InsideOUT editor Elise Hugus

- InsideOUT editor Elise Hugus

After receiving a strongly worded letter from the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Performers (ASCAP), the owner of a small Waquoit cafe gave the band that performs there for free once a month a difficult choice: meet requested annual $332 fee or he’d have to cancel their gig.

"They could sue even if [the band] was playing its own songs. They could sue me for people singing 'Happy Birthday' at the restaurant," said the cafe owner, who did not want to be identified for fear that the two other performing rights organizations in the United States—Broadcast Music Incorporated (BMI) and the Society of European Authors and Composers (SESAC)—would also send him a contract.

While the Waquoit cafe owner agreed that artists should get paid for their work, he questioned the wisdom of targeting venues that offer music infrequently—and, in his case, donate the proceeds of the event to a local food pantry.

"Unfortunately, what they're doing is stopping a lot of music in small venues like mine. The end result: music is being sliced out, and it's not a good thing for our culture," said the cafe owner, who was able to continue the music series thanks to customer's generousity when the band passed the hat.

Making cents?

Although regular live music can be hard to come by on the Upper Cape, Dave Fenstermaker, owner of Grumpy's Pub in Falmouth, knows it brings in customers to the Locust Street bar. So for the past 13 years, Grumpy's has paid ASCAP at least $1,000 per year, just in case a band plays a cover song.

"Every cent is a hardship, but it's not the end of the world. But that $1,000 could go to paving my parking lot or quarterly payroll taxes," Fenstermaker said.

He recently received a new licensing agreement from ASCAP, requesting $2,230 for the year. Included in the rate schedule was a fee for having a jukebox, which Fenstermaker said is covered by another company. The per-person charge for the nightclub, which has a capacity of 270 people, is $8.34.

"It's musical extortion," he said, noting that the bar rarely brings in over 200 people. "It makes absolutely no sense to me."

In order to keep licensing costs down, Grumpy's management only brings in bands three nights a week. And because ASCAP also charges for televisions and radios, the bar only has one small monitor, usually tuned to The Weather Channel.

"They won't tell us which parties they represent. It would be interesting to know how much money the artists actually get," Fenstermaker said.

Play music or deliver pizza?

At a meeting of local musicians brought together by Cat Wilson, host of The Cheap Seats, last fall, at least one musician said she benefits from BMI’s quarterly checks.

The $2,000 Elizabeth Picciallo (who goes by her stage name Lizzie Pitch) receives per year makes the difference between being a starving artist or just another wasted talent working in a coffeeshop, she said.

“BMI is great for independent artists. I don’t want to work another job, I need the time to write and concentrate on music,” said Pitch.

But as Wilson pointed out that evening, most musicians don’t make enough on royalties to compete with the tips they’d make delivering pizza.

While copyright organizations might have a legitimate case in collecting fees for the use of a jukebox or radio, do you the same standards should apply to live music? If you're a musician or performing artist, have you benefited from royalties? If you're a venue owner, what has your experience with ASCAP, BMI, or SOCAN been like?


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  • tommy-bones-baker

    As a card carrying member of ASCAP, a pizza delivery driver, and musician I find I have trouble with what these groups are doing. I was at the musicians meeting and as I said, I DO make more money delivering pizza than playing in a typical bar cover band on Cape Cod and the South Shore. I think that these groups from what I understand are out of touch with the reality of the size of the venues. just because a venue (restaraunt with liquor and entertainment license) has a total capacity of 250 people does not mean that they will have that many people in their establishment. Usually, the area that is used for the entertainment is less than half of the buildings total capacity. These groups base their fees on total capacity of the building. As much as I want there to be someone looking out for my interests as an artist and IF my band covers someone else's material I believe the original artist should get proper compensation I think the method they use is not fair to the establshment, and thus makes it harder for the local entertainers to work as well. As much as I love writing and performing original music the market for it in this area is a flat line at best. BUT if what the music industry wants is to put musicians an dj's out of work, I guess all the venues around here should just buy juke boxes and or close at 10 pm. Pretty sad.
  • ehugus

    The methods of ASCAP etc show just how desperate the situation is becoming in the music industry, what with downloading cutting into profits. Maybe the recording industry should actually pay musicians a fair wage for producing albums, rather than squeeze live music venues? I'd be more willing to buy CDs if I knew the money went to artists-- which is why I buy them at shows more often than at stores.