Clubs, Restaurants, and Poker Rooms: How to Play Music Legally in Public
Among other things, the pandemic has changed the way we interact with music. According to one study on music use during the height of COVID-19, music listening behaviors were either unaffected or increased, as listeners diverted themselves from negative moods using positive tunes. Instead of watching the news, for instance, people switched to playing music to avoid becoming anxious or upset. Now that the world is slowly starting to reopen, organizations that are starting out will have to navigate the minefield of playing music in public areas.
Business owners enjoy having music in the background to entertain patrons and set the mood. However, the majority of business owners misunderstand music licensing. When you play a song from a CD or an internet streaming service, you don’t have the artist’s permission to play the recording — and that violates copyright law. Songwriters receive compensation from public performances, which includes playing a record in bars, restaurants, nightclubs, hotels, stores, and other establishments.
Business owners are responsible for obtaining a license from a performing rights organization (PROs) to have music public performance rights. These PROs collect license fees on behalf of songwriters and music publishers, then distribute them as royalties to copyright holders whose works have been performed. Generally, food and drink establishments under 3,750 square feet or retailers under 2,000 square feet are exempted from paying fees for playing music for their customers. Otherwise, it may cost
approximately $500 a year to get licensing from three primary PROs. Still, you have options based on your establishment:
Music is prerequisite to running a nightclub, as it attracts clientele. But if you’re playing
music to help your business earn money, then you definitely need to honor those
copyrights and get a license. Of course, you can hire a DJ to entertain patrons instead — but you’d need to pay for licensing fees whenever you charge for admission. When DJs play live and mix a collection of tracks, a venue would need to pay the licensing fees for those songs so that DJs won’t need to worry about breaching copyright. Playing music they don’t entirely own can lead to a lot of gray areas and potential copyright claims against DJs. As seen in a recent case, derivatives like DJ remixes are entitled to their
own copyrights, but only with respect to the original elements they produced.
Commercial poker rooms and other gaming venues are a popular place for people to gather, socialize, and even listen to some tunes. Whether you’re setting up no-limit — a poker term for games that allow players to bet their entire stack at any time — or playing pot-limit cash games throughout the night, it’s best to sort through the legalities of your poker playlist first. You can skirt around this problem by playing the radio and choosing stations that fit the ambiance of your room. As long as your area is smaller
than 2,000 square feet and you’re playing with no more than four speakers in one room, you’re exempt from paying fees. Of course, this means you have to listen to a licensed broadcast, where you have no control over the music, commercials or talking segments. Overall, this isn’t a bad strategy because the type of music played won’t drastically change the poker experience.
For restaurants with an elegant ambiance, the music issue is pretty straightforward. Anything written before 1922 falls into the public domain, so some websites have a catalog of available music you can play without needing to pay any performance fees. Other dining establishments should consider royalty free tracks as well. These are music recordings that require users to pay a one-time license fee, which purchases a subscription that contains licensing rights to the song for lifetime use. This is typically
the strategy employed by content creations so they can include the same recordings in multiple projects. Many companies provide music licensing services for businesses, so it’s easier to legally play audio for employees and visitors.