Playing music legally at a gym

[This post covers playing music legally in both Canada and the US.]

I own a personal training gym where people come to “enjoy” working out with one of our trainers. We do our best to make it a fun experience, and part of that means we play music in the background. I used to create playlists from my own music collection, and then I moved up and created playlists from music I had downloaded (legally) from Google Play. While some clients poked fun at my playlists (arguably I am stuck in the 80s and 90s musically), for the most part the music that played in the background helped make their gym experience more enjoyable.

That’s how we operated back when I thought paying the $9.99/mo for Google Play was all I needed to play music legally at my gym. Then I learned about SOCAN, which is the licensing body for music in Canada. I’m a fan of keeping things above board, so I looked into how to play music at my gym legally.

Music licensing in Canada (scroll down for the US story)

Here’s an excerpt from the SOCAN website:

“A SOCAN licence gives you the freedom and flexibility to use virtually any music you want for your business or public event – legally, ethically, and easily. Without SOCAN, you would have to get permission and negotiate a royalty with every songwriter, lyricist, and music publisher whose work you intend to play (publicly perform) – a feat that most of us have neither the time nor the means to achieve.”

As a business owner, you would probably read that and think that paying SOCAN is all you have to do to play music legally in your gym, right? Not quite.

It turns out that SOCAN is not THE licensing body for music in Canada; it’s one of two licensing bodies for music in Canada. SOCAN represents music creators while Re:Sound represents music performers. SOCAN is aware that Re:Sound exists and that as a business owner you need to pay both SOCAN and Re:Sound to play music legally in your place of business. So why does their website say that a SOCAN license is all you need? Great question.

Here’s an excerpt from the Re:Sound website:

“Re:Sound is the Canadian organization, authorized by the Copyright Board of Canada, to provide you with the music licence(s) your business needs and help you understand the licensing process.

“Individual artists and record companies worldwide designate organisations, such as Re:Sound, to license businesses that use recorded music publicly. This allows businesses and broadcasters to deal with a one-stop-shop that can grant them a licence to play recorded music and ensure that licensing fees are distributed fairly and accurately to artists and record companies.”

Maybe they don’t understand what “one-stop-shop” means?

I don’t understand why neither SOCAN nor Re:Sound mentions that their license is part of what you need to play music legally at your business instead of saying that it is what you need.

This omission encourages businesses to inadvertently violate Canadian Copyright law and arguably takes money out of the pockets of the artists these organizations represent. I spoke with representatives from both SOCAN and Re:Sound and brought this to their attention. The person I spoke with at Re:Sound mentioned she would pass this along, while the person from SOCAN just noted that SOCAN and Re:Sound are working toward a joint payment option in the future, but didn’t seem concerned that their website claims a SOCAN license is all a business owner needs.

Full disclosure: there are actually more than two licensing bodies for music in Canada, and if you will be reproducing music in a product, then you also need licenses from CONNECT or SOPROQ and from CMRRA or sodrac (this page on the CONNECT website provides examples and links). If you just play music at your gym, then Re:Sound and SOCAN are the only two licenses you need.

Here is the SOCAN webpage with information for all use types and including a calculator and link to the application form. The fitness one is toward the bottom.

Here is the relevant page for a Re:sound licence. Note that if you do not have classes at your gym, then select the “background music” option and not the “fitness activities” option, and then on the next page, click on the calculator button and you will get an option for “background music use – fitness”.

Music licensing in the US: (scroll down to the summary if you are only interested in Canada)

At least my business isn’t in the US where you have to pay each of ASCAP, BMI, SESAC, and GMR for licensing. The reason there is more than one is that each represents different catalogues (I guess it’s catalogs?) of writers and composers. The person I chatted with from ASCAP noted that anti-monopoly rules in the US is why they can’t just have one.

Since each represents different songs, depending what music you are playing, you may not need to pay all four, but if you’re not going to pay them all, you want to be sure you’re only playing music represented by the ones you are paying. Each fo the four licensing companies in the US do have a searchable database of the music they represent, so if you have specific playlists you use and have the time to search for each song, you may very well be able to get licenses with only one or two of them. Or you may want to pick one and then use their database to only select songs from their catalog for your playlists.

Note the ASCAP page doesn’t include any option for fitness facility in their list of “all” licenses so presumably you’ll have to click the “don’t see your business type here” link and fill in their contact form.

Also note that the GMR “Obtain a license” button is just an email link versus an actual application.

Licensing summary:
To sum that up, if you’re in Canada you have to pay for two licenses to play music in your gym, and up to four if you’re in the US and then you’re good to play music in your gym. Or at least that is the case if you play digital downloads, CDs, tapes, records, and 8 tracks.

But what if you stream music? This is where it gets fun.

