There are moments in history when the world changes in an instant, when everything we knew ceases to be relevant and is replaced by a new reality that requires an entirely new approach. These moments don’t happen often, but they do happen: An asteroid kills off the dinosaurs; Wilbur and Orville Wright take to the skies at Kitty Hawk; the Cubs win the World Series.
March 19, 2020, was one of those days. That was the day that California issued an Emergency Stay At Home Order, becoming the first state in the US to essentially shut down. Within days, the other 49 states and many countries followed suit. We were all there. We remember it well.
The Day The Choir Music Stopped
For musicians – especially choral musicians – their world screeched to a halt. For over 1000 years, choral music had been untouched and unaffected by famine, pestilence, wars, revolutions, and anything else that humanity could throw at it. Through all of it, choirs continued to sing. Until March 19, 2020. Then the singing stopped.
However, choirs are resilient. They are passionate about singing. Some virus from the other side of the world wasn’t going to stop them from doing what they love to do. It was shortly after those shutdowns went into effect that I started receiving emails from choir directors requesting permission to use some of our copyrights in virtual choir videos. If choirs weren’t able to meet together and sing as a group, then they’d do it virtually from their living rooms. That’s passion!
The requests started coming in so consistently that I realized that I really didn’t understand what a proper license even looks like for a virtual choir video. I needed to do some homework and figure this out if we were going to be responsible to both our writers and our customers. What I discovered was actually very surprising. Maybe even shocking.
The Confusion Over Virtual Choirs
The first thing that I realized is that no one understood what was needed for these videos. I spoke to a number of my publishing colleagues, and it was clear within seconds that they were as baffled by the requests that they were receiving as I was. We had all watched Eric Whitacre create his virtual choir videos and admired what he had envisioned and produced, but no one had bothered to go the next step and think through what rights were needed to create these types of projects. They were just Eric’s little things and no one else would ever try to do it. Boy, were we wrong about that!
I love puzzles, and this was a giant puzzle. I committed myself to figuring this out and creating a solution for choirs. Little did I know that I’d be going down a rabbit hole without a rabbit to chase. And the deeper I went, the crazier the reality became.
The US Copyright Law for music is made up seven different rights, each with their own peculiarities and specific licensing requirements. Some of these rights are well known to choral directors and musicians, such as Mechanical Rights for recordings. Others are lesser known due to the rarity that a choir’s activity would touch on it, such as Grand Rights for theatrical performances. What my research revealed to me is that a virtual choir video triggers five of the seven rights within the Copyright Law. And, sometimes, a right gets triggered multiple times in the same project! From a licensing standpoint, that’s nuts!
The Breakdown of Virtual Choir Copyrights
For those of you wondering what’s really happening behind the scenes on these videos, here are all of the different rights to be used to create a virtual choir video (in order of the production of the project). Be warned – this is about to get crazy!
- Mechanical Rights – a virtual choir video is impossible to create if the singers are not all singing to an identical track. It’s the only way to unify everyone’s performance together. To not have that track for everyone is more than courting disaster – it’s marrying disaster. So, that one base track has to be created and distributed to all of the participants. If you have 30 singers, that distribution – whether vie email or downloaded via a link – is the equivalent of 30 CDs and requires a mechanical license just like a CD.
- Synchronization Rights – when your singers receive their tracks, they then create their own videos of them singing their part. While it’s easy to think that these videos are simply source material for the larger virtual choir video that you’re planning to create, the reality is that each one of these videos is a completed video. Legally, they each require a synchronization license. To take this even further, those completed videos will need to be uploaded by the singer and downloaded by the director (or video editor) so that they can be compiled together in the virtual choir video. Yep – you guessed it – every upload and download requires their own licensing, as well.
- Arrangement/Adaptation Rights – the Copyright Law provides the copyright owner with the right to allow or not allow different arrangements or adaptations of the protected song. In the case of a virtual choir video, when each singer creates their unique performance video, they are technically turning a choral work (with multiple parts) into a solo. That is an adaptation of the original work, and, therefore, requires permission.
