Thursday, October 08, 2009

A response from ASCAP

Well, my article of a few days ago about ASCAP and BMI beating up small venues drew the attention of someone at ASCAP. This was in my inbox this morning from an anonymous person at ASCAP:

We at ASCAP saw your piece from 10/4/09 about ASCAP and BMI, and the licensing of small venues. As a follow up, we wanted to share a link to a recent article we wrote for our members on this very subject: We thought you'd be interested in reading this. And in the specific case of small venues, our licensing team does work very hard to set reasonable, low annual fees -- or in some cases, exempts the smallest of venues altogether.
The article the nameless ASCAP drone references covers some of the same points I made in my original article, primarily the idea that if a venue is making money because of the work of a composer is being performed, then a portion of that money is owed to the composer. However, I still feel that their bar is set too low. If both ASCAP and BMI want even a small fee of several hundred bucks a year, many small establishments will simply stop having live music altogether, to the detriment of all. As a composer (and in the interest of full disclosure, I am a member of a performance rights organization), I would happily give up any revenue gleaned from these little 10-table joints to assure that musicians can still play in their neighborhood taverns, coffeehouses, and restaurants.

Here's the response I sent. I'm only publishing it here because my direct reply bounced (apparently, they have time to troll the internet for references to "ASCAP" and to email bloggers like me, but they don't want to be bothered with any inbound mail):

Dear anonymous person at ASCAP,

Thank you for the link to your article. In the pursuit of fairness, I have published your response -- unedited -- in my blog, along with its link to your article. Of course, I added my own commentary as well.

If you read my original article, you'll see that I really do agree with ASCAP's position in most respects. Where I disagree is mainly in where the line is drawn. I think there should be a reasonable threshold, below which the little joints get a pass.

The other area of some disgreement is one I did not address in my original blog entry: The assumption that a venue *must* have an ASCAP/BMI license, because music licensed via one or the other organization *will most likely* be played. Unless you have an agent staked out in every club to monitor what compositions are being performed, this is impossible to determine. In fact, I would counter that the songwriters in an unsigned band playing all original compositions are extremely UNLIKELY belong to ASCAP or BMI.
Membership more commonly comes *after* the band is signed or an established artist covers one of their compositions.

Now, I'm just a small-potatoes composer with a day gig. I will probably never see a dime from any of my compositions. If someone does profit from my compositions some day, then I want to get paid. But I'll give up the pennies I would theoretically make from my buddy's trio playing one of my tunes down at "Megan's Vegan Region" restaurant, to make sure that Megan can always book little bands like his.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

ASCAP and BMI beating up small venues

I recently heard from a guitarist friend of mine that a nice little coffeehouse / whole foods store in St. Johns is being threatened by ASCAP and BMI if they didn’t take out a live performance license. This venue has a tiny stage and has a weekly jazz jam – one of the few places left to hear a truly open jam. My friend said they were thinking of having a policy of “Original Music Only” as a way around the problem.

However, ASCAP and BMI are taking the position that having a policy of only hiring bands that play originals does not let the venue off the hook for a performance license. The old CBGB club in NYC tried that, insisting that bands play only originals there. It built their reputation a place to hear new music (like the Ramones, Talking Heads, and Blondie), but then those bands put out records, and of course they had to be affiliated with one performing rights group or another, and CBGB was back in the same boat again. My opinion is that it would be a huge waste of time for either organization to come after a venue as small as this. I'm sure the owners are just barely keeping their noses above water financially, anyway. ASCAP/BMI would only succeed in driving them out of business, meaning one less venue for performers.

Here's a pretty good article on the situation:

ASCAP and BMI have incredibly complex schedules - ASCAP alone has over a hundred different rates, based on square footage, type of establishment, etc.

I think this whole thing will eventually blow up in their faces. While I agree that composers should be paid when someone performs their works, there should be a threshold below which it does not apply. Right now, the threshold seems to be that for anything beyond backyard parties for friends and family, you have to get a license.

But I can see the other side of the coin, too. Say a small coffeehouse has a good -- not great -- business. They serve fine roasts, some pastries and sandwiches, and they have live jazz a few evenings a week. The marquee outside says LIVE JAZZ TONIGHT! Folks come in to dig the music, drink some coffee, and hang out. The bands play the standard jazz repertoire: All Blues, Night in Tunisia, Caravan, etc. I can see a case for the venue making some payment to the accounts of Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, and Juan Tizol for the use of their compositions. After all, the owner of the venue is making some increased income because of the existence of these copyrighted compositions. Gregorian chants are in the public domain, but it doesn't draw the kids like it used to.

I suggest that ASCAP, BMI, and the other rights organizations take a hard look at their live performance rates and draw a line to drop off the bottom 10-20%. The total revenues recovered cannot add up to much anyway, and they are really making life tough for these small, struggling venues and the musicians and songwriters who often get their first exposure in dark little dives, redolent of espresso.

Mingus, Monk, Bird, and Roy Haynes at a little dive in 1953. LINK

Saturday, October 03, 2009

So long, Facebook

OK, so I was never a wholehearted fan of Facebook to begin with. However, it turns out that a number of people I know use it fairly extensively, and they were sending me emails telling me that they just posted a great picture or something else on their Facebook page. Well, you can't see anything there unless you sign up yourself and friend them. (I hate this tendency to verb a noun). So I decided to play along a few weeks ago.

It was semi-OK for a while. I put up a half-dozen old pictures of myself, a link to the CD info page, and little else. I was able to see some fun pictures of my friends.

But, it gets out of hand. I've gotten "friend requests" from many people I don't know (or don't want want to know), and some of the ones who I did friend have been posting all kinds of offensive stuff, which I have to look at when I log in. They think it's clever and hip. It's not -- it's just juvenile, stupid, and offensive. And every one of their brain farts and conversations with their other Facebook "friends" shows up, too. Great stuff like: Wut up? Word! Dude! U R awsum. Puts the Algonquin Round Table to shame.

I pulled the plug on this nonsense tonight. So, my apologies to my real friends; you'll just have to reach me "old-school" -- email, telephone, or in person. And I will just have to forego seeing your latest holiday snaps or listening in on your chat with someone I don't know.