Streaming music services including Google Play and Apple Music note in their terms and conditions that they are for non-commercial use only. Meanwhile Spotify, Pandora (in the US), and Sirius XM (which offers satellite radio and streaming) each state that if you want to use their music for commercial purposes you have to subscribe to their business service. Spotify’s business arm is called either Soundtrack Business or Soundtrack Your Brand, but for simplicity, I’ll keep referring to it as Spotify. There’s a service in the US Called Rockbot that also provides streaming services for business. Rockbot aims to come to Canada soon.

Each of Spotify, Pandora, Sirius XM, and Rockbot charge a premium for their service, and a portion of what you pay covers the license that allows you to play music at your place of business. Sounds good right? And it is, unless you run a gym or other location involving physical activity.

The Canadian story of streaming: (scroll down for the US version)
According to the SOCAN representative I spoke with, in Canada licensing to play music in a gym is governed under Tariff 19 of the Copyright Act, but Soundtrack Business is licensed under Tariff 15, while Sirius for Business is licensed under Tariff 16. In other words, if you pay for Soundtrack Business or Sirius XM for Business in Canada, you are not properly licensed to play music at your gym.

Interestingly I discovered that my subscription to Sirius XM for Business was insufficient while researching legal alternatives to it. I wanted an alternative because I found their content frustrating. It was too many slow songs; too much dj chit-chat, and far too much repetition for my liking. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the “legal” service I was using isn’t actually legal for me. I went back to their website to see if I should have known this.

Here is what the website says about their business service:

“The music industry requires that any business playing music for the public to pay music royalties. We save you both time and money by paying all background music royalty fees including SOCAN and Re:Sound — costs you would otherwise incur if you use CDs, MP3s or regular radio for your overhead music.”

This is how their FAQ page addresses licensing:

“When music is played at a business for the enjoyment of patrons and others, this is deemed a “performance” by the music artist, for which a royalty fee must be paid to performance rights organizations such as SOCAN & Re:Sound.
For the convenience of our business customers, SiriusXM includes these royalties in the price of our commercial subscription plans, and pays the required royalties directly to the performance rights organizations on behalf of the businesses.”

What do you think? Should I have known that this doesn’t cover playing music at my gym? Now that I have researched the topic, I know there is a clue in the term “background music”. According to Canadian copyright laws, music for physical activity is not solely considered background music. I’m not sure it’s fair for Sirius to assume business owners should know that, or that the use of the term background music is enough. In fact I would argue that their website is misleading in regards to music for business.

In fact in order to find out if it is legal, I went to their terms of service, and while it made no mention of any exclusion for gyms, it does state that it is licensed under Tariff 16. Is it really fair to assume that a gym owner knows that Tariff 16 is insufficient licensing for a gym? I will restate that I believe their website is misleading. I will send this blog post to them and I hope they will consider adjusting the wording to specifically address the fact that their service does not cover use in a gym.

I asked the SOCAN representative if you could pay for one of these business solutions and then pay them (and Re:Sound) the difference in licensing cost between Tariff 19 and either 15 or 16 to avoid overpaying, and I was told that is not possible.

Note that Re:Sound operates slightly differently. For Re:Sound, if you operate fitness classes, then you are licensed under Tariff 6B. but if you don’t run classes and instead you play music in the background while your clients lift weights, that is covered under background music, which is Tariff 3. I believe that this means Sirius for Business would cover a gym for their Re:Sound licensing if they don’t have classes, but not if they do have classes. And either way, it doesn’t cover their SOCAN licensing.

Clear as mud?

The US story of streaming: (scroll down to the summary if you are only interested in Canada)

The story in the US is similar although the specifics are different. According to the ASCAP representative I chatted with, the Spotify, Pandora, and Sirius XM business options do not cover music in an environment with admissions. I asked what “with admissions” meant in the context of a gym and was told that because gyms charge a fee, additional licensing is required. While each of these businesses state the “with admissions” exclusion, none do so particularly clearly.

The US Sirius for Business page states that their “business service is the best choice for restaurants, offices, retail, and businesses of all types and sizes” and also has sample stations for “spa and fitness”. But if you read their terms of service, it includes the following:

“The Service is not authorized for use as an accompaniment to dancing, use by a DJ or use in connection with a business that charges an admission fee (such as nightclubs, bowling alleys, fitness centers, skate parks, etc.).”

So technically they are telling you that their service is not legal for a gym, but you sure have to dig deep to learn that. Is it fair to argue that suggesting specific stations to use for fitness implies that their service is legal for fitness? And what about their statement that their service is for “businesses of all types and sizes”? If I understand what “all types and sizes” means, and I think I do; I’d say that’s pretty misleading.

Pandora is the same:

“Playing music in a business over a loudspeaker is commercial use and requires specific music licensing. With a Mood Media account and media player you can now use Pandora to play music in your business for your customers”

Spotify is similar. Their website says:

“Spotify Premium and other consumer services are only licensed for consumers. Soundtrack Business not only gives you a service licensed for commerical use but music channels specifically created to suit businesses settings.”

True to their word, Soundtrack Business has 20 workout playlists that would be perfect for those of us who run gyms. Except that they list the “with admissions” exclusion in the licensing section of their help page. Is it appropriate to list workout playlists for a business service that is not legal to use for businesses that provide workouts?

