By Rebecca Lord & Nate Wise
Does your choir have a minimal budget or none at all? If so, you know how challenging it can be even to provide sheet music, let alone to pay for copyright licensing for the songs you want to perform! The good news is there are some free or low-cost options for sheet music and performance needs that are also legally risk-free. This article will provide ten solutions for choirs with limited budgets.
COPYRIGHT KNOWLEDGE CRUCIAL
First, it is crucial to have a basic understanding of copyright laws to avoid legal risk. Copyright laws are designed to protect creators and to grant them certain rights. Compliance with those laws is required even of those who are ignorant of them. Risks for infringing, or breaking copyright laws, are now potentially greater than ever due to the recent CASE Act (Copyright Alternative in Small-Claims Enforcement Act of 2020). This act makes lawsuits for smaller infringements possible. As attorney Erin M. Jacobson, Esq., notes, legal action will be feasible “for infringements that were previously too small for expensive litigation. There will likely be an increase in policing infringements.”
What You Need to Know:
For many works, special licensing is required for public performance, recording (audio or video), posting online, printing lyrics, duplicating sheet music, changing or writing new arrangements, performing with costumes or choreography, and a number of other things. Pathways to obtaining licenses, and associated fees, can vary greatly. There are some cases in which legal exemptions waive licensing requirements. It is important to have a general understanding of copyright laws successfully to navigate the options in this article and keep yourself and your choir risk-free. For a copyright overview and guide, please read our “Copyright 101 for Conductors: The What’s, Why’s, and How-To’s.”
TOP TEN SOLUTIONS
- Inexpensive Sheet Music Database: Here is a Low-Budget Sheet-Music Database with sheet-music resources in the $0-$1/copy range. The American Choral Directors Association currently has a list of “Complimentary Music” on their “Resources for Choral Professionals During a Pandemic” page. If you are aware of further resources to add to this list, please fill out this form to contribute.
- Public Domain: If a work is officially in the public domain, you can do anything with it that you like without any permissions or licensing, and the sheet music is usually free as well. Just make sure you are not using a copyrighted edition or arrangement. Cornell University has a wonderful guide that defines various categories of Public Domain works and provides helpful resources for determining whether a song (or work) is in the public domain and how to do any needed research. The Choral Public Domain Library (cpdl.org) has an extensive collection of free choral works, although not all selections are in the public domain so it is important to check the copyright notice on each song. The International Music Score Library Project (imslp.org) is another large collection of all public-domain works (as per Canadian copyright laws). Other sites are found on the Free-$1 Sheet-Music Database.
- Creative Commons: A Creative Commons (CC) license grants free use of the published material to the public. Depending on the type of CC license (there are six types, explained on CreativeCommons.org), there may be limitations on arranging or using the material for profit without further permission, so it is important to pay attention to the terms of the license.
- Self Publishing: Some composers publish their own works and hold onto the rights. Some offer great deals for little or no compensation. For example, Sally DeFord offers all of her sheet music (vocal and instrumental) for free. Her website contains free PDFs of sheet music, instructions for transpositions, accompaniment tracks, and recordings for listening. She has detailed information on her FAQ page regarding permissions and many free options. For example, Sally reports, “I’m easy about YouTube recordings, and I don’t require sync licenses for videos posted there unless they are monetized.”
- Write Your Own or Commission: Create your own original works or ask a friend or student to help you out! You can freely write arrangements of any public-domain works and some with CC copyrights. Often university students studying composition either have works they have not yet published, or will write for your choir if they know their piece will be performed. Reach out to university conducting and composition faculty members to find possible student collaborators.
- Shop By Publisher, Watch for Special Deals, and Avoid High Rates: Once you ascertain a certain publisher has rates within your budget or special deals (e.g., agreements with social-media platforms), run publisher-specific searches on sheet-music sites. Remember that publishers are not always the copyright holders, so while this is a great place to start, you will want to check with that publisher or look on ASCAP/BMI’s Songview search for individual songs. Along with looking for rates that work for you, be ready to move on if negotiating is not successful. Ben Fales has had success with most choral publishing companies obtaining licensing that will work for his self-funded record label, but when a publisher is unable to meet his budgetary needs, he notes, “we probably have to steer clear of performing music from that publisher.”
- Borrow Music: As long as copyrighted sheet music has been purchased, it does not matter who the purchaser was/is. Just make sure you return the music when you are finished!
