There’s only one thing better than a cold beer and spending a leisurely afternoon in a taproom with friends enjoying craft brews, and that’s having music in the background. Better yet, live musicians playing for the crowd.

Music is used by businesses everywhere because it creates an atmosphere that encourages customers to relax and enjoy themselves. Isn’t that exactly how you want your customers to feel at your establishment? They’ll stay longer, spend more, and tell friends about the great time they had.

But playing music publicly in any business involves more than just turning it on, streaming it, or hiring live musicians. Music, like all intellectual property, belongs to the songwriters and composers who create it, and that ownership is protected under U.S. and global copyright laws. These laws were written with one purpose in mind: to encourage music creators to continue their craft and reward them for their unique contributions to our culture.

How does a business go about getting the permission it needs to play a songwriter’s music? By working with a performing rights organization such as BMI, ASCAP, SESAC, or GMR. PROs (performing rights organizations) try to make the licensing process as simple as possible by granting permission to play millions of songs with one license and one annual fee. This saves business owners the immense time and expense of tracking down and negotiating fees with all the songwriters and composers of the music they play.

Some business owners believe that, since they only play live original music, they don’t need a license. That’s not true. The term “original music” generally means music written by the performing musicians. Those musicians, however, may also be songwriters who are affiliated with BMI (most professional musicians are members of a performing rights organization). Writers join such licensing organizations because they’re the vehicles through which songwriters and composers are compensated for the public performances of their music. BMI operates on a not-for-profit basis and distributes 90 cents of every dollar in licensing fees back to its affiliates. That means even if musicians play their own music, they can register their sets and be paid through the BMI Live program.

Another common misconception is that, if musicians are playing live music, they’re responsible for paying their own public performance fees. This is also not true. Just as a bar or restaurant owner wouldn’t ask their bartender to secure the liquor license, it’s not up to the musicians to secure the music license. It’s like any other license a business owner must have, and even if the musicians are hired as independent contractors, the responsibility for licensing can’t be passed on to the performers.

Jessica Frost – BMI

Licensing the music you use will not only protect your business, it will also help ensure the continued creation of great music for you—and all of us—to play and enjoy.


Jessica Frost is executive director of industry relations for Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI). Have other questions? Give BMI a call at (888) 689-5264 to find out more or visit