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Unsung Heroes: 3 Things You Need to Know About Music Licensing in the Restaurant Industry

Thursday, January 7, 2016  
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By Libby Lussenhop

You might have the speaker system, the music streaming service, and the auxiliary equipment to play songs in your restaurant, but are you missing one crucial element? Music licensing can’t be seen, heard, or locked away in a back office filing cabinet…but if you’re playing music in your bar or restaurant, it should be a part of your daily operations. 

For restaurants, music can be your customer’s first impression of your establishment. Your service and products are important, of course, but music can support and shape your business by setting an atmosphere and a pace of life.

Jessica Frost is senior director of industry relations for Broadcast Music Incorporated (BMI). She works on sales and customer relations with a focus on business relations, which means she works with many restaurant associations to make sure their members understand the need for a music license.

There are three key things to keep in mind about restaurants, the music industry, and the value of a songwriter’s craft.

1. No matter how accessible music is these days, you still have to have a license if you plan to play music publicly.

A lot has changed about music in the electronic age, you can listen to anything for free on the web, and you can copy entire music albums from one device to another, but one thing remains the same. The one consistent trend in music is that the creators of music deserve to be compensated for their work. 

This applies to bars and restaurants, as well as television, radio stations, and more. BMI is an American performing rights organization, or a PRO. They represent songwriters, composers, and music publishers to make sure they are paid for their work whenever their music is played or performed in a public place. “The BMI approach is that we spend a lot of time educating the business owners about the value of music,” Jessica Frost explains. “If we encounter a business that isn’t licensed, we work hard to explain the need for a music license and why songwriters need to get paid. We help them through the process of getting licensed.”

While BMI’s approach is “education first,” a failure to obtain a license could end up in court. 

“The majority of business owners do the right thing and secure a license,” Jessica comments, “but a small percentage end up on the legal route.” It’s important to understand that litigation is costly for both the defendant and the business in question, so it’s best to obtain a license and play music the right way.


2. It’s not just about the legal risk that a restaurant assumes if it’s not licensed; songwriters simply deserve to be paid for their work.

The professionals at performing rights organizations don’t want to take anybody to court; they are in the business of protecting songwriters because they believe in the value of their work and want their music to be publicly performed. 

“I was raised with a deep appreciation for the craft of songwriting,” Jessica explains. “Songwriters are the ‘unsung heroes.' They might be behind the scenes, but without them, the brilliant, award-winning artists we know and love would have nothing to sing in the first place.” 

A songwriter’s creative work is protected through royalties that come from establishments that play those works either as live performances or recorded versions. “Anytime a song is played publicly; the songwriter is owed a performance rights royalty. At BMI, 85 cents of every dollar goes back to the songwriter,” Jessica Frost specifies. “We represent the interest of our songwriters, composers, and music publishers and make every effort to ensure they receive payment for their creative work.” 


3. It’s easy to obtain and maintain a music license. 

BMI is an example of a performing rights organization that makes it especially easy to obtain a license to play a wide variety of music. They represent more than 700,000 songwriters, which means they protect more than 10.5 million musical works. The exciting fact is that a license gives any restaurant owner or operator the right to play all the songs in BMI’s catalog. 

BMI is also associated with state and national restaurant associations; they offer discounts to allied restaurants thanks to these associations. As an owner of a bar or restaurant, you would first go to On this page, you can find applications for licenses, a place to pay invoices, and ways to contact BMI for additional help.

Here is a quick look at the costs associated with a blanket license:

  • The minimum fee paid is $363 per year;
  • The average cost of a license is $800 per year;
  • The license provides flexibility in that you can change your music license up to four times a year
  • The annual fee is based on the size of your establishment and the frequency of the music performed 

The process is simple, and the results are incomparable: you pay songwriters for their honest work, and you no longer risk legal repercussions (as you would if you were not licensed). 

The takeaway is to get a music license and support the songwriters whose work is featured at your restaurant.

A restaurant is a business, yes, but operating a restaurant is also a craft. Artistry and creativity play a huge role in feeding your customers—and artistry and creativity are key components of songwriting as well. As Jessica puts it, “I wouldn’t walk into a restaurant, order, eat a meal, and then get up and leave without paying.” The songwriter probably won’t be seated at one of your tables every time their song is played in the restaurant, they probably won’t be there to hold you accountable for what you owe them...but they deserve to be paid for their artistry. 

Songwriters spend time, energy, and money honing their craft—just like you and your fellow restaurateurs. You’ve painstakingly shaped every component of your business; songwriters make that same effort. They support your business by helping you set an atmosphere and tone for your restaurant; return the favor by getting a license and paying them for their hard work.

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