Music Licensing for the Uninitiated

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The following article has been updated with new price information and an expanded section on commercial music services and satellite radio for businesses.


If you are a bookstore owner who has been in business for some time, you may have received the phone call: A customer service representative (CSR) is on the line and inquiring as to whether you, the owner, play music in your store. Assuming the answer is “yes,” the CSR explains that you need to pay his/her company money on an annual basis. While you remain silent — wondering how this person got your name and number — the CSR explains that you are in violation of the copyright law if you are “publicly performing” music in your store without the permission of the copyright owner(s).

What exactly is this person talking about?

The representative is referring to music licenses. The CSR who called works for one of the three major performing rights organizations — ASCAP, BMI, or SESAC — that license performance rights for most of the music copyright holders in the U.S. (and represent foreign copyright holders as well). Performance rights allow for playing music via online streaming, by a record/CD, a tape player, the radio, television, or through live presentation of copyrighted material.

These organizations, which represent composers, lyricists, and publishers, grant licensees (meaning, you, the bookstore owner) the right to perform publicly the works of their members or affiliates. In turn, these organizations collect fees and distribute royalties to their members or affiliates.

The bottom line is, if you play music in your store, you need to understand what your legal responsibilities — and rights — are.

The Organizations and the Law

Here are some brief facts about each performing rights organization, sourced from Music in the Marketplace, a Better Business Bureau (BBB) Publication:

American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) This is the oldest of the three organizations and was founded in 1914 as a membership association by composers, lyricists, and music publishers. Its members use ASCAP as a clearinghouse for collecting royalties on more than eight million copyrighted musical works, which include pop, rock, Broadway, movies, jazz, country, folk, rhythm and blues, and symphonic music. ASCAP also has agreements with most foreign organizations that license the right to perform copyrighted works in their countries. For more information, go to www.ascap.com or call the General Licensing Department at (800) 505-4052.

Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI) Formed in 1939, this is a nonprofit organization. Its roster includes more than 600,000 songwriters, composers, and publishers. BMI’s repertory includes more than 4.5 million copyrighted musical works, which run the gamut of musical types from pop, rock, country, and folk to gospel, Broadway, jazz, rhythm and blues, and popular ballads. BMI acts as a clearinghouse for its affiliates’ music performances, and has agreements with licensing organizations around the world. For more information, go to www.bmi.com or call (800) 925-8451.

SESAC, Inc. SESAC is the second oldest performing rights organization. Founded in 1930, SESAC is headquartered in Nashville with additional offices in New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Miami, and London. SESAC covers the U.S. in virtually every genre of music and has reciprocal agreements with more than 80 foreign societies. SESAC provides its affiliates with performance detection over any medium, including the Internet. For more information, go to www.sesac.com.

What They Do

In essence, the main job of performing rights organizations is to serve as clearinghouses for copyright licensing on behalf of their members. The Copyright Law of the U.S., simply put, gives the copyright owner of a musical work the exclusive rights to control the public performance of his or her work. Performance is defined as either playing the music via a record/CD, online streaming, or tape player, the radio, television, or through live performance of copyrighted material. Therefore, as a general rule, any business establishment that publicly performs copyrighted music must obtain permission from the copyright owner to do so.

The Copyright Law provides for limited exemptions to this general rule. However, most business establishments will need to obtain permission to play pre-recorded music either by paying one or all of those organizations an annual license fee to play all the music in their respective catalogues, or by obtaining a license for each particular piece of music negotiated with each copyright holder.

For a bookstore that plays music throughout the day, the latter option would be ridiculously expensive, so it shouldn’t even be considered. Since almost every professional composer belongs to one of the three performing rights organizations listed above, it is far more practical to pay the annual license fee. In all instances, the owner of the establishment is liable for any copyright violation, and the fines for copyright infringement are steep.

The Copyright Law provides for sanctions against an infringer that can include an injunction and civil penalties that generally range up to $30,000 for each copyrighted song performed without a license. In certain circumstances, additional civil penalties may be assessed in the amount of two times the license fee that the owner of an establishment should have paid during the preceding three-year period.

Furthermore, it’s important to understand that the copyright law also gives the music or composition copyright owners the exclusive right to perform publicly or authorize performance of their compositions. This, of course, means that if you have live music in the store, you will need a music license (unless it’s a band or singer playing original music). Usually either the composer of the music or the publisher, or both, owns the copyright. However, there are many exceptions.

Factors That Dictate License Fees

If you ask anyone at these organizations whether or not you need a license to play pre-recorded music, their answer will usually be, “Yes, you do.” But even then, each organization has different rules for their licenses. Needless to say, it can be very confusing for the uninitiated.

