Play Music at Retail Legally

Background Music at the Store

I recently helped install a stereo system for a retail store in Virginia. They wanted to play background music for their customers but weren’t sure what they could play. In the US, it’s illegal to play the radio or regular CDs because those songs aren’t licensed to be played for “public performance.” (UPDATE: Thanks to John Kaufeld who corrected me in the comments regarding radio play)

What happens if you play regular music CDs at your business? You might get a visit from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), Broadcast Music Incorporated (BMI), or the Society of European Stage Authors and Composers (SESAC). One retailer I know of was fined $7000 by ASCAP for playing music which was not properly licensed.

Legal Options

So how do you play music legally in the public? Here are some options.

  1. Purchase business-licensed music CDs. Many retailers buy muzak, the horrible elevator music, because it’s cheaper to license than the actual songs. Please don’t do this.
  2. Get XM Radio for Business, costing $40/month.
  3. Download free music from Jamendo which is under a Creative Commons license.  This music is uploaded by artists that are not represented by ASCAP/BMI/SEAC. I am amazed at the number of high quality albums listed on Jamendo. My Virginia client found lots of great jazz at Jamendo and will play that at their retail store.

ASCAP is Nuts

As a side note, I am all in favor of musicians getting their due. But hearing background music in a store falls under “fair use” to me. From a music business prospective, I don’t think that many people will chose to listen to music in a store as a replacement for buying music. “Hey honey, let’s go to the mall. I feel like listening to some Lady Gaga.” Hearing music at a store promotes music purchases just like hearing it on the radio.

ASCAP goes way too far. They’ve sued Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts for singing camp songs. They’ve sued cell phone users for playing ring tones. They want fees from YouTube for having background music in videos. They want fees from iTunes and Amazon for 30-second song previews. That’s not just silly. It hurts the musicians.

6 Replies to “Play Music at Retail Legally”

  1. Good post, Rick, but your information about playing over-the-air radio in a store doesn’t match ASCAP’s information.

    Check item 15 in the ASCAP FAQ about restaurants and “other” establishments, which includes stores. There’s an exemption for those places to play over-the-air radio for free, without any licensing fee. XM subscription radio is another matter, though.

    ASCAP music licensing FAQ

  2. ASOMAssage Music is a legal option specific for spas and massage therapists. In fact, it’s the only streamlined music supplier for this specific industry. Only $9.95/mo gives you all the music you’ll ever want (your choice, not just random streaming) plus your Background Music License built in.


  3. Just a few services to add:

    Also Muzak no longer just plays “elevator music” these days, they actually have decent artists. They just happen to be pretty expensive and require custom hardware.

    PlayNetwork is another. Again, they have good music and are great at matching music to brands, but they’re pricey and complicated.

    And there’s (full disclosure: I work there), which is half the price of the closest competitor and offers some great features to help businesses increase sales. Your store just needs a computer connected to some speakers to use it.

  4. I run the small business division of PlayNetwork that offers a channel solution, a personalized solution and I also run which is a subsidiary business of PlayNetwork.

    We have several levels of service depending on how much control a business would want over their music. The XM service, as you might imagine, has a large suite of channels (170 total) all the way to PlayNetwork’s 100% customized music where you can pick track by track. It really just depends on how much control you want.

    From a pricing perspective I have solutions that cost $25 per month and I have solutions that are $100 per month. What our clients like is that paying us $300-$500 per year to take care of what could be $1200 licensing direct with ASCAP, BMI and SESAC, lets them sleep a little better at night.

    John is right about the over-the-air radio being an exception to the licensing requirements, however there is a further requirement that creates some gray area, in that you need to be using “home” style equipment. If you are using a boom box with over-the-air radio you should be fine, but if you have a commercial audio system you could be in violation.

    Happy to field any questions if you want to email me.

    Brian James | Director, Local Sales | O: 888.567.7529 |

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