Is It Legal for Your Business to Play Music Over Its Sound System?
September 5, 2013
Mackenzie Carlin in Business Strategy, a career in music, office

Music can help clients relax in a waiting room, make employees more productive and overall improve the workplace experience. However, in trying to provide your business with the right type of music, you may be running afoul of the law. Business owners must get permission of copyright owners (aka recording artists) when playing music in the office, reports BMI.

What’s Legal, What’s Not

To understand the legal line between listening to music at work and breaking the law, you need to understand what constitutes a public performance. Any time a large group that is not a family or acquaintances listens to music, it constitutes a public performance. If you’re listening to a CD in your office or a shared cubicle with headphones on, it is not a public performance. If you get your cubicle mate to listen to a new favorite song, it is not a public performance. If you are playing that same track for the whole office, it is a public performance.

There are some exceptions. For example, if you work at a nonprofit and use music as part of a direct teaching activity, you do not need a license, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) reports. Small companies—stores under 2,000 square feet or restaurants under 3,750 square feet—can play music from a radio or sound system, provided the business has fewer than six speakers in total. ASCAP can advise you on whether or not you need a license to play music.

Consequences of Playing Music Without a License

Companies face big consequences if they knowingly fail to seek legal permission. Some have been fined $750 for a single violation and up to $150,000 if courts find the business willingly flouted the law.

Solution: Music License

To be able to play music in your business without breaking the law, purchase a music license. You can buy a license from a music licensing company and receive legal permission to play the thousands of songs in their catalog.

While this seems straightforward, it can be tricky, since different recording artists or composers may be written or performed by artists represented by different music licensing companies. You may be in the clear for the song’s composer, but still lack a license for the musician singing the track. Unfortunately, if you want to play music with performers licensed by a different company, you would need to purchase a second license. Not only is this expensive, but determining what you’re legally allowed to play takes a great deal of time.

One cost-effective solution is to purchase a commercial subscription, suggests. Services such as Pandora and Sirius XM offer commercial subscription packages that enable you to stream a variety of music in your place of business without purchasing a separate license for the songs you play. These packages are usually cheaper than purchasing your own license and provide greater variety.

The small expense of a commercial music subscription or music license will cover you from any legal obligations.

Photo by Flickr user robb.wiss

Article originally appeared on Music Think Tank (
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