To start off, there are a number of factors that will determine whether you need to pay a fee and, if so, how much, including:

  1. Size of the store in square feet;
  2. Whether you play pre-recorded music/streaming music;
  3. Whether you play only radio and television;
  4. How many speakers you are using to broadcast the music;
  5. Whether or not you have live music and, if you do, how many performers are at each single performance (e.g., a singer/songwriter or a band);
  6. Whether the band is playing original music or “cover” tunes (music that is owned by somebody other than the person who is playing the music. In other words, say the performer plays Beatles songs); and/or
  7. Whether you have a café.

Of the three performing rights organizations, BMI’s fee schedule is the most complicated. While SESAC and ASCAP treat all bookstores as retail outlets, BMI may license bookstores with cafés as either retail or eating and drinking establishments. BMI’s retail license can accommodate retail establishments that contain a café; alternatively, BMI offers bookstores the option of licensing only the café if there is no other licensable music used in the store. In the latter situation, BMI uses both square footage and intensity of music use to determine fees.

The Rules for Radio and TV

Under copyright law, certain retail establishments that only play radio or television are exempt from licensing fees. The Fairness in Music Licensing Act of 1998 (FMLA) amended Section 110(5) of the Copyright Act and established bright-line rules concerning square footage and equipment, essentially enabling many small businesses to play the radio or TV (i.e., over the air or cable TV) without having to pay a license fee. According to the FMLA, if a non-food-service or non-beverage establishment, such as a retail store, is less than 2,000 gross square feet and is using only radio or television(s), then no license is required. Eating and drinking establishments containing fewer than 3,750 gross square feet are exempt if using only radio or television(s).

Retail outlets larger than 2,000 square feet using radio or television only are also exempt if they use fewer than six speakers (with no more than four in a room) or if they use no more than four televisions with a diagonal screen size of 54 inches or less (with no more than one in any one room) and meet the speaker requirements. However, if the retail outlet has a television of 55 inches diagonal or more, it would not be exempt. The exemption applies to eating and drinking establishments larger than 3,750 gross square feet, provided they meet these same square footage and equipment requirements.

It’s worth repeating that this exemption does not apply to playing pre-recorded music, music videos, or live performances.

Playing Pre-Recorded Music in Your Store

For those bookstores playing pre-recorded music, here is a breakdown of the license fees in the most common situations. In most cases, the license fee is based on square footage or the number of speakers operating in the store. Both BMI and ASCAP will charge extra for live music, while SESAC includes it in its basic annual license fee. If you have a café, remember that BMI’s fees may be different, but it may not change the fee schedule for either ASCAP or SESAC.

To calculate the total yearly licensing fees, you will need to know three things: the gross square footage of your store, the number of speakers being used to play the music, and the number of live performances you plan to hold in your store over the next year (estimated).

Let’s take the example of a small bookstore, under 2,000 square feet. The store plays CDs through two speakers, and does not have live entertainment, does not sell CDs, and does not have a café. This owner will pay an annual sum (based on current 2014 rates) of $667.38 in licensing fees: $232.50 per year to ASCAP (which bases its basic annual fee on the number of speakers); $211.00 per year to SESAC (which bases its basic annual fee on square feet); and $223.88 per year to BMI (which bases its fees on square feet).

However, it’s important to stress that if the copyright owner(s) has given the bookstore owner permission to play the music, then no license fees are necessary. The same goes for live performances, as long as permission to perform the songs in public is granted by the copyright owner(s). In almost all cases, this scenario refers to the local singer/songwriter or band that plays only its own music or is promoting its homegrown CD (again, containing only its own music) by asking local stores to play it during the day. (This is certainly one good argument in favor of the independent bookstore supporting the independent musician!)

Additionally, if you sell pre-recorded music in the store, you may be exempt from licensing fees in certain circumstances. Section 110(7) of the law states that a vending establishment is exempt from paying a license fee “where the sole purpose of the performance is to promote the retail sale of copies or phonorecords of the work, or of the audiovisual or other devices utilized in such performance, and the performance is not transmitted beyond the place where the establishment is located and is within the immediate area where the sale is occurring.”

It goes without saying that this section of the law is vague, since “immediate area” is not a defined term in the act. Representatives of each performing rights organization contend that this means that the playing of pre-recorded music is only exempt if it is played right where the music is being sold and is for demonstration purposes only (e.g., a record store’s listening posts) — not piped in throughout the whole store as background music. On the other hand, it could easily be interpreted as meaning that the playing of pre-recorded music is exempt as long as it is audible in the same room or area where the music is being sold and as long as the music is from a CD or record that the store actually sells and has in stock.

Finally, it’s fair to assume that ASCAP and BMI represent the copyrights of over 90 percent of the music you hear on the radio or play in your store. However, SESAC’s repertory is growing and the company boasts to be the “fastest-growing” performance rights organization at present. If you are thorough and meticulous about your song selection, it is possible to limit the need for license agreements to BMI and ASCAP and still have a huge repertory from which to choose. Of course, you could also sign an agreement with only one organization, but that would severely limit your song choices.

