Scene: late at night. Your favorite bar. Which is, inexplicably, pumping one of the Top 40 through the speakers. About to finish your last drink — but you don’t want to go out on this note. Fighting against the mind-numbing rhythm, you pull your phone from your pocket and gaze longingly at your most-loved playlist. It has old school funk. It has Michael Jackson. It has The Champs’ Tequila.

Your friend nudges you. “Ask to put it on.”

So you sidle up to the bar and ask the bartender to play a song.

“I’m not a DJ,” he says. And winks.

He plugs your phone into the sound system and then: sirens.

It’s the copyright police.

Okay, so it’s not the copyright police, but the police police. And there aren’t any sirens because they’re just coming in for a post-shift drink.

But here’s the thing. Even if you’ve bought a song, you don’t own it. You are merely granted the rights for personal use. And while that doesn’t mean listening to the song in a room by yourself with the door shut so no one else can hear it, it does mean no commercial use.

“When you buy an audio file, software, or CD, even those specifically marketed for business purposes, the purchase price covers only your private listening use, regardless of how they are labeled. Once you decide to play any copyrighted music publicly, you need permission from the copyright owners.”

First of all, a disclaimer: this is not legal advice. Everything below is based on my own research, but to be certain of the laws and legal requirements, you should chat with your lawyer.

That said, here’s what I know.

Commercial Use of Music

Music falls under commercial use any time it is played in a business. There are some exemptions for radio and television broadcasts, but the stipulations are pretty narrow: (Source)

  • Audio performances are communicated on not more than 6 loudspeakers (no more than 4 in one room)
  • Visual performances are communicated on not more than 4 devices (no more than 1 device in one room, and the screen is not larger than 55 inches)
  • There is no charge
  • The performance is not transmitted beyond the establishment
  • The performance itself is licensed

If you have an analog radio or a portable television behind the bar, you’re probably fine. Same for music in the public domain, which is anything published before 1922. (So Danny Boy.)

For everything else, you have to pay for the right to use it. Think of it this way: everyone has a right to be compensated for their work — musicians included.

Getting a License:

Getting a license is pretty simple. First, find the application form on the PRO website. They’ll ask you questions like whether your bar features live bands, DJs, and karaoke; whether it plays recorded or streaming music, AM/FM radio, or TV; whether it has a non-digital jukebox; whether it has a cover charge, and total occupancy. They might also ask if your bar is part of a chain or located inside a hotel, museum, sports arena, bowling center, or theme park.

Answer the questions and make a payment — not that expensive; “an ASCAP license could cost as little as $2 per day” (Source: — and bam. You’re done.

Creating a Playlist

If you don’t want to wade through the PRO’s million-song database, background music service providers like Pandora, Spotify, and SiriusXM are other good options. Each offers a business service, which grants the right for use in a business establishment and takes care of licensing fees.

These providers are also super affordable:

  • Pandora is $26.95 per month,
  • Spotify is $34.99 per month
  • SiriusXM is $24.95 per month.

They may also be able to provide licensing for live performances — but be sure to check first.

Live Music

Whether you have cover bands or musicians performing their own work, a license is required even if you’re paying them. PROs “are the vehicles through which songwriters and composers are compensated for the public performances of their music.” An original song is likely still covered by the Copyright Act, and covers of music written by someone other than the performer require permission.

Permit Considerations

Aside from licensing fees, you may also need a permit for live performances. In Los Angeles, for example, there’s a permit that covers everything from comedians to karaoke (but not dancing — that’s another permit).

Booking the Bands

The next challenge would be booking bands, and it can be difficult to find good bands consistently. A booking agent can do the work for you. (Find a big list here

Pay Then Play

While it can seem like a hassle to pay for licensing when you could just hook up your iPad and play whatever’s on Pandora, it’s a hassle that’s worth the time. A small investment in a paid service can set you up with a great music solution for your bar without a lot of effort. Plus, you want to get paid for your work and so do musicians!

And whatever you do, you must cover your legal bases (fines for playing music without a license can run from $750 to $30,000, or more if the infringement is found to be willful). It’s simple, affordable — and worth it.

“Music is the universal language of mankind,” said Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Play a song and pour another one — that’s definitely a language we can all speak.

Meaghen Hale

Meaghen does a lot of work online: writing, teaching, editing. "The life!" you might say. "You never have to leave the apartment!" True. But there came a time when her pyjamas simply needed to be washed and the imperial stare of her laptop became too much to bear. So she ventured out into the world and then back inside – to a bar. And then she jumped behind it. Now she pours pints and mixes martinis for a group of regulars, and spends her free time experimenting with, learning about, and drinking craft cocktails.