Music Licensing & Gyms

In 2015, I was fined $10,000 for illegal use of licensed music. Honestly, it could have been so much worse. I first received a call from one of the Performance Rights Organizations (PROs) and then a letter. They meant business. I’m fairly certain that my response was “What the $@&*$#!” - and by “$@&*$#”, I mean FUCK! I quickly sent it over to my lawyer, whose response was roughly the same, but he concurred. This was a completely legitimate fine. The gym I was operating was running music through Pandora and Spotify at the time. Classes were being taught, people were working out, and trainers were kicking people’s butts, all illegally.

I learned the hard way that if you’re making money while someone else’s music is being played, you better be damn sure that you’ve paid the licensing fees.

Photo by Trust "Tru" Katsande on Unsplash

Like most other businesses, gyms are required to pay for music through special subscriptions or paying the music associations directly. This does not - I repeat - DOES NOT mean Spotify, Pandora, or Apple Music can simply be plugged and played during your class at the gym. Those subscriptions are for personal use, not commercial use. These services do not include an agreement with the licensing association’s PROs to play music publicly. Nope, not even Spotify Premium.

PROs collect licensing fees from users (that’s you!) to pay the copyright owners. There are three PROs in the United States:

These PROs specifically represent various songwriters and copyright owners. Paying one organization does not mean that you’re covered by all. These three companies work independently from one another. Each company sells the public performance licenses that represent their different copyrights and make it possible for businesses like gyms, coffee shops, restaurants, stores, dance studios, and bars to play music.

Copyright laws require that users get permission from the creator of the music in order to play it. People should get paid for their work, right? Going to the gym, putting your headphones on, and listening to your favorite Pandora station isn’t an issue. What’s the distinction? You’re not making money from other people at the gym while playing that music during your own workout. It becomes an issue when a fitness facility to use those same personal subscriptions for public use, whether it’s a group fitness, yoga, or a personal training client.

So it’s essentially like this: If you want to play a song by Snoop Dogg in your gym, and you haven’t received Mr. Dogg’s permission, you’re violating copyright laws. Why? Copyright law gives copyright holders certain exclusive rights. The owner of a song's copyright controls the right to make public performances of that song. Playing Gin and Juice in your gym is considered a public performance, whether or not he’s actually there. It’s his music, and you’re making money off of it.

Without obtaining the licensing for the music you choose to play, you can be held liable for damages from as little as $750 up to a maximum of $150,000 PER SONG PLAYED. Do these organizations really go after small businesses? Yes. And I found out the hard way.

There are a few ways to avoid paying these fees. NOLO.com is a site which provides some options for small businesses to avoid these fees, but they aren’t really that feasible in a gym setting. Such as:

  • Play the radio for locations under 2000 square feet

  • Play classical music 

  • Play copyright-free music

  • Play only original music

Like I said, not very feasible in a gym setting.

So what should you do?

  1. Pay the annual fees for each of the PROs.

  2. Choose a streaming service and be sure to read the fine print to understand where and how you are permitted to play that music.

Music is essential to most gym environments, whether you’re a group fitness instructor or a personal trainer. The big box gyms typically have this covered, but knowing what you as an individual trainer or a smaller fitness facility might be liable for is extremely important. When in doubt, do your research!