Is it Illegal to Play Music in Yoga Classes?
In 2003, when I first started teaching yoga, I remember laboring over my playlists and meticulously burning each one to a CD. It is clearly illegal to use bootlegs in a commercial setting, but what was I supposed to do? I was a 25-year-old yoga bum, and I needed some tunes.
Fast-forward to today. Every yoga teacher I know uses music in his or her classes. Most either stream from Spotify or use pre-purchased (or pirated) tracks from their phone or computer. This too is illegal, but what’s a yoga bum to do?
Bad news. This might get you into legal trouble soon.
Enter music licensing. Studios around the world (but mostly in the US) are being served with cease and desist letters, often coupled with hefty fines. It’s become quick and easy for law firms to find yoga studios, restaurants, bars, and hair salons online. Within minutes, they can determine if they are using music illegally (many studios, for example, post their playlists on their website), and then go after them with the threat of legal action.
Why are they going after little guys such as yoga studios? The answer is simple: Because they can. Before it was too challenging to seek them out, but now it’s super simple, and many studio owners receive those letters and pay up.
Q: Should you pay?
Q: Are you in the wrong if you play music without a license?
Q: Is it really stealing?
From a purely legal standpoint, the answer to all three questions is probably ‘yes.’ Playing music without a license in a commercial setting is technically illegal. From a modern-day, ‘information is free’ perspective, the answer is less straightforward.
Almost every major online platform today (YouTube, Facebook, Instagram) built its company using content they didn’t own the rights to, including music, and somehow, all sins have been forgiven.
So what should you do? What is the right thing to do?
I can’t answer those questions for you, but what I can tell you is that I’ve never met a yoga teacher who felt good about stealing from musicians. In many ways, the financial and career struggles of musicians and yoga teachers are much the same, so most people I know wish only the best for the artists they love.
But… but… but… we’re just yoga teachers. These are classes with 8, 12, or 30 people maximum. Sometimes you’re playing random indie music or instrumental stuff, other times you’re playing pop or EDM. How would you even attempt to be 100 percent legal in terms of licensing?
My suggestion is to do your best to stay legal. With that in mind, here’s what I know and what I suggest (albeit this is not legal advice).
If you don’t want to publicly share your playlists, that’s fine. Playlists are hard to create and they make a class special, I understand, but at least share specific songs when students ask. This way your class promotes the artists you’re featuring.
Three Performing Rights Organizations (PROs) license the public performance rights to most songs in the US: ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC. For $100-$500 a year, you can purchase legal rights for ASCAP and SESAC music, but not BMI music—you have to do that one on your own (or take the risk and leave it out). Will this protect you and your places of employment from lawsuits? It might. At the very least, it shows goodwill, which can go a long way.
Remember, a letter from a lawyer is just a letter. It’s not a lawsuit—yet. The harsh reality is that a court case like this would cost one of the Performing Rights Organizations tens of thousands of dollars, and they would probably never collect a dime from you. This is why 90 percent of the time, legal matters are settled out of court. Knowing this, take a breath, respond to the letter, and work on a creative (low or no cost) solution.
In theory, a studio that is less than 2,000 square feet (185 square meters) is exempt from licensing fees. Like all things legal, this is not set in stone and is open to both interpretation and legal dispute. The main thing to remember is that size absolutely does matter. While it’s technically illegal for a yoga teacher to play Bon Iver during Savasana in the park, this situation falls into the same gray area as jaywalking.
The Performing Rights Organizations are chasing Spotify much more than they are chasing you. Spotify is the 800-pound gorilla in the industry. In an attempt to do right by artists, Spotify has devised a business plan with very well chosen playlists and the option to import playlists. Does this mean you’re 100 percent covered by using this plan? I doubt it, but it seems very likely Spotify will figure this out, and we’re currently using this in my studios.
Some studios have scrapped music altogether. Others only play music from local artists they know, from whom they have permission. This is a little too drastic for me, but it’s certainly the most conservative (and fair) route to take.