Background Music: Looking at the Legality of Playing Music In-Store

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David Brewster of Edmonds Bookshop in Edmonds, Washington, recently talked to Bookselling This Week about music licensing and the legality of the use of background music in retail shops like independent bookstores.

Brewster, who first encountered the background music industry in 1997, told BTW that he is very familiar with the scope of the business, from music licensing and programming to technology and platforms, as he worked for both Starbucks and PlayNetwork, the coffee chain’s background music supplier. He and his wife Mary Kay Sneeringer have owned Edmonds Bookshop in Washington since 2001.

While booksellers might not know the legality of playing music in-store, it’s important to learn, Brewster said. “Just like authors, songwriters and musical artists are creators and they want to be compensated for their creation,” he said.

He compared playing unlicensed music for customers to making copies of a library book. “It’s basically stealing,” he said, adding that often retailers aren’t aware this is the case.

The important distinction to be made when it comes to playing music, said Brewster, is that music is typically being created for an audience or for personal listening, not necessarily for customers in a store. This means that streaming music from a personal device, even music that has been paid for, is considered illegal when it’s being played for the enjoyment of customers. “Essentially,” he said, “retailers are providing an entertainment for their customers.”

Because of that, there are licensing costs associated with playing music for customers that must be paid to legally play music in-store, and three Performing Rights Organizations (PROs) — Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI); the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP); and SESAC — handle that process.

While booksellers could potentially pay fees for the music they’d like to play to those organizations individually, Brewster said he finds it’s much easier to find a third-party service to for music, such as PlayNetwork, which is what Edmonds Bookshop uses.

PlayNetwork, Brewster said, costs about $40 per month, a fee that covers the licensing costs for the music he’d like to play in-store. Each month, he receives a disc with music on it to play in-store using a CD-ROM and speaker; he has control over the music that goes on the disc, which allows him to create a curated listening experience for his customers in-store. The store’s PlayNetwork membership, he added, protects Edmonds Bookshop from being fined or sued by a music publisher or performing rights organization because he’s paying the proper licensing fees.

There are other services that work similarly, he added, including:

“Ninety-nine percent of the music you might want to play is available through these services,” he said. “It’s just a matter of interacting with your business music supplier to choose what you want to listen to in-store.”

What’s important to note, he added, is that there will almost always be some cost associated with legally playing music in-store. And while booksellers can play the radio in-store for free, “ads can break up the mood of what you’re trying to create with music,” he said.

“Having a curated list is important to creating an experience,” Brewster said. “We have a sense of what would work musically for our client base, and music services have those streams.”

Overall, Brewster said, paying attention to the legality of playing music in-store is in line with the ethos of independent business. “We as a community deeply care about and honor the value of intellectual property, and we have to think of music in the same way,” he said. “It’s a commodity like books, and we need to respect the value it reflects to its creators and owners.”