At one time, when the terms “public,” “music” and “business” were combined, it meant one of three things: Muzak, a jukebox or a live musical performance. Now we’re surrounded by all kinds of music in public venues each and every day. Public music is so ubiquitous that the relative silence of a library is almost shocking in comparison. With Spotify and Pandora on hand constantly, we’re been conditioned to go through life with a perpetual playlist streaming in from our iPods. When planning the ambience for your establishment, you’ll probably be busy thinking of what type of music would work best for your customers – such as sitar music in a spa or chill beats in an urban café – and price shopping for speakers that provide smooth sound. But before you purchase a speaker system, take a step back and think about where that music is going to come from and the kinds of copyright laws you need to abide by to play these songs.

What is public music?

Public music is subject to copyright restriction, but the boundaries between public and private music can be vague. For example, a CD given to you last Christmas by your great aunt isn’t public when you play it at a dinner party, but becomes public when you pipe it through the restaurant sound system. Even though you own the CD in both cases, the larger “public use” case means that the artist is entitled to compensation.

If you think using Sirius XM or a music app like Spotify will keep you safe, think again. To play music in a place of business, you need a business license if your venue is larger than a certain number of square feet, if more than four televisions are utilized or if more than six radio speakers are used. Licenses for businesses vary in cost and increase with the number of employees you have. Be sure to read the regulations carefully or call a licensing specialist to stay on the right side of the law.

Understanding business music licensing

Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI) works on behalf of musicians to enforce copyright regulations in the area of public music and collect royalties for the artists. In December 2011, BMI brought suit against an Austin, TX, restaurant that played a variety of music without the proper license, after more than 100 contact attempts to encourage the restaurant’s compliance. BMI typically tries to educate the proprietor first to bring it into compliance with regulations; failure to comply, as with the Austin case, could land proprietors in court with up to $10,000 in liability.

Licensing options

Music services like Pandora do have business options. Pandora for business costs $24.95 per month, takes care of all requisite licensing and allows you to create as many stations as you want. Sirius XM also offers a business model starting at $29.95 per month. You can also purchase blanket licenses from ASCAP or other musical artists’ organizations, which starts at $288 per year. BMI also offers licenses for different types of businesses, although they do not provide minimum cost estimates.

Many businesses simply aren’t aware when they need a license, when they do not and what constitutes to illegal music use. Representatives at BMI and specific services can help you find a model that works for your business. Stay on the right side of copyright law when it comes to public music to avoid steep fines down the road.


Felicia Baratz is a freelance writer, graphic designer and social media addict living in Indianapolis, IN. As a contributor to, Felicia discusses new, innovative technology and it’s relation to the business world and social media marketing.