- Keep Licensing Needs to a Minimum: It is possible to perform copyrighted music without paying any licensing fees! First, perform music without changing/arranging it and avoid printing lyrics or making other performance decisions that would require additional licenses. Then perform only in venues that are contracted with the Performance Rights Organizations (PROs): ASCAP, BMI, SESAC & GMR. (Note: most choral repertoire is covered by ASCAP and BMI). Campuses, community performance halls, and established performance venues commonly have these contracts. You can also do one-time streams on social-media platforms that have contracts with the PROs (e.g., YouTube, Facebook, TikTok, Instagram). Limiting licensing needs to performance licenses and choosing venues that have those covered should keep your licensing costs at zero.
- Skip Sync Licenses and Make Money with WeAreTheHits.com (WATH). If you are interested in performing cover songs (largely of more popular “hits”), you can do so for free and even make money! WATH takes care of licensing, keeping a percentage of the revenue from your video from which they pay the music publisher, and paying you the balance. Ben Fales sometimes uses WATH for his BYU Vocal Point music videos, although he notes the high percentage of revenue they keep (60%) leads them to seek their own permissions when possible. For videos that are not likely to make back the price of licensing, however, this can be a great way to go! Further details can be found here.
- Earn More: Sell Your Audio Recordings with Ease: It can also be easy and inexpensive to sell your recordings on iTunes, Spotify, Amazonmusic, Google Play, and other platforms and stores, thanks to the digital-music distribution industry! There are some fabulous companies that will get your music distributed for free or low rates, distribute any required royalties, and send you regular payments from sales. Here are a couple of articles with further information: “Everything Musicians Need to Know about Music Distribution” and “10 Best Music Distribution Services & Companies of 2021.” Try it out with a single or an album and add a new line to your CV!
FUN EXTRAS: FREE & INEXPENSIVE GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Making music videos of your performances or your ensemble can be very rewarding! Just be aware that copyright laws protect images and sound recordings as well! For free photographs or video footage, photograph your own or use unsplash.com, pixabay.com, and pexels.com for commercial or non-commercial use. For other graphics, try clipart-library.com (for non-commercial use only) or vectorstock.com (inexpensive, can be used commercially). And if you are looking for free background music for your video, there are thousands of options on the Free Music Archive. Make sure you pay attention to requirements for attribution and give credit where credit is due!
CELEBRATE YOUR VICTORIES & PAY IT FORWARD
If you are reading this article, chances are you are in some way affiliated (or have been) with a low-budget choir, and you may be aware of resources that are not included in this article. Please share these resources with others walking a similar path. Your suggestions may be just what another conductor needs.
Don’t forget to celebrate your victories. When you are unable to perform the songs you want in the ways you want, in the venues of your choice, know that you are still bringing beauty and richness to your singers and community, beauty that would not be possible without your efforts! We salute you for your heroic efforts to keep your communities alive and vibrant with music.
Rebecca Lord has served on the choral/vocal faculty of Brigham Young University-Idaho and as Associate Director of Choral Activities at the University of California, Los Angeles, where she earned MM and DMA degrees under the tutelage of Donald Neuen. She also served as Chorus Master for Arizona Musicfest and Assistant Conductor for the Hour of Power choir. She has a background as a professional violinist, soprano, dancer, and actress.
Nate Wise serves the BYU-Idaho campus as the director of the Intellectual Property Office as a paralegal working with General Counsel to identify, protect, and administer intellectual property matters for the campus community. He earned a Master’s Degree in Education Technology from Lesley University.
- DeFord, Sally. Email to Rebecca Lord, March 27, 2021.
- Fales, Ben. Interview with Rebecca Lord. Personal Interview. Zoom, April 28, 2021.
- Jacobson Esq., Erin M. Email to Rebecca Lord, April 30, 2021.
- Lord, Rebecca, Nate Wise. “Copyright 101 For Conductors: The What’s, Why’s, and How-To’s.” Choralnet.org. American Choral Directors Association. May 25, 2021. https://choralnet.org/2021/05/copyright-101-for-conductors-the-whats-whys-and-how-tos/.
- U.S. Copyright Office, Library of Congress. Copyright Law of the United States and Related Laws Contained in Title 17 of the United States Code. Circular 92. Washington, D.C.: 2020. https://www.copyright.gov/title17/title17.pdf (accessed April 26, 2021).
- WeAreTheHits.com. Email to Rebecca Lord. March 29, 2021.