Like any work of art, the argument might be made that music serves little purpose if it is not shared in some form of public setting. But just because you have bought the sheet music for a particular song, it would be a mistake to assume you have secured the right to perform that piece for anyone other than close friends or family.
Whether you are a one-person band looking to perform in a local coffee shop or a community choir that performs without charging admission, merely purchasing sheet music is not enough. If you perform in public, you are usually required to pay royalties to one of the performance rights societies that control such things in the United States. Failure to do so could result in a copyright infringement claim that is at least embarrassing, if not costly.
Do you need a performance license?
Buying the sheet music is simply a legal transfer of a copy of the work. No other rights, such as performing, recording, or even putting a recorded sample of your work on Facebook, YouTube, or your website extends because of the purchase.
Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a one-stop shop for securing all the rights you might desire. For example, the free-of-charge community choir we reference earlier might properly purchase music for its concerts, but if it hasn’t acquired performance rights from the appropriate source, there could be the devil to pay. It probably does not matter that the group doesn’t sell tickets.
Getting a performance license
So, if you have music in hand and plan to perform, you should be checking the music to find the name of the proper agencies. It will likely be either the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP); Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI); or SESAC. If there’s no indication of such an agent on the music, the publisher or composer likely holds the rights. They should be contacted with details of your intentions to get necessary permissions.
On the bright side, considering that the choir in our example doesn’t charge admission and might even be a 501(c)(3) charitable organization, costs of proper licensing might be quite low.