Turned off by fees, some businesses turn off licensed music


for the Mail Tribune

ASHLAND — Whether it's live or recorded, the music you hear in restaurants, bars and other public places has to be paid for, a cost that many venues say is becoming increasingly difficult to cover.

One Ashland restaurant has chosen to turn off the music, while another held a fundraiser to allow continued use of live and recorded music.

Many restaurants and bars pay the fees to Broadcast Music Inc. and the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, in the range of $300 to $500 annually for small venues, with $1,500 a typical cost for large clubs in this area, say sources in the business.

Paul and Kathie Maurer, owners of Harpers Restaurant in Ashland, chose to discontinue their recorded music (via satellite), when confronted with a $500 annual tab by a BMI licensing agent.

“We're just not going to do it. We can't afford it,” said Paul Maurer. “They descended on us. They come at you in a harassing way. They call you over and over and threaten to take you to court.”

Daniel and Brigette Cooke, owners of Evo's Coffee Lounge in Ashland, a small venue with live, local performers and recorded sounds, found the $300 annual ASCAP tab to be steep, compared with the revenue that music brings in — but they put on a fundraiser in September, recording local musicians on CD and selling the collection.

“We researched it and realized we have to pay the fee, but it cuts into the amount we pay the musicians,” said Daniel Cooke. “It's not progressive licensing. Very small stores and shops are making next to nothing on it.”

“We're very happy to support the very talented local musicians,” Cooke said. “But it puts a damper on what we could pay them by half. It's sad; a direct blow to them.” Ashland musician Danny Moffet, who helps musicians get gigs, said the Harper's situation prevented him from performing there and that venues “are scared out of having music” because of the vigorous pursuit of licensing fees.

Ashland pianist Jim Quinby said: “I lost one job because a BMI representative came up and told the owner he had to join. He fired me right there. It's partly responsible for how poorly musicians get paid.”

Vincent Candilora, ASCAP senior vice president in Nashville, said in a phone interview that venues indeed aren't eager to pay the licensing fees. She said some consider the situation “a sport.”

“They wait till we contact them five or six times, then they speak to their attorney and learn it's federal copyright law.”

Licensing agents work in regional teams out of their homes and cars, said Candilora, approaching not just restaurants and clubs but shops, ball parks, bowling alleys, skating rinks — anywhere copyrighted music is played in public.

Agents are given “extensive” training, he said, so they understand their job is to educate the venue owner.

“We get rid of anyone who threatens them,” said Candilora. “But we make them (venue owner) understand we're not going away, and if they ignore us, as a last resort, we will file suit.”

Some venues try to avoid the fees by using only original music, composed by the performer, but licensing agencies say that often is a ruse.

“We've heard that one before,” said Candilora. “In 90 percent of cases, there is other music being used. They say they never do covers or get requests? In almost all (gigs), they do.”

Several musicians and venue owners expressed doubt that the fees actually get to musicians, but Candilora said 88 cents of every dollar ends up with songwriters, composers and publishers. Their Web site, www.ascap.com, explains this and other policies.

He said that venues, “whether in downtown New York City or in Paducah, Kentucky,” annually pay $4.46 per customer, based on the maximum number of customers permitted at one time by the fire code. A venue that had a fire code limit of 100 would pay $446 a year.

Greg Frederick of the Rogue Suspects, a popular local group, said $300 to $500 a year “is actually reasonable and I think people should pay it.”

Members of Rogue Suspects, he said, have worked for decades composing and getting songs on radio, TV and in movies, so they do receive payments.

“We're one of the few (locally),” Frederick said. “We get checks from BMI and ASCAP. (One member) makes a living here off ASCAP checks.”

“Do they pay for their linen to be laundered and trash taken away?” Frederick asked of the club owners. “Would you invite a doctor to your club and ask him to examine everyone?

“Some people tell us music is God-given and should be free, (but) if they're using music for ambience, they need to pay,” said Frederick. “They have the money. The first five shots pay for the bottle of booze and a draft beer costs them only 75 cents.”

Candilora said that when the music is good, clubs see it as an affordable expense.

“The little guy (getting hurt)? Yeah, a lot of clubs use that as an excuse for not having music,” said Candilora. “The real reason is they don't think the musician is very good. If the music will draw people and make them stay longer, they pay for it, and the songwriter, who owns the copyright, should be paid.”

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

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