Do Restaurants & Bars Need to License Music?

Thinking about hosting live music? Make sure your restaurant or bar is licensed so you can protect yourself from copyright infringement lawsuits. Let me run a scenario by you really quick.

It’s Tuesday night. Your bar has been struggling to bring people in at this point in the week so you decide to book your favorite Michael Jackson/Metallica cover band “Mike-tallica”. Mike-tallica just finished playing “Billie Jean” and is moving into “Master of Puppets”. You look around and see your bar is filled with happy listeners plus drinks in their hands. Your Tuesday night is a huge success and you decide to keep live music on a weekly basis.

Fast forward a month. You go through your mail, flipping through the usual bills and ads. You go past your electric bill and find a letter from ASCAP. It’s a legal notice. ASCAP is suing you for $15,000 for playing 20 Michael Jackson and Metallica songs that you don’t own the rights to. There’s no way you can afford to pay that and keep your bar afloat. And that is just from the first Tuesday night you hosted live music.

This is why you need to protect yourself and buy the rights to the music being played at your venue.

DISCLAIMER: This article is not offering legal advice and should not be taken as such. You are advised to do your own due diligence and or speak to an attorney when making decisions about whether or not you need music licensing.

What licenses do I need?

How can you avoid being the owner in the story above? You’ll need to protect yourself by getting rights to the music being played at your venue. There are 3 main music licensing organizations. ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC. You’ll need to sign up with these organizations to receive the rights to the music you want to have played. You’ll be charged by each organization annually depending on the size of your bar, amount of speakers, whether the music being played is live or prerecorded, and whether you’ll be charging a cover. The amount charged is used to pay royalties to musicians that are part of these 3 main organizations.

Note that these 3 main organizations do not cover all songs, but most. Your musicians can look up and see if their setlist is covered by your licenses. If not, they will not be able to play that song in your establishment.

Frequently Asked Questions About Music Licensing

Why aren’t the musicians responsible for paying the licensing fees?

The venue is responsible for paying the licensing fees as they are the ones benefiting from having live music in their venue. 

How Much will it cost to buy a license from all 3 organizations?

It can range anywhere from $1500 to $10000 depending on the size of your venue, amount of speakers and other considerations.

What should I do if I receive a demand letter from a Performance Rights Organization demanding payment, even though I haven’t played any music I don’t have the rights to?

Speak with an attorney as soon as you can. The Organization will continue to demand payment, so don’t sit back and hope that the problem will go away.

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