The Soundcheck, October 2012
The Music Police
By J. Gabrielle
The recent article in The Roanoke Times about BMI’s (Broadcast Music Inc.) lawsuit against a Roanoke nightclub for copyright infringement made my blood start to boil…again.
There are three licensing agencies: BMI, ASCAP, and SESAC.
It was in 1909 when recorded music was in its infancy and the Copyright Law was passed. This law said that 2 cents off of each sheet music and later, recordings, would be the “mechanical rate” and it would go to the songwriter.
Two cents! Here’s the shocker. That rate has moved higher over the years. The last raise was in 2007. It is NOW 9.5 cents per unit. Yes, in 103 years we’ve given songwriters a 7 cent raise.
Now onto the licensing!
Anyone entertaining the public at large in a venue MUST pay licensing fees. Because all songs are licensed by one of the three companies, fees must be paid to all three. Fees run from a couple hundred dollars a year for a small store to $500-800 for a medium-sized club. The scale increases for bigger clubs. Who else pays licensing fees? Also, movies, circuses, places with a jukebox and any establishment allowing live music pay. Coffee houses. Television stations. Satellite. Cable. Sirius. XMRadio. Grocery Stores. Drug Stores. Does your bar have a T.V.? You need a licensing fee. Play music while a customer is on hold? You owe! The minimum is $283. The maximum is over $8,000.
If you don’t pay your licensing fees, these companies will send you letters inquiring why. They will send a representative who looks very much like a customer. He will sit in your establishment writing down the songs he heard. They will bring suit against you.
This happened to Shirley Thomas at The Iroquois Club in the early ‘90’s. Shirley would not be played. I was there the night the ATF came to seize the club’s door earnings (set aside for the band) to pay the licensing company. It has not been substantiated, but it is said the cash got stuffed into a certain redhead’s bra as she was sent to the ladies room to hide until they left. Shirley switched to an all-original venue thereafter, arguing that unlicensed songwriters owed them nothing!
In the early 2000’s, I was running the honky-tonk Briz’s in New Castle. The licensors came for our little club. They came and counted the chairs and multiplied it by seven nights a week. They wanted $800 a year. I argued that we weren’t full seven nights a week. I bade him to come to WWF on Monday nights with just drunk Larry and me. Finally, I showed him our jukebox over half full of local music. I identified myself as a BMI writer. I asked where my royalties were? Surely if they counted “All My Rowdy Friends” they counted local music? Or did they just skip that? I told them that I was not “hostile”, but I was not cooperating until I saw some revenue for the local artist.
Funny. They went away.
In the last decade, BMI sued Gillie’s and Champs in Blacksburg. Champs paid $10,500 in fines. Fees per song in violation range from $750 to $15,000. Champs now spends $1,000 a year in licensing fees. BMI has also pursued Mill Mountain Coffee & Tea for an Old Time Music Jam. The music performed there is now in the Public Domain. Artists retain rights for life plus 70 years unless someone applies for extension (this happens in the case of Elvis or Michael Jackson, etc.). After that, it is in the Public Domain, and no one owes any licensing on anything.
On a local level, these licensors contribute to preventing local musicians from making a living. Each live music venue that has to pay out anything in an already stressed budget is diminished in what it can afford to pay local artists. The three licensors pay all these collected fees to a 1% of the at large musician population.
When will we unite as musicians and club owners and turn this thing around?