Do I Have to Pay for Playing Music in My Store?

Do I Have to Pay for Playing Music in My Store?


Most retail stores in America utilize background music to enhance customers’ desire to purchase. It can stimulate the hearing sensory to keep them focused or raise their heartbeat, which can have desirable effect on people. Retail music has become an important part of marketing, and it can create an atmosphere or trend that could bring about a substantial marketing impact. Hence, it is often called “music branding.” You can utilize music branding by playing different songs based on the customer’s age groups, which will possibly lead to boost of sales.

On the other hand, an unexpected problem has emerged from it. As the music branding gains popularity, copyright issues have become prevalent. In fact, if you play music, it is almost certain that you have to pay the copyright fees. Although many retail storeowners are simply ignoring this fact, a retail business might be subject to penalties when the copyright agencies raise an issue. Many large chain stores including Starbucks and Walmart are disputing copyright fees in courts, and some of the cases has been decided in favor of copyright owners, which resulted in hundreds of thousands of damages.

Of course, it is not a big deal. There is no way copyright agencies send employees to hundreds of thousands of retail stores in America, and there is few cases where small retailers got into trouble. You can simply move on as if you know nothing, but there is saying there knowledge is power. While we are at it, we can discuss what are the legal and illegal uses of music in addition to a few exceptional circumstances.


To pay the rightful copyright fees, you should get a public performance license.

Even if you paid for your music that is downloaded to your cell phone or laptop, you cannot play it in the public place without potentially infringing copyright. When a song is purchased, you can play it for yourself or for a small number of people. If you want to play it in a public space for a random number of people, you should get a public performance license and purchase the music via a certain route. This license authorizes the licensee to play the music online, on radio, in public places, or in a retail store.

You would pay more than what you would for your individual enjoyment, and the proceeds are divided among the copyright agency and the copyright owners. Usually, all business owners should apply for a license before playing the music. Most often, new business owners tend to include it to their overhead cost estimated before opening a retail store.


Where can you get this license?

The major agencies for copyright holders in the U.S. are the following three:

  • BMI (Broadcast Music Inc.)
    ASCAP (American Society of Composers Authors and Publishers)
    • GMR (Global Music Rights)

All three organizations work to protect the copyright. They are often referred to as Performance Rights Organization (“PRO”), and they sometimes make communication with consumers who play music in the public place. Although it varies by the songs, generally speaking, you need a license from a single agency to play music in the public place. (You should remember that different PROs have different ranges of songs included in the license, so more licenses mean more songs.)

You can see varying forms offered in the websites of those PROs. Users need to feel out the forms to submit to the agencies. Depending on the size of the store and the number of speaker units, the cost varies from a couple of hundreds to thousands. You should research your need first and make sure you apply for the least costly option.

In fact, the easiest way would be opening a business account on a music streaming site. Most streaming sites such as Spotify and Apple Music will connect you to appropriate PROs when you open a business account. Users must play individual songs after checking which agency has the rights for songs of your interest.


What are the exceptions to the copyright fees?

The Section 110(5) of the Copyright Act lists a few exceptions for business owners. Since the late 1990s, copyright law has been gradually established through various case laws to recognize the following exceptions.

  • Songs in public domain
    • Stores with less than 2,000 retail space
    • Music played on radio and TV
    • Equipped with speakers less than 6
    • Songs that individually licensed from artists

The above is the confirmed exceptions so far.

If the copyright has expired, has not been renewed properly, or released upon a request from the copyright owner, it can be placed in the public domain. Those songs in public domain can be played without worries about copyright.

However, if you play music that is played on TV or radio, you should pay a special attention to the special circumstances. First of all, the radio or TV channel should be broadcasted under the license provided by the Federal Communications Commission, and the channel should have paid the appropriate fees to copyright holders. You should have less than 6 speakers (and up to 4 speakers per room), and if you TV screen is bigger than 55 inches, you should limit to 4 TVs in a room.

These circumstances apply differently to different stores, so you should consult professionals before making any decision.

Retail Advices BY Ingyun Jeong
BNB Magazine MAY 2021 ©