9 Common Q&A’s About Using Royalty Free Background Music in a Public Venue

Questions and Answers signpostEvery week, my royalty free music business gets at least one call asking about using royalty free music as background music in public venues. Here you will find the answers to some of our most frequently asked questions. If you are a business already using or considering using background music, this will help you understand the issues surrounding playing music in public.

Q1. PRS visited my premises to tell me that I have to pay a music license…Is this a scam?

Answer: No, this is not a scam. There are many PRO’s globally and PRS is the UK PRO (performance royalty organisation). Composers and music publishers can register their works with a PRO to potentially earn extra income when their music is played, performed or bradcast to the public.

PRO’s impose license fees that are divvied up between the artists / composers who have registered their musical works. This is not an exact science as it would be impractical for PRO’s to monitor every play of every song, therefore, a sample or consensus is taken to decide who gets a share. Inevitably, the mainstream artists get the larger share with many independent composers getting little or nothing.

Q2. Why now?…I have been at these premises for years without having to pay a PRS license.

Answer: The system of monitoring what music is being played is not very efficient; it relies on representatives of the PRO tracking down the venues to establish whether they are playing music. Or, it relies of conscientious venue owners contacting the PRO for information about the license. If you have been playing music for years without paying a license you have simply slipped through the net. This is not a new scheme.

Q3. Why do I have to pay a license fee to the PRO?

Answer: You don’t have to pay it! Stop playing music and they will not be able to get you to pay. However, if you continue to play music that is registered in their database without paying their license fee, they can take legal action against you. They are not the police so they have no authority to arrest or close your venue down, but they can sue you in a court of law.

Q4. OK, so I pay their license…Where does the money go after that?

Answer: After the PRO has deducted their percentage, the majority of the collected money should go back to the artist, composer, record label or publisher. The reality is that the impractical matter of monitoring individual plays means that the bigger, more mainstream artists and major labels are the biggest beneficiaries. The independent composer is often likely to get little or nothing.

Q5. How does the PRO know what music I am playing?

Answer: They know what music is playing by visiting your venue. Obviously, they can’t do this frequently and therefore most of the time they have no idea what is playing. I know of a large restaurant owner that in 5 years of running his business had only one visit from a PRO representative. The representative apparently sat there drinking coffee and taking notes of what was being played for an hour.

Q6. Does this system work?

Answer: It depends who you ask… Not very well in my opinion. It keeps the big record companies and labels happy, but in most cases is little help to smaller independent composers. It worked well historically, however, in recent years music creation and distribution has changed significantly and as a result, things will never go back to the way they used to be. In my opinion, there are numerous ways it could work better, but before any of this can happen, I believe that changes need to be made to PRO policies and copyright law. Personally, I think that the majority of control should be given to the composer / band. A subject for another blog!

Q7. How do the PRO’S calculate the license fee?

Answer: This I do not know the answer to. I have heard that it is done on a case by case basis depending on foot traffic, venue size etc. but I can not say for sure. I have heard that the fees can range drastically, but this is based on what people have told me.

Q8. Can I use royalty free music and avoid paying the license fee?

Answer: Yes, you can use royalty free music, however, this does not mean that the PRO won’t still try to charge you a license. Without going into too much detail, it depends on a number of factors and can be fraught with loop holes and grey areas. Personally, I think that it may be less hassle and in many cases cheaper just to pay the PRO’s license fee than completely restock yourself with royalty free music. In smaller venues, I have heard people being quoted annual fees of around 100 GBP. You would have to license a large amount of royalty free background music to provide enough listener variety and to be honest, as a royalty free music provider, we could not offer you many tracks for that amount of money.

Royalty free music is more suited to using one or more tracks in a product display, demonstration, presentation, trade show, corporate DVD etc. In such cases, the PRO element is not usually an issue when using royalty free music.

Q9. Are there any other alternatives for using music in my venue?

Answer: Yes, there are alternatives, but whether they work out more cost effective is a different matter. Here are some alternatives to consider.

Custom Written – If you need a small amount of music you could hire the services of a composer. The cost here will depend on the composer you choose, however, a single one-time payment could be easily negotiated.

100% Royalty Free Music – Most royalty free music is not exempt from performance issues as the composer of the music may have chosen to register with a PRO. However, some do not and if you can find music that is not registered with a PRO, you could use it in your venue on a royalty free music license. Ask your royalty free music vendor to point out non-PRO registered composers in their music library.

Creative Commons – Creative commons is a great modern movement that enables the composer, author or producer to decide what usage rights are given to the user. This makes using copyrighted material much easier. Many composers and bands that use creative commons licensing allow their music to be used in venues for a one-time fee or possibly for free.

There was a legal case where a Spanish venue owner was taken to court by the Spanish PRO (SGAE) for using CC music in his venue. The outcome: He won against the PRO! Here is the link to that interesting case. http://creativecommons.org/weblog/entry/5830

Summing up

Most of the companies that contact me are restaurants, cafes, salons, small shops, or bar owners. Their big issue is the fact that they may need play background music, but do not wish to pay the PRO license fee. Unfortunately, there is currently a very limited range of additional options.

Regardless of your views or my views on this, it seems that we are currently stuck with an archaic system created by a traditional mainstream music industry…Or, at least until somebody comes up with a competitive method or system that is more beneficial for all parties.

I have heard some very clever and interesting suggestions and I look forward to the day when there is a wide spread product or license that provides a definitive and concise answer to some of these questions. Whether it is the PRO’s that come up with a better solution or whether it is a new radical system, I certainly welcome a positive change on this matter that is less confusing for all concerned.

Feel free to spread this article using the social networking widget below and I look forward to reading your comments.

If you are looking for royalty free music, please feel free to browse Media Music Now’s online library of royalty free background music.

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  1. says

    Is there a time limit for music to be publicly available without having royalty fees?
    I know for written works of art, there is a limit of something like 50 years.


  2. Uri7 says

    it is very important to read the fine print when looking at Royalty Free music companies. Some wont give you a clear view for what you are paying for especially the free ones. AVOID free royalty free music sites that only list tracks as free, they are most likely stolen. I did not no however that lifetime doesn’t always means a lifetime but like Lee said I’m sure its not simple.

    I know this post is old but just wanted to mention this tip for future viewers.

    Also check out http://www.smartsound.com, they have an opportunity to earn free royalty Free tracks and high quality pre-paid licensing on music

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