ASCAP Licensing for Business: Compliance, Laws, and Fines

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ASCAP stands for the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers; however, the organization has primarily used their acronym for the last several decades.

This is the only American performing rights organization (PRO) controlled by the composers, writers, and music publishers who make up the membership of the group. It is also one of the oldest PROs in the United States, having been founded in 1914, and one of the largest, with over 670,000 creative professionals being represented. Their members elect the company’s board of directors, ensuring that the organization always represents its members’ interests.

What is ASCAP?

ASCAP History

The American Society for Composers, Authors and Publishers was founded in 1914 to protect the rights of musicians and composers whose work was being recorded, for the first time, on records and widely published sheet music.

As the first such performing rights organization (PRO), ASCAP became the standard in protecting musical rights as intellectual property, ensuring artists received appropriate royalty payments for their hard work. ASCAP issues payments to music publishers who make records or digital copies of music, as these entities also have a stake in intellectual property and copyright law enforcement.

ASCAP’s ability to protect this copyright stemmed from some of the first legal protection for intellectual property in the country: the U.S. Copyright Act of 1909. This law affirmed that songwriters and lyricists should be paid for performances of their music, even if the artist did not perform the song live, themselves.

The Copyright Act began to define recordings as a type of performance, alongside live performances by other artists who received payment for the work. By taking a percentage payment for each type of performance, PROs like ASCAP ensure that these royalties are sent to the originators of the musical work.

For example, in 1924, a delegation of ASCAP members successfully lobbied the U.S. Congress to maintain stricter copyright laws for music played on the radio or other broadcasts. A 1917 Supreme Court decision upheld ASCAP’s right to sell licenses to make sure their members were paid royalties, so the organization is largely responsible for the format that PROs use to license music today.

Through the decades, ASCAP has represented Broadway composers, rock and roll icons, and pop music sensations.


ASCAP represents more than 850,000 creative professionals in the music industry and keeps a catalogue of 11.5 million songs and scores. The money made from licensing these compositions goes to members in the form of royalty payments, ensuring that musicians, artists, and musical publishers get paid for their hard work.

Since ASCAP was founded, several other PROs have sprung up with slightly different approaches to managing musical rights. BMI, SESAC, SOCAN, GMR, and others all stepped in at a time when copyright, intellectual property distribution, and technology were changing, meaning artists had to be protected with slightly different methods. But, like ASCAP, each PRO manages a library of musical artists and songs, and then distributes those using different licenses like recording license or public performance licenses to those who want to use specific music.

Like other PROs, ASCAP licenses members’ work to anyone who wants to use it for public performance. This could mean covering the song, performing a composition at an event, or playing an album in a business.

Public performances are considered any occasion in which a significant group of people gather, aside from private events like gatherings of family or friends. If a song is included in a radio broadcast, television appearance, short film shown in theaters, or used for internet play, including as background music, you may need to contact ASCAP for a license.

Businesses That ASCAP Licenses With

ASCAP is transparent about their licensing fees, rates, and fines. They offer over 100 different types of rate schedules used to manage their members’ creations. If you are a business owner, you can browse their list to see what fees may look like for your type of business. If you do not find what you are looking for there, you can contact ASCAP directly to ask for help.

There are all kinds of businesses that PROs like ASCAP license to:

How Does ASCAP Work? What Are the Fines for Misusing Music?

You can purchase an annual license to use any song in ASCAP’s catalogue in your business during the year. How much an ASCAP license costs depends on the intended use and business.

You must re-up this license at the end of the year to keep using ASCAP’s music.

If you don’t renew, you face very high fines and potentially a serious lawsuit.

ASCAP works hard to make sure the costs of their licenses are flexible and affordable. While they want their members to be paid a fair royalty for their work, they also understand that some businesses can afford different rates than others. This is why they work with general licenses for all sizes of businesses in all kinds of venues.

