Caldera Tap House on Water Street in Ashland has pulled out its stage and stopped having live music, following a dispute over fees for songs being played in their venue over many years.
Owner Jim Mills says the performing rights organizations, BMI, ASCAP and SESAC all came in person, informing him that fees are due, going back many years for songs played by live bands in the venue. He said ASCAP billed him for $3,500. He opened the tavern 19 years ago.
Mills says he uses only local bands that play their own original music, which are not members of performing rights organizations, so Caldera should not have to pay. Musicians are paid by cover charges of $3 to $5, he adds. The organization representatives countered that covers of well-known groups or composers inevitably get played so it’s best to pay it and not have fines pile up and be taken to court for it.
“They wanted a ridiculous amount of money,” says Mills. “They are a legal mafia. Our stage is gone now and we’re making additional tables for seating … I keep telling them we don’t allow cover tunes. All the bands we hire are small and local. They said even 'Happy Birthday' is covered, if you play it. They need to be exposed for what they’re doing. It’s so wrong.”
Nearby Dobra Tea House, which had been hosting a folk dancing group that played their own instruments every Sunday morning, also had a visit from music organization representatives who came in demanding payment, so the Tea House just quit hosting the folk dancing.
"It became too complicated and time consuming and expensive to pay all their fees," according to Jasna Pecaric, a member of the folk dancing group. (The owner was out of town and could not be reached for comment.) "It's sad."
Music organizations recoup fees from any media or locale that plays music, including TV shows, movies, background music suppliers in hotels or restaurants or on call waiting but, says bassist Greg Frederick of the local Rogue Suspects, the fees assessed to coffee houses, taverns and such venues are based on hours, square footage and capacity and run $300 to $500 a year.
“They have a special category that fits coffee houses and bars,” says Frederick, “because they don’t want to kill them. It’s less than a dollar a day. If venues let it go and try to fight them, then they are subject to the full extent of the law. People call it extortion, but they are nonprofit and 90 percent of it goes to the artists, also to school music programs and scholarships.”
Frederick says several valley residents make their entire living from checks from music organizations, for music you hear on game shows, movies and other media, but little if any of it reaches musicians for their live gigs locally. A lot of it, he said, goes to Madonna and Elton John.
“You should know you have to pay those costs when you go into business,” says Frederick. “It’s just a fact of life and you should budget for it. It’s not terrible till everyone ignores it. It’s less than the cost of a cup of coffee a day. If you fight it in court, almost no one wins. But the way they (music organizations) do it really sucks. I don’t know any musicians who are happy about it. It hurts us.”
The music organizations should be more flexible about negotiating rates and, says Frederick, he thinks it would be a good idea if everyone in the area got together and negotiated as a unit.
John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.