Licensing Music for Educational Purposes

I have thrown myself in the deep end and decided to develop a museum exhibit about Nova Scotia mining disaster songs. I really know nothing about exhibit development, but I want to make my research useful and relevant to a broad audience, not just my academic peers. Given that there are something like 7 or 8 mining and industrial museums in Nova Scotia, it seemed natural to plan an exhibit about mining disaster songs. And since many of these mining and industrial museums have limited spacial and financial resources, I thought I could help by providing a small exhibit for free.

There’s lots to say about what I’ve learned so far, but in this blog, I want to focus on licensing music. I freely admit that I am no expert on the subject and I would be very keen to learn from others’ experiences and insights — so please feel free to comment!

Is it just me, or is licensing music just a crazily challenging process, particularly when it comes to educational activities?

I don’t expect to have any difficulty getting permission to use the music of singer songwriters with whom I have already established a connection. I will simply ask them. But what about songs for which I have the lyrics and perhaps the name of the composer but otherwise no information? This is particularly the case for lyrics published in song collections. Often I don’t even know if the songwriter is dead or alive. In other cases, I don’t even have the name of a songwriter — just the name of a singer. In these cases, after having done my best to identify and locate the songwriters, I guess I’ll include a disclaimer and invite anyone who has a concern with the inclusion of particular materials to let me know.

Commercial music is another story altogether. In some cases, the artists are no longer alive (but since a work remains copyrighted until 50 years after the artist’s death, their songs are still copyrighted), so I can’t directly ask permission to use their songs. And I wouldn’t even begin to be able to track who the current copyright holders are in such cases. Other artists are alive, but are unable or unwilling to answer inquiries. I’m also afraid that they’ll ask for inordinate sums of money to include their music in my exhibit.

The obvious solution is to look to a licensing organization, such as SOCAN (the Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada). But when I looked at the dizzying array of tariffs, I saw nothing about museums or exhibits at all. There is a category for “exhibitions and fairs,” but it refers to exhibitions of the “Canadian National Exhibition” variety, not museum exhibits. The tariffs are pretty much designed for either one-time or limited-time events (dances, fashion shows, concerts, etc.) or the on-going use of music in commercial businesses (radio stations, online streaming music sites, businesses using music for customers on hold, etc.). If an exhibit were treated as an “event,” I would have to pay literally thousands of dollars — even at the cheapest rate — to license my exhibit just for a few weeks each summer.

There is a SOCAN tariff category for “Recreational Facilities Operated by a Municipality, School, college, University, Agricultural Society, or Similar Community Organizations” which seems to fit. However, not all the museums that will host my exhibit have a SOCAN account (which is required), and they vary in their revenue streams and musical activities (which affects the tariff charged). In the end, in consultation with SOCAN, we decided that the best thing is for ME to become the licensee, rather than each individual museum, allowing me to apply for the “Recreational Facilities” tariff.

OK, I’m covered — right? I’ll get direct permission to use some songs, include a disclaimer about other songs, and get a SOCAN license to cover the commercial songs. Imagine my surprise and frustration when I discovered that there’s apparently another licensing organization to contend with, Re:Sound! Re:Sound collects license fees for performing artists and record companies (the people who make sound recordings) whereas SOCAN collects license fees for composers (songwriters) and music publishers. So I have some more homework to do, figuring out if I have to pay for a Re:Sound tariff and determining if I have the money in my budget to pay them.

As a musician myself, I agree that musicians and songwriters and record companies should all get their due when their music is used by others. But this all feels a bit much for an educational museum exhibit that will be featured in small, not-for-profit museums. The questions are so numerous and the process so difficult that I worry that the system as it exists — and it clearly exists with businesses in mind, not educational institutions — will dissuade others from creating music-related exhibits or similar educational projects involving music. It would be a shame if the public could not easily share in, learn from, and enjoy music-related research through public outreach projects such as museum exhibits.


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