Playing Music in Public: Is it Legal

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The average person spends almost 27 hours each week listening to their favorite songs. As individuals, we can listen to music as much as we’d like. As business owners, different rules apply.

Is it illegal to play music in your business? Not exactly. But songs you play in a restaurant or shop are considered public performances, and if you launch them without permission, you are breaking copyright law and could be subject to fines.

A public performance occurs when you play music in a public place with audience members that extend beyond family members and friends. In order to do this legally, you need a license from a performing rights organization (PRO)—a company that collects royalties on behalf of music publishers and songwriters.

Here’s what you need to know about appropriate licenses and the consequences of avoiding or ignoring these laws.

When Do You Need a License to Play Music in Public?

U.S. copyright law protects almost every aspect of music, including composers, performers, and producers. Each time you play a song in public for patrons, you may owe these creators compensation.

Common businesses that require licenses for music include the following:

  • Bars: You might play songs to keep patrons drinking and enjoying their time. Whether the songs come from a playlist you curate or a jukebox you fill with options, you need a license.
  • Restaurants: Music floating over loudspeakers could help people to enjoy their meals. You need a license to play those songs.
  • Retail establishments: Whether you sell food, clothing, or office supplies, your music could help people linger. You need a license for playing music in a retail store.
  • Venues with live bands: If your performers cover songs created by other people, you need a license for these tunes. Those rules apply if the band is playing for a private party or wedding.

Playing music legally can help you avoid fines. It’s also the ethical thing to do. Just as you wouldn’t want people stealing your items, you shouldn’t steal someone else’s songs.

What Licenses Do Businesses Need to Play Music in Public?

Each time you play songs publicly, you must honor the copyright. Typically, those protections are held by performing rights organizations (PROs) such as BMI and ASCAP.

A PRO blanket license gives a business the legal right to play all the songs in the catalog, but there are important exceptions.

Two different PROs could protect a song that’s perfect for your brand. The songwriter may be contracted with one, and another might cover the recording. If you contract with just one, you could be fined by the other.

Understanding the different PROs isn’t easy, as few list all their fees in a straightforward manner. Most set charges by the size of the facility, the songs you want to play, and more.

But a standard company like BMI charges about $30 monthly (on the low end). If you connect with several PROs for full protection, you could spend hundreds monthly. And the time you spend on managing your contracts could be better spent elsewhere.

When Can You Play Music in Public Without a License?

In most cases, companies must have a license to play music in public. But there are a few very rare exceptions.

Those exceptions include the following:

  • Public domain: Some very old recordings are no longer protected by copyright law. If you choose songs from this very limited list, you won’t need a license. And remember that new recordings of old songs are very likely protected by copyright.
  • Music for teaching: According to BMI, you will not need a license if you work for a nonprofit institution, and you are teaching the course in a face-to-face format. If you are using any kind of distance learning, or you work for a for-profit institution, you will absolutely need a license.
  • Music for nonprofit events: If you work for a nonprofit institution, and you'd like to use music during a big event, you may be able to play any kind of music you want to play without a license. But the rules are very strict.

    According to BMI, you cannot charge admission to the event. You also cannot use the event for any kind of commercial advantage or private financial gain. If the person who holds the copyright finds out about the event and sends you a letter of objection, you cannot play that person's music.
  • Radio: If your business is smaller than 2,000 square feet and uses just a few speakers, you can play radio stations. But you can’t omit the commercials in this plan.

Know that all these examples come with very strict rules and regulations. If you get even one detail wrong, you could be fined.

What Are the Penalties for Playing Unlicensed Music as a Business?

It’s difficult to manage copyright requirements, and people may be tempted to skip the hassle and just play the music they want. But fines for playing unlicensed music can be steep.

Copyright infringement fines are set by U.S. law. The smallest fee is $750, and the largest is $150,000.

That happened to a company in Charlotte, according to The Charlotte Observer. The owner of the business thought he was protected when he played songs using his personal Spotify and Pandora accounts, but he was hit with a lawsuit for $150,000.

Alternatives to Paying PRO Licensing Fees

In 2022 alone, more than 13,000 companies filed for business bankruptcy. Few owners jump at the opportunity to increase their operating costs and hassles. If you’re adamantly opposed to working with PROs, you do have options.

Alternatives to working with PROs include the following:

  • Choose songs in the public domain. Songs or musical work published in 1927 or earlier is in the public domain and unprotected by copyright law.
  • Consider royalty-free music. Royalty-free music doesn't necessarily mean it's free. It simply means you don't have to continually pay royalties. Many artists charge a one-time fee for the right to play these songs in public.
  • Play music you wrote. Create your own songs and play them yourself, and you can ignore PROs.
  • Play music others don’t have copywritten. Some artists waive their copyright rights and publish their work on websites with disclaimers about public performances. For example, some artists put their music on SoundCloud or other services under the Creative Commons license. This often means that you can use these songs for free, but be aware that some artists specify that they’d like to be credited when you play their work.
  • Try the radio. If you have a small establishment, few speakers, and a tolerance for DJs and commercials, this could be a good option.

Note that none of these options are limitless. Most of them come with severe restrictions about what you can and cannot play while remaining inside the law.

Explore Pandora CloudCover’s Music Licensing Solutions for Businesses

Pandora CloudCover Music offers a PRO alternative for playing background music. With one small monthly fee, you’ll access a catalog of songs you can play in your business without worrying about breaking copyright laws.

Pandora CloudCover pulls songs into playlists, so you can start the tunes playing very quickly. Create your own sounds by mixing several playlists and omit songs you never want to hear again.

A robust dashboard lets you set up schedules for your songs. Play upbeat tunes in the morning, and slow things down at night. Ensure that all your locations are playing the songs you’ve authorized and make changes from this same dashboard.

Find out more about our music streaming solutions for businesses. Contact us to start a conversation.

Frequently Asked Questions About Playing Music Without a License

These are some of the questions we hear most about playing music without a license:

Am I allowed to play music in my business?

Playing music in your business is considered a public performance, and you need a license to do this legally. You can get multiple licenses from the major performing rights organizations, or you can use a service like Pandora CloudCover.

What happens if I play music in public without a license?

If you are caught playing music in your business without the proper license, you can face steep fines and even criminal charges.

What music can I play without a license?

You can play music in the public domain without a license as well as anything you write yourself. If you have a small establishment, you may be able to play the radio for free, but the specifics will depend on the size of your business and how many speakers you have.

Can I play Spotify or Apple Music in my business?

Not from your personal account. In order to legally play music in your business, you need a commercial streaming service, like what we offer at Pandora CloudCover.


Weekly Time Spent Listening to Music in the United States from 2015 to 2019. (December 2021). Statista.

Use of Music. Department of Revenue, Washington State.

C in a Circle: Exceptions to the Rule: When Unlicensed Uses of a Copyright Are Not Infringements. (June 2006). BMI.

17 U.S. Code Chapter 5: Copyright Infringement and Remedies. Cornell Law School.

Popular Uptown Bar in Charlotte Sued by Major Music Publishers. (February 2018). The Charlotte Observer.

Annual Number of Business Bankruptcy Cases Filed in the United States from 2000 to 2022. (February 2023). Statista.

List of Public Domain Music. PD Info.

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