But Wait, There’s More About Virtual Choir Licenses…
Are you suitably confused yet? Has your head exploded? Want to make it worse? You haven’t even gotten to the licensing needed for the actual virtual choir video that you intend to make! Let’s keep going deeper into the rabbit hole. Down… Down… Down…
- Synchronization Rights – now that you have the videos from each of the performers, you’ll need to assemble them into a virtual choir video. Besides hours of editing time, you’ll need another synchronization license to cover the final assembled video. This license is different than the synchronization rights triggered in #2. That was for the individual singers; this new license covers only the final edited virtual choir video.
- Print Rights – if you want to put the lyrics of the song onto the video so a viewer can follow along, that requires a print license to reproduce those lyrics. Lyrics are protected under the Copyright Law as much as the music. Putting those lyrics on the video requires another, different license than anything that has come up so far.
- Streaming Rights – you’ve finished the virtual choir video. That’s great. I’m sure it’s fantastic. However, you didn’t invest all those hours and energy to just create a video that no one sees. Who does that?!?! You’re going to want to upload that video to your website or YouTube or Vimeo or some other digital platform for people to see it. The way that viewers access your video is generally through what’s called streaming. Streaming is actually a rather complicated licensing hurdle because there are two types of streaming – interactive and non-interactive – and each trigger different rights. For the vast majority of virtual choir videos, the platforms used provide an interactive streaming experience for the viewer. (For instance, YouTube is an interactive streaming platform because the viewer can “interact” with the stream by starting it, stopping it, shuttling forward or jumping backwards in the timeline, or replaying a section over and over.) Interactive Streaming is actually two different rights: Performance and Synchronization. The Performance Right is triggered by what you are actually hearing; the Synchronization Right is triggered by what you are seeing. When a licensee (you) requests a streaming license from a licensor (the publisher), what you’re really getting is a combination of those two permissions. Of course, some of you are saying “But doesn’t YouTube have a blanket deal with the publishers already? Why do I need anything on this?” That’s partially correct. Through our Performance Rights partners (ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC), the performance rights on interactive streams are covered. However, the synchronization rights are not. Only the publishers can issue a synchronization license. So, when you upload a video to YouTube, you’re only half covered. You still need to get a synchronization license or your video can be removed from the platform. This is true for virtual choir videos from a church or a school. There are no exemptions on this within the Copyright Law.
Stop The Licensing Insanity!
Raise your hand if you vowed to never make one of these videos. I warned you: this is insane. Who would do all of this to make sure that they were doing the right thing? The short answer: very few people. That was my thinking when I fully understood what was required for these videos. It’s way too complicated. No one is going to understand all of this. I talked to other publishers, and they didn’t understand all of this. How is a middle school music teacher or a part time church choir director going to get their head wrapped around this craziness?
That was when I realized what needed to happen: we had to create a single Virtual Choir Bundled License that covered everything a group needed to create one of these virtual choir videos. And that’s exactly what we did. We even went a step further and created a website dedicated to just servicing virtual choirs and the licensing that they need to make their videos with all of the proper permissions.
The Creation & Launch of Virtual Choir HQ
VirtualChoirHQ.com was launched in September 2020. This site provides an easy way to request a license for virtual choir videos, and we’ve made it available at a very reasonable cost. If you had to obtain all of the individual permissions separately, the costs could be in the hundreds of dollars. I’ve even heard stories of some licenses costing over $1,500 for one song! Again – lunacy! VirtualChoirHQ.com offers its Bundled License for only $89.99 (plus a $10.00 License Process Fee). Now choirs can go to one website, fill out one form, pay less than $100.00, and get all of the permissions that they need to make a virtual choir video for the publishers we represent.
Needless to say, I’m pretty happy with what we’ve created and can provide to the marketplace with VirtualChoirHQ.com. It’s a singularly unique platform that solves a huge problem and a reasonable price for everyone. I think it’s pretty great. However, don’t just take my word for it. Look at what some of my competitors have done in response to it. Instead of launching their own program, they chose to simply join us. VirtualChoirHQ.com now represents over 30 different publishing catalogs.
Of course, the real proof of whether this is a success or not is if the customers use it and like it. Ten weeks into this endeavor, the results indicate to us that we’re making a difference. The feedback that we’re getting from directors is overwhelmingly positive. If you’re thinking about making a virtual choir video (or any virtual ensemble, actually – this license works just as well for instrumental groups!), I would highly encourage you to visit VirtualChoirHQ.com.