain an audience using webcast technology, licensing seems burdensome. The licensing bodies seem to finally be acknowledging that.

In many cases it seems that the historic argument that rights holders were protecting artists interests by policing the internet for music ended up, during the pandemic, paralyzing gigging musicians, preventing them from performing on platforms like YouTube and Facebook.

A new licensing scheme that enables musicians to perform music online would help ensure that there will be more good music added to the publishers' license repertoires, and this will hopefully help both to move into the online streaming age more effectively. 

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