Fee Schedules for BMI, ASCAP, and SESAC

We hope that you now have a better idea as to whether or not you need to pay a music license fee. If you do, here’s how the fee schedules break down:

ASCAP – Using Pre-Recorded Music (does not include audio-visual performances)

No. of Speakers Annual License Fee
3 or less $237.00
Each additional speaker $48.50
Maximum license fee $1,986.00

If you have live music, it is $43.50 for each live performance at each location. The maximum annual live fee would be $3,536 per location per year.

BMI – Using Pre-Recorded Music

Square Footage of Each Bookstore
Annual License Fee for 
Audio-Only Performances
2,000 or less $227.99
2,001 to 2,500 $308.44
2,501 to 5,000 $442.54
5,001 to 7,500 $710.75
7,501 to 10,000 $978.93
10,001 to 12,500 $1,247.17
12,5001 to 15,000 $1,515.36
15,001 to 17,500 $1,783.54
Over 17,500 $1,944.49

If you have live music featuring a single singer/instrumentalist, it is also based on square footage.

Square Footage of Each Bookstore
Annual License Fee
2,000 or less $201.16
2,001 to 2,500 $268.21
2,501 to 5,000 $449.24
5,001 to 6,500 $583.35
6,501 to 7,500 $670.52
7,501 to 8,500 $771.09
8,501 to 9,500 $871.69
9,501 to 10,000 $938.70
Over 10,000 $1,005.77

If you have live music with two or more singers or instrumentalists, it is $42.92 per day at each retail premise, with a maximum fee for each premise of $3,459.84. This fee is paid in addition to all other applicable fees. Therefore, if the only music employed by a 2,000-square-foot store is a three-piece trio in 2014, you would pay a minimum fee of $201.16 or $42.92 per day the band performs, whichever is greater.

SESAC – Pre-Recorded and Live Music

Square Footage 2016 Annual Fee
Less than 10,000 $233
10,001 to 50,000 $356
50,001 to 99,999 $539
100,000 and over $722

The SESAC agreement authorizes both recorded and live music. Additionally, SESAC offers a license agreement with a discounted fee schedule to stores that have six or more locations.

Bookstores With Cafés

If your store has a café, you may have a choice in the type of music license agreement you sign with BMI. Rather than being charged as a retail or non-food establishment, your bookstore could be licensed on the fee structure BMI uses for eating and drinking establishments if you play no music other than in the café. In this scenario, you are charged a rate per year per occupant for the way music is used in your business.

Here are the fees:

Music Type Frequency per week Rate per year per occupant
Live Music / Multiple Singers / Instrumentalists 5 – 7 nights $5.95
  2 – 4 nights $4.95
  1 night or less (or no more than 5 times in any one month) $4.50
Single Singer Instrumentalist 5 – 7 nights $4.35
  2 – 4 nights $3.30
  1 night or less (or no more than 5 times in any one month) $3.20
Recorded Music (iPod / MP3 / Other Digital Music; Free-Play Jukebox; CDs / Tapes / Records; DJ) N/A $2.95
 

The minimum yearly fee for an eating and drinking establishment is $363 per year. Occupancy number is the maximum allowable occupancy for the total premises of your store under local fire codes or similar regulations. If there are no regulations in effect, then maximum occupancy means one person for every 20 square feet of the total premises.

Commercial Music Services & Satellite Radio

Another option is to simply sign on with a commercial music service that supplies retail outlets with music (and video) delivered via satellite, Internet, or in-store (via Web radio, CDs, and even audio/visual systems design). The most prominent commercial music services include Mood Media (which also provides Pandora for Business) and the PlayNetwork.

These companies boast that they can provide customized retail solutions, among many other options for business. It’s worth surfing over to each one to have a look. Importantly, they also pay the music licensing fees so you don’t have to worry about it. (Of course, it never hurts to stress the licensing rights part when inquiring about the services of any commercial music service.)

In addition, satellite radio outlets, such SiriusXM, provide business solutions and are licensed for public performance, as long as the business has a commercial subscription to the service. SiriusXM Satellite Music for Business has an Internet service for business that starts at $24.95 per month, and includes a total of 105 music channels, 30 of which are formatted specifically to remove explicit content and with no interruptions, on-air hosts, or mentions of SiriusXM. Its Satellite service for business starts at $24.95 per month for 80 music channels with the options to exclude mature content.

For more information on the minimum recommended hardware, go to www.siriusxm.com/siriusxmforbusiness/faqs.

Before buying equipment from Sirius, however, compare prices at your local electronics store first.

Finally, one other factor: There are services that supply retail outlets with CDs and music videos. Some of these music services own the copyrights they sell, meaning the bookstore is exempt from the licensing fees when playing the service’s music. However, if legal, such CDs and videos will not include popular copyrighted songs. If you have signed or are considering signing a contract with any commercial services company, make sure the company has covered the licensing end of it.