What Is SESAC? Guide to SESAC Licensing, Cost & Penalties

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SESAC (Society of European Stage Authors and Composers) is one of three major performing rights organizations (PROs) operating in the United States.

While the other two major PROs are nonprofit organizations, SESAC is a for-profit organization. It also negotiates contracts with businesses like yours differently than the other PROs.

We’ve outlined how to work with SESAC to play music in your business, avoid fines, and navigate other ways that SESAC protects its artists.

What Is SESAC?

SESAC, or the Society of European Stage Authors and Composers, is a PRO founded in the 1930s. At the company's founding, it focused on works that European firms published. Over time, that focus shifted to include American publishers. Now, the company works with a variety of artists, such as these:

  • The Avett Brothers
  • Bob Dylan
  • Neil Diamond
  • Mumford & Sons
  • RUSH
  • Adele

SESAC works a little like an intermediary for the artists it serves. The artists form an agreement with SESAC, and the organization enforces copyright on the artist’s behalf. Money brought in is distributed to the artists.

Q: What Does SESAC Stand For?

A: The Society of European Stage Authors and Composers (SESAC) is a for-profit performing rights organization (PRO) that collects royalties for its member artists, songwriters, and publishers.

How SESAC Licensing Works

As a PRO, SESAC holds enforcement rights for each connected copyright. Each time a protected piece of music is played, SESAC expects to collect a fee. A portion of that fee is distributed to the composers, songwriters, and publishers associated with that piece of music.

SESAC is one of the only PROs that operates on a for-profit basis. That status could make this company slightly more aggressive about getting fees for protected music, as the company must pull in money to remain profitable. Nonprofit PROs may not have this same drive.

SESAC’s website makes it easy to sign up for licensed music for any purpose, including playing it in your business. You can even pay through their website, so the process is streamlined with you, the customer, in mind.

Pros & Cons of SESAC

SESAC isn’t the only PRO offering licensed music for businesses. Digging into the benefits and drawbacks can help you determine if this is the right partnership for you.

This table gives you an idea of pros and cons at a glance, but keep reading to find out about these issues in detail.

Pros of SESACCons of SESACLarge catalog of protected musicNot every song or musician partners with SESAC.Easy to sign upIf you don’t sign up, officials may reach out to fine you for unprotected songs.Signing up means playing music legallySigning up means agreeing to pay a fee for your songs.

Pros of SESAC

When you sign up with SESAC, you ensure you’re playing music legally, while respecting the rights of musicians, songwriters, publishers, and other creators. Other benefits associated with SESAC include the following:

  • Easy selections: SESAC offers a blanket license, so you can play all the music in the catalog with one agreement.
  • Lots to choose from: SESAC offers a full repertory, including all sorts of different types of music, from Top 40 to regional Mexican to hip-hop.
  • Plenty of contract options: Industry-specific license agreements are available for businesses hoping to play music in their establishments.

Cons of SESAC

While signing up ensures you’re playing music legally, other issues could make this a difficult choice. These are a few of the drawbacks associated with SESAC:

  • Vague fees: It’s difficult to determine a contract's cost, as SESAC doesn’t make fee tables public information.
  • Strong enforcement: If you don’t sign up with SESAC, the organization can fine you for the violations, and the fees can be very high.
  • Catalog restrictions: Your fees don’t allow you to play everything. SESAC has a large music catalog, but some songs and artists are contracted with other PROs.

SESAC License Cost

SESAC recommends that business owners contact the company directly to understand the required fees, as each contract can be slightly different.

Your SESAC fees could vary based on the following factors:

  • Industry: The type of establishment you operate could impact your required fees.
  • Speakers: The more speakers you have, the more the organization might charge.
  • Hours: The longer you play music, the more you might be asked to pay.
  • Use: Fees could change if you hope to play music on a website, as part of a video, or in another venue.

