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September 22, 2009

Why ASCAP Licenses Local Bars & Restaurants–10 Things You Need to Know

Imagine this scenario.

A local bar or restaurant uses music to enhance the atmosphere and draw in customers. No one wants to sit in silence. And live music pulls in a nice crowd that spends money at the bar.

The owners never question the need for a liquor license. But it's a different story when it comes to the license required to play music under copyright.

The owners dispute the need to pay. They say music is not generating revenue for them. They try to push off responsibility to the band. They claim they can't afford a license that might amount to a few hundred dollars a year. They say they'll just stop playing music altogether.

As an organization that licenses the public performance of music, ASCAP has encountered resistance like this many times over its 95-year history. ASCAP was founded by songwriters who heard their music played all over New York City–yet never saw a dime from the money they helped generate for those early 20th Century bars and restaurants.

Like the quality of the décor, food, beverages and service, music contributes to the success and profitability of a business. The people who created that music have a right to share in the profit. And ASCAP exists to make this possible.

Sometimes ASCAP's licensing operations are misunderstood, most often by local owners trying to avoid being licensed. Sometimes these misunderstandings are with bar or restaurant patrons who are also local songwriters. Yet the very licensing process that some people question has supported music creators for generations.

So let's get back to the basics. Here are 10 things every music creator should know about why licensing is good for those who make music and good for those who want to play it.


  1. The Right of Public Performance is Your Right: People who earn a living from creating music largely do so by licensing the rights granted to their musical compositions by copyright law. A significant right embodied in a copyrighted musical work is the right of "public performance." This right allows people who create music to make a living from their art and the use of their property.

  2. This Right (and the Law) Has Been Around for Decades: A Supreme Court decision in 1917 confirmed ASCAP's right to license performances of its members' music in bars and restaurants, and ASCAP has been doing so ever since. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote: "If music did not pay, it would be given up. Whether it pays or not, the purpose of employing it is profit and that is enough." Given this history, it's tough for local businesses to plead ignorance, or claim that the payment is frivolous or unwarranted.

  3. Providing a Service to Music Creators and Users : It's critical to recognize that ASCAP provides a service to both music creators and music users. Most businesses that use music have a legal obligation to obtain permission from the copyright owner. The ASCAP license makes it incredibly easy, efficient and affordable to legally play millions of songs.

  4. The Blanket License Enables Creation and Performance : For more than 90 years, a simple legal structure called a blanket license has enabled countless business and organizations to legally play millions of pieces of music–and has enabled equally countless creators of music (songwriters, composers, lyricists and more) to be compensated for the performance of their work. By its design, the structure of the blanket license enables licensed venues to pay an annual flat fee with the lowest transactional cost–without having to take on the time-intensive process of tracking and reporting on every song played.

  5. One License Equals 8.5 Million Works, and Counting : By paying an annual licensing fee to ASCAP, a venue is legally entitled to play any of the pieces from the world's largest musical repertory. This means being able to publicly play more than 8.5 million musical works at any time, as much as they want.

  6. Payments Are Based on Individual Needs : ASCAP determines license fees individually based on how a business uses music and its size, capacity, etc. Smaller operations may pay as little as a dollar or two a day.

  7. It's a Normal, Expected Cost of Doing Business : For most businesses playing copyrighted music publicly, an ASCAP license is a normal and expected cost of doing business. Today, ASCAP provides licenses for over 300,000 businesses in exchange for the right to use songs and musical works created by the songwriters, composers, lyricists and music publishers who are ASCAP members.

  8. It's Also a Question of Fairness : The vast majority of establishments approached by ASCAP recognize that using music is vital to the total service they offer–both in attracting customers and in driving revenue. Given this, w hy should one restaurant or bar in a given city be allowed to break Federal law, when others willingly comply? And how can one business claim music has no value to its bottom line, when tens of thousands acknowledge just the opposite?

  9. ASCAP Acts on Behalf of Music Creators : ASCAP is not some faceless corporate entity randomly demanding money from a local small business. It's not a monolith nor is it ‘big business.' ASCAP–which stands for The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers–is a society owned and operated, by and for, people who create music. Its sole purpose is to support and promote the creation and performance of music.

  10. Songwriters are Often the Smallest of Small Business Owners : For music creators, the power of blanket licensing makes the difference. Songwriters have the right and ability to receive compensation from uses of their music in places they've never visited and venues they don't even know exist. And the more businesses that meet their obligations to pay for their use of music, the more that the economies of scale become a win-win for everyone involved.