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When I started teaching yoga in 2008, I would literally map out my entire sequence, pose by pose, to sync with the crescendo of the songs on my playlist. Later, when I taught upwards of three classes a day, I made certain I had access to multiple playlists at all times. (Heaven forbid someone might take my class twice and hear a song repeated!)
MP3 players were the modus operandi back then for playing digital music. (The first generation of iPods fall into this category.) I had no qualms about receiving music files from friends or downloading music for free from YouTube.
It was only in the last few years that I became aware that playing music in public classes was legally questionable. The first time I was informed of it took place during a Zoom staff meeting for one of the studios where I teach. Another teacher asked if we could record our livestream classes to offer on-demand on the studio’s website, and a manager casually mentioned, “Well, you actually need a license to play music in public classes. Recording it would just be memorializing it.”
My initial reaction was, “Forget you, Big Music!” I mean, who will ever know?
But days later, I kept thinking about it. In researching copyright law, I learned that you do need a license to play music in a public setting. I had never purchased one before or been told I needed to, and based on how my manager answered the teacher’s question, I realized that the studios I taught for likely hadn’t either.
Suddenly the rebellious teenager inside of me became scared that she may have been doing something very wrong for a very long time. Was it stealing if I’m paying for the streaming services I use? Or if the local artists approve of my playing their music? Is it my fault as an individual teacher for not paying licensing fees? Or is that the responsibility of yoga studios? Who, exactly, is breaking the law? And where is the line?
What music copyright law states
Yoga teacher Alexandria Crow regularly shares posts on social media intended to spark conversation as well as critical thinking among her followers. Though she’s accustomed to reactivity, even she was baffled by the pushback to a recent post she wrote explaining that playing music in yoga classes could be a violation of copyright law and bring a fine of $150,000 per song.
Her followers, many of them yoga teachers, were outraged. Some accused her of being unnecessarily “negative” and “divisive.” Others announced that they were unfollowing her. “People’s reactions were so extreme,” says Crow.
Despite many commenters’ shock and dismay and others’ complete dismissal of the post, Crow’s assertions are accurate. Playing music in a setting where people are paying to attend when you have not purchased a license from the record label or performing right organization (PRO) that owns the music might be a violation of the law. So no, you won’t be fined for playing your Spotify playlist at a dinner party, as one commenter clapped back. But if you charge people to attend, then legally you need a license.
Harold Papineau, Esq., of the renowned entertainment law firm, King, Holmes, Paterno & Soriano, LLP, explains that there are varying degrees of infringement. “Statutory damages can range anywhere from $750 to $30,000 per infringement for non-willful copyright infringement, or up to $150,000 for willful copyright infringement,” says Papineau. Non-willful generally implies that the teacher or studio violated copyright law without knowing they were, whereas willful implies an awareness.
Though most yoga teachers are not aware of copyright laws, Papineau hypothesizes that playing music without permission in any business setting, such as a yoga studio, “would likely be considered willful” by the courts. He says the probability of a teacher being fined the maximum amount is low, although a fine of any amount is possible.
If you are recording yoga classes and sharing them through your website, Instagram Live, or YouTube, the violation may be even more complex. In these cases, Papineau explains, “you not only have a public performance issue, but also have a synchronization issue.” Synchronization is the agreement between the copyright owners and the business or instructor that the music can be saved in perpetuity in video form. (Hence the studio manager’s quip about memorializing the violation.)
In order to ethically play copyrighted music in a class that is recorded and played later, he advises, you’d have to go to the publisher of each song and request a license. This takes time and the publisher could deny the request.
What music copyright law means for teachers and musicians
Even after being made aware of these laws, many yoga teachers have still not deleted their Spotify app. Some feel entitled to play whatever music they like because they pay for the use of a streaming service. They may not realize that Spotify’s “Terms and Conditions” explicitly state that the service “is only for personal, non-commercial use.” These same terms apply for most streaming services, including Apple Music and Pandora.
A popular vinyasa teacher who asked not to be named feels that playing music in class gives the artists and record labels “free marketing.” In their perspective, it is not stealing but rather an exchange.
When made aware of the potential violation, another teacher said that she may start announcing that she doesn’t own the music she is about to play. But she did not indicate that she planned to change anything else about her approach to music.
A third teacher was surprised to hear that she may be harming musicians. She frequents indie rock and pop shows and had only been met with positivity when she told the musicians that she relied on their music in her classes.
Independent artist Egeman Sanli confirms that he is honored when he hears his music in public classes. Word of mouth is critical for Sanli, who has been recording music for almost fifteen years. People often find him and his music after asking their teacher about a song of his that was played during class or by following teachers who share their playlists.
But the number of people who have tracked him down through these methods are nominal compared to those who have benefited from practicing to his music. Many students don’t think to ask the teacher who played what song. (Think how many times you’ve left your mat after Savasana wondering about a certain track). Also, not every teacher shares their playlists. Although the music created by the musician as art and livelihood is being shared and enjoyed, the artist in this situation rarely benefits from it.
Sanli mentions that the royalties he receives from streaming services and Spotify are “abysmal.” He encourages teachers and studios to “champion your local artists,” reminding people to share about artists they like and tag them on social media.
Though small, licensing royalty checks still make a difference for musicians. A musician commenting on Crow’s post writes, “That royalty check is a big deal. The few hundred bucks you get actually means a lot. So yeah…License for the little guys please. It makes a difference.”
Sanli wishes there were better systems in place to ensure artists were paid, but he feels as though he “doesn’t have any other options” for getting his music out there without spending money on advertising, which can be quite pricey for someone who is not making money on their music in the first place. It can be a vicious cycle for independent artists.