SESAC doesn’t provide an official summary of fees, even on the organization’s FAQ page. Bloggers and writers suggest fees could be about $700 per year, but confirming your music licensing cost without a call is impossible.

Penalties & Fees for Playing Music Without a SESAC License

Playing SESAC music without an agreement in place is risky. Representatives from the organization can visit your facility unannounced, and when they arrive, they can demand that you sign a contract and pay a fine. They can also send letters with enclosed payment envelopes.

Fines for playing music without a license are enshrined in U.S. copyright law. If SESAC takes you to court, you could face penalties from $750 to more than $30,000 per infringement. If the court finds you’ve willfully ignored the copyright, you could be asked to pay up to $150,000 in damages.

SESAC vs. Other PROs

SESAC is one of several performing rights organizations (PROs) operating within the United States. Each one is slightly different.

When comparing SESAC to other PROs, catalog size stands out. BMI and ASCAP, two other PROs, represent far more organizations, artists, and songs. If you connect with SESAC, you’ll have just 1+ million songs to choose from, compared to BMI’s 20+ million.

SESAC is also the only for-profit PRO working in the United States. This status could make them more aggressive about collecting fees, as they need to bring in money to make profits for their stakeholders.

Rather than working with any PRO, you could choose unprotected music. Alternatives to PRO licenses include the following:

  • Public domain music: Songs recorded before 1926 are no longer protected by copyright. You can play these very old recordings without using a PRO at all, but remember that newer recordings are protected.
  • Royalty-free music: Some musicians offer up their songs free of copyright payments in exchange for more exposure. A contract with a group like this could help you get music without paying high fees.
  • Original music: If you write, play, and record your own songs, you could play them in your space without paying anyone for them.
  • Radio: The rules regarding radio are strict, but in general, small locations with just a few speakers can play radio broadcasts without paying a fee.
  • Silence: You’re not required to play music at all. You could use wind chimes, water fountains, or simple silence to fill the space instead.

What to Know About SESAC Music for Business

SESAC offers a music licensing program, allowing you to access the company’s entire catalog of protected songs with one fee.

SESAC doesn’t disclose typical fee structures or price ranges. Instead, if you’d like to know how much a SESAC partnership will cost, you must take the following steps:

  • Identify your business. SESAC pricing is determined, in part, by the type of business you own.
  • Answer questions. SESAC asks where your facility is located, and if you have more than one, you’ll identify each location. SESAC also requires contact information, so a salesperson can call you.
  • Pay a fee. SESAC accepts online payments, so you can get started with your music right away.

Note that your fees only allow you to play the songs protected by SESAC. Choose something outside the catalog, and you might be required to connect with a different PRO. When a business needs a music license with plenty of options and flexibility, SESAC can seem very limiting.

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Frequently Asked Questions About SESAC

We’ve compiled some of the most frequent questions about SESAC, along with answers written by our experts.

What artists are covered by SESAC?

A few of the artists who work with SESAC include Adele, Neil Diamond, Mariah Carey, Bob Dylan, Ariana Grande, and Kesha.

Can you avoid or get an exemption from SESAC?

You can’t play music protected by SESAC without an agreement. There are no exceptions to playing music that exists within the catalog.

What should you do if you receive a letter or email from SESAC?

SESAC and other PROs sometimes send letters to businesses in response to copyright violations. Typically, these letters explain what SESAC thinks has happened, and there may be an envelope enclosed for payments. You must respond to this letter, either by paying the fine or explaining how you’ve fixed the copyright problem with a contract.

Why do I need a SESAC license?

Copyright laws ensure that creators are paid for their very important contributions. A SESAC license is one way to ensure that you’re honoring copyright laws and paying creators appropriately. Without this or a similar arrangement, you’re subject to fines.

References

Frequently Asked Questions. SESAC.

17 U.S. Code Chapter 5: Copyright Infringement and Remedies. Cornell Law School.

About Music Licensing. SESAC.

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