Play it again ... and we'll sue
Venues for up-and-coming artists are disappearing as copyright licensing fees get stiffer, although some relief is in sight.
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Smaller music venues around the country are struggling to pay these licensing fees. Many simply get worn down by repeated demands from the agencies for payment and threats of costly lawsuits and simply drop live music offerings altogether.Skip to next paragraph
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"It's killing the local music scene," laments folk musician Spook Handy, who's seen performance venues in his hometown of New Brunswick, N.J., drop from around 40 in the mid-1980s to half a dozen now. "We're not bringing up a new generation of musicians. They just don't have places to play."
There's general agreement in the music industry that the number of small venues offering live music is declining, although it's not clear how much of this is due to enforcement of copyright law.
Vince Candilora, ASCAP's vice president for licensing, says the fees are set at a "very good rate," adding, "What gives anyone the right to use someone else's property, even though they're not making money on it? I can guarantee you the phone company's going to charge you whether you're making money or not."
Despite this tough talk, there has been a softening in fees: ASCAP lowered its rates for the smallest venues last January, down from around $1,000 a year to $350, closely matching BMI's current rates.
And there's the possibility of more reductions: The Memphis-based Folk Alliance, an advocate for up-and-coming artists, is negotiating with BMI to cut fees even further. BMI is receptive to the idea, according to Alliance negotiator Renee Bodie, and she hopes new rates will be in place in the next six months and that ASCAP will match any new BMI fees.
"We're discussing ways to give these smaller places a break," acknowledges BMI spokesman Jerry Bailey. "We realize they're helping to support the next generation of performers."
If that's the case, BMI has some fence-mending to do. Coffeehouse owners complain of intimidation tactics. Bailey says lawsuits are threatened, and sometimes pursued, only when BMI has proof that violations of copyright law have occurred.
One southern California coffeehouse owner, who asked to remain anonymous, said he was able to get his total annual fees down to $1,000 from three agencies by telling them he wouldn't open unless he got rock-bottom rates. That was 10 years ago. He's still in business, but not happy about having to pay even those fees: "We're the people who give performers their start, and we have to pay for the privilege."