The BMI-ASCAP-SOCAN 'Mafia'
By: Elise Hugus, February 7, 2012
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.
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?