You can play music from one small radio or television in your establishment, per copyright law, without paying to license any of the songs. If you have a larger sound system than that, however, you must work with a PRO like ASCAP. If your business also, per ASCAP, has more than 3,750 gross square feet of space, you must purchase licenses to access songs in the ASCAP catalogue. ASCAP employs about 150 licensing representatives across the U.S. who regularly check businesses to make sure there are no violations of in-store music copyright.

The cost of violating the copyrights protected by ASCAP can range widely. Reports show anywhere from a $750 fine to a $30,000 fine per violation. You will also be responsible for paying court costs if you lose a lawsuit.

How Do I Know if ASCAP Contacts Me?

If you accidentally violate a copyright protected by ASCAP, it is important to know that you will receive a written letter.

There have been a number of scams demanding high fees for violating music copyright, but these can be identified by understanding how ASCAP will contact you.

  • All PROs, including ASCAP, contact violators through written letters sent in the mail.
  • You will have an account number in the letter for reference.
  • If you have questions about the letter, you can call ASCAP and use the account number to double-check the information you received.
  • ASCAP will not call you.
  • ASCAP will not email you, and they will especially not email you attachments.

Other Organizations

Signing up with ASCAP is simple, and the process can be completed online. However, having access to ASCAP’s library of music may not cover the songs you want played in your business. For decades, many businesses have purchased multiple licenses from multiple PROs so they can have music available for their business. In fact, this is where the concept of the jukebox came from, and ASCAP will still license jukeboxes to businesses, which are filled with great selections from their catalogue. ASCAP also provides licenses for streaming.

Most people in the modern world are used to music streaming services. Spotify, Pandora, and SiriusXM are the most popular options, providing a wide range of easy-to-access music, sounds, talk radio, and more. Jukeboxes simply don’t offer this kind of convenience.

Before you plug your mobile phone into a sound system in your business, though, you still need appropriate licensing.

Fortunately, there are commercial music streaming for business services that offer you premade playlists, the option to make your own playlist, or access to radio stations, all with a monthly subscription that covers any licenses from any PRO you need access to.

Alternatives to Purchasing an ASCAP License

While ASCAP is the leading standard for PROs, and they remain transparent about their pricing structure for different licenses, they may not be the best option for your business.

ASCAP may have some of the songs you want in their library, but with many recording artists spreading their music across different PRO libraries, you are likely to need to pay for licenses with several PROs rather than just choosing ASCAP. This can quickly become expensive, so you may search for alternatives to stream music.

If you do not want to negotiate a contract and pay licensing fees to a PRO like ASCAP, you can search for other types of songs like:

  • Royalty-free songs, which you pay for once and then can use in any setting.
  • Creative Commons music, which is licensed by the artist for specific purposes and usually for no fee.
  • Public domain music, which is a library of songs that are no longer protected by U.S. copyright law.

While these options work well for many business owners, it can take time to find good sources for this music. These options do not provide trendy or famous songs, which might work better for your streaming video, social media post, advertisement, or storefront.

Rather than spending a lot of time approximating the type of music you want, you can also search for commercial music streaming options, like Cloud Cover Music.

CCM negotiates specific business-oriented music streaming licenses with all the major PROs and several smaller PROs for you, so you do not need to worry about the ins and outs of each contract. Instead, you pay CCM a monthly membership fee, as you would for Apple Music, Spotify, or Pandora. Then, you can play any of the songs in our large library without worrying about whether these are legal in your store or not.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

How much does ASCAP licensing cost?

ASCAP charges an annual rate for access to their library. This rate will differ based on several factors, including the type of business using the music, whether the music is performed live or recorded, and the potential size of the audience listening to the song.

The minimum ASCAP licensing fee is $390 per year as of 2019, so you will never pay less than that for access to their catalogue.

What does an ASCAP license cover?

ASCAP licenses cover access to the PRO’s library, which includes millions of famous and brand-new songs from recording artists spanning decades. There are different licenses with ASCAP that cover different types of performances, including cover songs, recorded music played in public, whether you want to use one song in an advertisement or feature film, and other options.

ASCAP covers access to one or more songs in their library for a specified period of time, which can change depending on your needs as a licenser.


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