Music's wonderful, isn't it . . . so varied, a tune for every occasion, every feeling, every place. Why, melody seems as free for the taking as the air we breathe.

But it isn't. Free, that is.And that's part of John Abernathy's job - making that sure as many people as possible, especially owners of businesses catering to the public, know that use of most music requires a license.

Abernathy is a licensing executive working in Utah, New Mexico and western Texas for BMI. An international organization with a catalog of 1.5 million songs, BMI represents literally thousands of publishers, composers and songwriters - the owners of the songs - protecting the copyrights and collecting fees that provide their livelihoods.

Based in Albuquerque now, Abernathy used to live in Salt Lake City, where he was a recruiter for the Army and a personality on the old country radio station KMOR in Murray. He was listed as one of the nation's top 100 deejays in "Kingsbury's Who's Who of Country Music" in 1981, "and for that I owe my thanks to people around here, because that's where I started out." He's guest emceed at the Grand Old Opry, and, as an amateur musician himself, has played with several country legends.

Nowadays he travels back and forth over his three-state territory, dropping by new businesses, visiting old clients - and checking up on anyone who may be improperly using music in a public setting, from neighborhood hangouts to professional sports arenas.

"So, little bar owners that think we're picking on them, we're really not," Abernathy says. The public performance of any copyrighted music, "with the exception of in record stores, at county and state fairs or in churches for music and gospel services, everything needs to be licensed.

" `But,' they say, `I bought those records and tapes, they're mine!' They're right - the plastic is theirs," he agrees.

You see, what you buy when you purchase a record, tape or CD is the right to play the music for your own enjoyment, to play it at home or maybe for some function not open to the general public - a wedding, for example. "But play it in a public place, and you have to pay royalties," Abernathy says. This is also true for live performances and use of radios, jukeboxes and videotapes.

Promoters, clubs, cafes, even little dancing schools often need licenses, which, he says, don't as a rule set them back too much financially. "The people I deal with mostly, the little restaurants, say the size of a McDonalds where the part open to the public is smaller than 1,500 square feet - the license is $60 a year." A small bar might be $145.

A complicating factor is that not all copyrighted music is licensed by BMI; rival ASCAP does another big chunk of the licensing. Generally these businesses need two licenses.

"So," people say, "I'll just play ASCAP music."

Abernathy pulls out a recent country music chart. There's Tanya Tucker's "My Arms Stay Open All Night." And it's licensed by both BMI and ASCAP. One of several such examples.

If more than one person helps write a song, one composer may belong to BMI and the other may be associated with ASCAP. Or, an artist affiliated with ASCAP may change to BMI. Or, a publishing company belonging to one licensing organization may switch to the other.

Yes, it does get complicated. "The whole thing is a matter of education," Abernathy says, "and I hate to see somebody get in trouble because they don't understand this."

When he's in town, Abernathy will visit a few places, checking to see how the businesses are using music. He might tell someone they need a license - a music performance agreement - "and lots of times we can take care of it right there." Sometimes it takes a few notes in the mail or maybe some instructional literature.

"We try to give them ample opportunity to take care of it. If they don't, or if they refuse and if they continue to play music, they can end up in federal court for copyright infringement," he says. If BMI wins a court case, minimum damages might be $500-$20,000 per song, "and then it depends on the circumstances. A judge might look at what BMI has done to inform the guy and might make it $5,000 per song.

"It can get kind of expensive . . . more so than the license fee," Abernathy says.