Performers aren’t the only ones affected by copyright violations. The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), a performance rights organization which numbers more than 875,000 members, reminds fitness facilities and individual instructors of this through the FAQs on their website: “The songwriter is often not the same person as the recording artist who recorded the song.”
The likelihood of a record label showing up to a small studio with a bill seems unlikely. Although a well-known East Coast yoga studio (which can’t be named for legal reasons) once received a cease-and-desist letter related to the playing of music.
How to legally play music in your yoga classes
There are other avenues for you to continue playing music in your classes that don’t involve violating laws or ethics.
1. Get a license
Papineau advises securing a license from any of the many performing rights organizations such as ASCAP, Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI), Global Music Rights (GMR), and The Society of Composers, Authors, and Music Publishers of Canada (SOCAN). Licenses allow you unlimited access to each organization’s catalog of music. ASCAP has an entire section on their site devoted to licensing for dance studios and fitness facilities. This is also what most restaurants, bars, and nightclubs do.
The cost of these licenses seems to vary from $250 to $2000 per year, depending on a number of factors, such as the square footage of your business and number of participants. The ASCAP website states that licenses can “cost less than a bottle of water a day.”
2. Pay musicians to play live
One of yoga teacher Schuyler Grant’s motivations behind co-creating the Wanderlust festivals was to marry the worlds of music and yoga. She was“interested in the intersection between music and yoga, particularly as a way to lead pranayama,” or breathwork, says Grant. When she and her husband, Jeff Krasno, still ran the festivals, many classes would feature live musicians playing alongside the teachers. Grant has continued to use that model for in-person classes at the various studios she has run.
Keep in mind that there should be compensation for live musicians. Some artists will play in exchange for taking classes at a studio. Sanli usually deals with the studio to negotiate his fee, though if he is playing at an event, like a retreat, he will negotiate with the teacher directly.
3. Rely on royalty-free music
Let’s be honest: A lot of royalty-free music can be tinny and monotonous. The songs just don’t seem to hit in the same way as playing Beyoncé’s latest single during Surya Namaskar A (Sun Salutations). Artists like Kevin Macleod are changing that. Macleod “doesn’t believe in the possessive nature of the copyright system.” Through his website incompetech, the composer shares a wide array of music entirely free.
Pixabay is another well-known royalty free site, where you can search for music not unlike how you search for stock images. There are an abundance of options if you Google “royalty free music.”
4. Use a subscription service
The Yoga Alliance website has “A Crash Course in Yoga Music Licensing” page which explains that a subscription service, like SiriusXM Music for Business, “offers music with a license for public performance.” However, the SiriusXM site gives mixed messages on the topic. On the Music for Business page, it clearly states that licensing is “covered and paid for as part of your subscription,” but separately in their FAQs they state that businesses still need a license.As an alternative, YogiTunes is a fully licensed, free trade site.
Individual artists and DJs have also begun to share their libraries as subscription services. Tazdeen Rashid, or DJ Taz Rashid as he is known in the yoga and festival worlds, has a library of 800 songs. “I wanted to create a simple and very affordable platform with hundreds of tracks perfect for yoga, meditation, mindfulness practices, and fitness programs,” explains Rashid.
His motivation was to allow individual yoga teachers and small yoga studios to include quality music yet still monetize their offerings. The fees vary for individual teachers versus studios.
5. Share your playlist and ask students to listen on their own
When you’re teaching online, have students play their own streaming services from their own devices at home. Many yoga teachers share the playlist with students before class and then count down before everyone hits play so everyone is in sync. This also provides an option for students who prefer no music (or their own music) to practice in an environment to their liking. I once had a student tell me she kept one of my old playlists handy because she liked it better than any of my current ones.
6. Buy music directly from artists
Some artists offer links and QR codes where you can access their music directly. This supports musicians directly and can be appealing to those who are resistant to pay for a license because they are unclear who is really benefiting from the fee. However, it is usually unclear if buying the music directly includes rights to play the music in a business setting. When it’s unclear, ask the artist for permission.
Additional takeaways for yoga teachers
In addition to potentially violating United States copyright law, playing music in class without consent from the artist, songwriter, or copyright owner could also be considered a violation of the yamas, which are the ethical tenets of yoga. First and foremost is ahimsa, to not harm. It’s closely followed by asteya, which loosely translates as not stealing. Not to mention satya, which encourages us to be truthful, and aparigraha, which encourages us to not be greedy.
Many yoga teachers admitted, off the record, that they also intend to continue streaming music in their classes, even after being made aware of the impact that playing music illegally can have on artists and performing rights organizations. Perhaps it is a little like jaywalking? People know the legal ramifications and potential harm, but there seems to be an unspoken assumption that in certain circumstances, it is acceptable.
But in reality, it’s more like using a plastic straw. One straw here and there may not seem to do much harm, just as one or two teachers playing music without paying for the rights may not seem to be too damaging. But if we all do it, then the whole ecosystem is affected.
I’m not sure what path I will take when I return to leading group classes. But it’s a relief to know there is a wide variety of options for ethically and legally playing music, because I can tell you one thing for certain, I won’t stop playing music in my classes.
About our contributor
Sarah Ezrin is an author, world-renowned yoga educator, popular Instagram influencer, and mama based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her willingness to be unabashedly honest and vulnerable along with her innate wisdom make her writing, yoga classes, and social media great sources of healing and inner peace for many people. Sarah is changing the world, teaching self-love one person at a time. She is also the author of The Yoga of Parenting. You can follow her on Instagram at @sarahezrinyoga and TikTok at @sarahezrin.