Are the PROs Jerking Around Music Venues?

I was just reading this article in the St Cloud Times about the constant battle between small music venues and performance rights societies.

Here’s the basic idea.  When a business uses music in their establishment, it’s supposed to pay a licensing fee.  If they’ve got a jukebox or karaoke, they pay mechanical fees.  If they use live music, they’re supposed to have a live music license.  Ostensibly, this is to make sure that the writers of the songs being performed get a royalty from the performance of their song.

The only way to get around the licenses are to make sure that artists are only playing songs of their own composition, or songs who’s copyright is expired.  Which means reeeeeally old ones.

All sounds well and good on the surface, but rarely works out that way.  First off, there’s 3 PROs… ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC.  I’m a member of ASCAP myself.   A venue would need to get licenses from each one.  The fees are based on the capacity of the venue.  One the lowest end, a license from each PRO is $650.  Or almost $2000/yr for a tiny venue to be allowed to have music.

And the problem is that many places are just writing off live music.  Live music is often not a big money maker and a bigger hassle than running an iPod or getting a Muzak station piped in.  So that means there’s fewer places for music-makers to make music.  That drags everything down.

I don’t have a problem with venues having to get a license.  I think that’s fair.  If they’re going to be making money from having music, then the writers should get a cut.

BUT… here’s the two big problems.  First off, most of the writers never get a cut.  There is no effective way of tracking which songs are played in which venues.  ASCAP only surveys the largest of venues (think stadiums and amphitheaters).  They don’t even touch the smaller venues…except when they want money.  In theory, if I’m playing a licensed venue, I should be getting a cut for playing my own music.  And I should get a cut when other people play my music somewhere.  Never happens.

The closest I’ve come is a special award that can be applied for called ASCAP plus.  In the application I have to outline any new songs I’ve written and a general out line of where they’ve been performed.  And for my year of shows, I get $150.  That average out to just under a buck a show for me.  But hey, better than nothing.

By the way, they also don’t track radio all that well.  Years ago you could find my band Roadside Attraction on the Gavin radio charts (dating myself now) right between U2 and Brandy for a couple weeks.  Didn’t see one penny of radio royalties for that.

The money, in general, goes to the big name artists through some magic formula that each PRO keeps under lock and key tighter than the formula for Coca Cola.

The problem is that it’s arbitrary.  Bruce Springsteen is getting a chunk of the license money from the PoDunk Music Cafe whether or not any of this songs were actually played there.

The other problem is that the venues are charged a license fee based on the capacity of their room.  I don’t know many rooms that run at capacity on a regular basis.  The place may hold 100 people, but an average show might only have 20.

Solution?  The venue’s license fee should be based on the previous year’s financials.  If they’re making money, the writers (some anyway) make money.  If not, let them cruise and get on their feet.  Will some places hide money to get out of it?  Of course.  And they’re probably doing the same on their taxes.  Unavoidable, but a more fair way of doing it I think.

As for the problem of tracking, that’s a monumental task.  Tiny venues aren’t going to track songs played at open mic night.  And they shouldn’t have to.  If they wanted us original artists to submit set lists, I’d be happy to if I thought it might make me a few bucks.  But mostly I’m in favor of letting the tiny joints slide all the way.  I think there should be a minimum threshold of some sort before a license is needed.  Some open mic’er playing Yesterday for 5 people isn’t going to kill the Beatles.

But if the PRO’s are going to keep jerking around these poor little places trying to help grow tomorrow’s stars, this is what I say to them. (click to listen)

Phil Johnson

PS.. ASCAP isn’t giving me money, and you don’t have to either!  Get 8 free Roadside Attraction songs at:

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