We get asked this question frequently from managers and owners of small and medium-size businesses: “Should I be using any of the new online music apps for my in-store music?”

There are lots of apps and web sites that are getting loads of publicity and buzz.  People are using computers, iPads and mobile phones to listen to music from Spotify, iHeartRadio, Slacker, Last.fm, Pandora, Soundcloud, and others.  Are these apps and web sites OK to play in your business for your customers and guests? Is this a better way for restaurants, coffee shops, retail stores and salons to get their in-store music?  With few exceptions, the answer is “definitely no.”

Consumer music services, such as those listed above and including Sirus/XM, do not include public performance licenses for businesses, unless they are specifically bundled as part of a business service from a commercial music services dealer. U.S. copyright laws specify that any music played “outside a normal circle of family and friends” is considered a public performance (meaning recorded, not live performance), which requires licensing in most circumstances.

This public performance is why there’s a difference in cost between music services for private individual use and business use. If you are using a consumer online music service your business may be violating the service’s terms-of-use and, worse, may be liable for copyright infringement.

I use Pandora at home. Can I play it in my business?

Pandora is good for personal music listening and music discovery, but its terms of use say “for personal non-commercial purposes only.” That means the Pandora you subscribe to on your personal computer is not legal for in-store play. You’d need to subscribe to Pandora-for-business using an account with their licensed dealer. Many businesses are in violation of the terms and copyright laws by playing the consumer version of Pandora in their store, restaurant or business.

Why do we need music licenses anyway?

Music licenses are the way songwriters and performers get paid for their work. If a store or restaurant is playing the music that is audible to the general public, chances are high that a music license is needed. License fees make their way back to the songwriters. By paying music license fees, the people who make the music can make a living.

So the next time you read about how many people are jumping on to iHeartRadio, Slacker, Last.fm, Pandora, Songza, Grooveshark or Rdio to listen to music, remember that they’re doing that in the privacy of their own ears. These new internet outlets streaming music are going after individuals, not businesses, and are mostly not designed or licensed for in-store public use.

Want a better option? Use Custom Channels. Choose your music AND keep it legal and licensed for business.