Summarizing Streaming for business services
In other words, if you run a gym in Canada or the US and you are paying for any of the aforementioned music for business services, you do not have a sufficient license to play their music in your gym. It’s a little (a lot?) absurd.

Rockbot may be an exception. Their website states that you can use it for fitness – in fact they specifically list fitness as an industry for which you can use their music. I spoke with someone from Rockbot who told me that they do in fact have the specific licensing required to play music at a gym, although they are not licensed for music played in a class. Unfortunately the support section of their website still states that their service is not legal for a facility that charges admission. I suspect the person I spoke with is correct and they do have the proper licensing, but if that’s the case, how about updating your website? If I owned a gym in the US, I wouldn’t be comfortable playing Rockbot as long as their website specifically lists the exclusion for facilities with admissions. Hopefully they’ll update their website soon and then this won’t be a problem.

What’s a gym owner to do?
I was starting to think about dusting off my cd collection when I decided to find out if it is possible to use the non-business streaming services in a business environment if I pay the licensing fees directly. I assumed the answer would be no because of the aforementioned non-commercial use clauses, but when I read the Google Play terms of service more carefully I noticed two statements that suggested there may be wiggle room. Under the heading “no public performance“, the paragraph includes the line “except where such use would not constitute a copyright infringement“, and on a separate page that describes the licensing with their music partners, it notes that ” Unless authorised, any use of the works other than for the purpose of individual and private reproduction and use is prohibited.” This suggested to me that if I secure the rights, I might be able to use the service commercially.

To be certain, I contacted both Google Play and Apple Music, and in both cases, the customer support person that I chatted with stated that I am allowed to use their service to play music at my gym if I secure the licensing to do so. Hallelujah, it is possible to play streaming music legally at a gym!

Screenshot 2017-12-04 15.20.51 google

Screenshot 2017-12-04 15.59.43 apple

I am currently filling out the paperwork to get my licenses from SOCAN and Re:Sound. The calculations are based on the number of clients who come to the gym, and it appears that for my business, the cost to pay for the licenses and also pay for Google Play Music will work out to about the same amount I was paying for Sirius for Business. I suspect if you have a large facility (mine is fairly small at 1800 square feet) or have a lot of people coming through your doors (we typically have 2 to 6 clients in the gym with one or two trainers at a time), then you should expect to pay more than you would for any of the “for business” services.

What about radio?
In Canada, you can play the radio (not internet radio) at your gym without any need for licensing. In the US, you can play the radio without licensing if your gym is smaller than 2000 square feet, you have 6 or fewer speakers, and there are not more than 4 speakers in any one room.

“Too-long-didn’t read” summary:

  1. If you’re playing music in your gym, you need to pay commercial licensing. Just playing your own music, or paying for a personal streaming service like Google Play, Apple Music, Spotify, Pandora, or Sirius XM is not legal.
  2. The “for business” streaming services that I reviewed (Sirius XM, Pandora, and Spotify) do not provide adequate licensing for you to play music in your gym. The licensing that they collect is for background music, but the music licensing bodies in both Canada and the US define music in a gym as requiring additional licensing.

    Rockbot appears to be a legal option for gyms, although their website still notes that it is not.

  3. If you pay your licensing fees directly, you can use Google Play Music or Apple Music in your gym. You can also play your own CDs, digital downloads, tapes, or even 8 tracks if you’re super-retro.
  4. In Canada you have to pay two licensing organizations (SOCAN and Re:Sound), and in the US you have to pay up to four licensing organizations (ASCAP, BMI, GMR, and SESAC). Each of these organizations has a website where you can go to get your license applications.
  5. It appears that neither Google Play nor Apple Music have a license with GMR, which means if you are in the US and using Google Play or Apple Music in your gym, you aren’t playing any GMR songs, and therefore would not require a GMR license. I contacted GMR to ask, but have not heard a response yet. I will update if I do. Of course, Google or Apple could secure rights with GMR at any time, in which case you would need to pay GMR.
  6. In Canada, you can play the radio (not internet radio) at your gym without any need for licensing. In the US, you can play the radio without licensing if your gym is smaller than 2000 square feet, you have 6 or fewer speakers, and there are not more than 4 speakers in any one room.

Elsbeth Vaino is a personal trainer in Ottawa, Canada, who is just geeky enough to spend hours uncovering the layers and layers of complexity involved in playing music at a gym.

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2 thoughts on “Playing music legally at a gym”

  1. You’d have to ask spotify specifically. Because they have a business version, their “for non-commercial use only” requirement may mean that streaming them commercially even when you’ve paid your dues would violate their terms of service. From a music licensing perspective, this would be fine though.

  2. Hey just a question re: point 3 of the “Too-long-didn’t read” summary: Does Spotify streaming fit under this rubric too? In other words if the gym I work at pays licensing fees directly cam it’s trainers stream spotify premium?

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