When you go into a boutique store, spa, or café, you may notice that there is music playing in the background. In some cases, businesses pick music playlists that will soothe their patrons with gentle instrumental scores.

In other instances, the store may choose to play louder, pop music in the foreground because they want their customers to feel energized, or they are aiming for a specific demographic with their musical choices. Perhaps you notice the subtle influence that a well-crafted musical playlist has on you, but most likely, you don’t — you just enjoy the tunes and associate that enjoyment with the retailer.

As a business owner, you may wonder how other businesses get the music they play in their stores. It is important to note that they do not use a smartphone and wireless speaker, like many home stereo setups these days. There are many reasons for this, including managing sound quality; however, one of the most important reasons involves music copyright law. If you want to play a published song in your business, you must get a license to do so legally through a performing rights organization (PRO).

The Major PROs and How They License Music

There are several PROs, depending on which country you reside in; however, there are a few major PROs to contact that cover catalogues of millions of songs.

  • Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI) : Founded in 1939, BMI originally sought to protect the rights of composers and musicians in new genres, like jazz, country, and blues. This organization is now the largest PRO in the world, with 800,000 members that are mostly artists and a catalogue of 13 million copyrighted musical works.
  • American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) : This nonprofit organization is run by its members who elect representatives to the board of directors. ASCAP is the oldest of the PROs, founded in 1914, and it was the first group in the United States to lobby on behalf of artists’ right to their work. They helped shape many of the laws that are in place today. There are currently 670,000 members of ASCAP, and the organization manages a catalogue of 11.5 million songs.
  • SESAC : Another major global PRO, this organization represents 30,000 artists and has a music catalogue of 400,000 songs. They were originally founded as the Society of European Stage Authors and Composers in 1931, 22 years after some of the first copyright laws were enacted. As the organization grew to represent international clients, they changed their name to just their acronym, SESAC.

For a long time, businesses would contact a PRO – or several PROs, depending on which songs and how much music they needed – and purchase a general, or blanket, license to play music from their catalogue. As websites, mobile devices, and online payment options become better and easier to use, PROs have updated their sites to manage licenses easily in an online database. If you want to purchase a license through BMI, SESAC, or ASCAP, you can go to their website and answer a few questions about your business before creating an account and paying the licensing fees.

For example, through BMI’s website, you go through their online portal, choose your business type, and click “apply for license.” This leads you to create a username and password, and that allows you to open and manage your account entirely online. ASCAP has a similar setup, determining licensing rates based on size and type of business, to ensure music licensing is affordable for small business owners. SESAC has a page dedicated to business owners looking to license their catalogue, offering routes to learn more or manage an existing account.

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Why You Must License Music from PROs

Copyright laws for music are strict when it comes to any public performance of a published work. You may not consider your business to have a public performance when you’re just streaming music through an app or on your computer, but the legal definition of a public performance involves any instance of that song being played before a significant number of people or the potential for a significant number of people.

There is an exception in copyright law called the homestyle exemption. If the music performance fits certain criteria, it is exempt from licensing laws.

  • The music is played very quietly in an area for employees
  • Music is played through a small radio or television, so the broadcast determines what is heard, not the business owner.
  • The business is 2,000 square feet or less for retail, or 3,750 square feet or less for restaurants.
  • There is no admission fee to get into the establishment.


Do not try to play any published music in your establishment without an appropriate license. You can face fines ranging from $750 to $150,000 per infraction.

If you play from a playlist, you may face multiple fines for multiple infractions, from more than one PRO. Plus, if you go to court and lose the lawsuit, you will have to pay attorney’s fees and court fees. This huge expenditure could force you to close your business.

Cost-Effective Music Licensing Solutions

If you’re worried about the costs of playing music in your small business, you can always find copyright-free or royalty-free songs online. There are some websites that offer playlists of instrumental music that have no copyright or no associated royalties, which you can play in your establishment. You could download these kinds of songs individually and build your own playlist. You could also contact a PRO and get a general license, and consider it part of growing and expanding your business and your level of professionalism.

It is much better to find legal solutions you can trust, so you can focus on growing your business while creating great ambiance for your customers. Since music streaming services are increasingly popular, several companies offer commercial music streaming services. This means you can easily manage your playlists through the internet, on multiple devices, with the assurance that all PRO licensing has been taken care of.

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