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Copyright and the Jazz Musician

In an art form based on reinterpretation, instant composition, and group interplay, how do you determine who owns what and how much they get paid for it?

Lafayette Gilchrist
For Lafayette Gilchrist, assigning ownership rights to a piece of music is a matter of integrity. Photograph: J.M. Giordano.

In late August, the pianist Lafayette Gilchrist was recovering from a week-long stint in Kaliningrad, Russia, the city that hosted the 2018 FIFA World Cup. He had performed at a jazz festival alongside saxophonist David Murray, drummer Hamid Drake, and bassist Jaribu Shahid, which amounted to a reunion of Murray’s Black Saint Quartet. At home, Gilchrist leads his own group, the New Volcanoes, and was about to release an aural collage of jazz, blues, and funk on a five-track EP titled Deep Dancing Suite. A longtime Baltimore resident, Gilchrist is also a prolific composer who’s written for TV series like The Wire, The Deuce, and Treme, and who recently completed “a bunch” of compositions with New Volcanoes percussionist Kevin Pinder. The next item on his lengthy to-do list? Registering the copyright on those compositions with the performance rights organization (PRO) to which he belongs, Broadcast Music, Inc., or BMI for short.

Performance rights come into play when a piece of music is heard in live performances, streamed online, or aired on the radio. If that piece of music is yours, and if you’ve registered the given work with a PRO, thereby establishing that you hold the copyright on it, you are entitled to royalties. That’s why Gilchrist was so eager to register his newly created tunes: because there’s potential money to be made from doing so. In today’s fragmented environment for consuming music, establishing copyright has become more and more important to an artist’s financial success. However, doing it fairly is not always easy, especially in jazz.

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