Play originals or pay royalties, music companies say

Laurie and Jim Hall decided to offer live music on Friday and Saturday nights to entertain the customers at their gourmet coffee shop in Indian Harbour Beach, Fla.

But a few months later, music industry giant ASCAP started calling and sending letters saying East Coast Coffee & Tea was in violation of copyright laws. The fee to continue the music was $400 a year.

Six months later, other music copyright companies began calling the Halls and demanding money.

Finally, unable to afford the fees, Laurie Hall had to call her musicians who did not play original songs and tell them they could not continue performing.

Music copyright companies are on a campaign to collect royalty fees from restaurants, bars and other establishments that offer live music by performers who play songs written and made famous by other musicians.

The aggressive – but legal – posture the music companies are taking has the potential to unplug live music in many venues.

It comes on the heels of a massive music industry crackdown in the past several years on illegal downloads from the Internet. Whether it’s a professional recording taken from a Web site or an accordion player singing a Jimmy Buffet tune in a small venue, the industry is working to collect royalties for whoever wrote the songs.

When a songwriter signs with one of the licensing companies – the country’s three biggest are BMI, SESAC and ASCAP – his or her music is copyrighted.

“It makes me so angry,” Hall says. “I feel like the greedy music industry is extorting money from us and hurting these musicians just starting out.”

SESAC spokesman Shawn Williams said in e-mail responses to questions that it is his company’s responsibility to enforce copyright laws, many of which were enacted nearly a century ago.

Williams defends the money collected.

“This provides the majority of income to songwriters,” he says.

Those who refuse to pay could find themselves paying anyway – in the form of fines.

“The law provides damages ranging from $750 to $150,000 for each song performed without proper authorization,” Williams says.

And in no way do the songs have to be performed live, or even on the radio, to elicit calls for royalties.

Lou Andrus, owner of the popular beachside nightclub Lou’s Blues in Indialantic, Fla., says a friend who owned a restaurant that did not feature music was contacted by a company looking to charge him because it owned the rights to a Hank Williams Jr. song, “Are You Ready for Some Football?” The song preceded every “Monday Night Football” telecast, which the restaurant carried on its televisions.

He says his friend simply chose to turn the volume down when the song came on.

The licensing companies use a variety of methods to find out whether copyrighted music is being used.

“ASCAP representatives may visit establishments and find that they advertise live entertainment,” said Richard Reimer, senior vice president of ASCAP, in an e-mail. “Local newspapers carry advertisements for venues that present live entertainment and, of course, the Internet is a valuable resource as well.”

Chad Fagg, one half of the pop-rock duo “Just Blue,” is without a steady place to perform after East Coast Coffee told his group they could no longer play unless they played only original music.

“It’s very disappointing, and it’s frustrating,” Fagg says. “They gave us a shot before anyone else would. I understand it’s about royalties, but it’s such a small place.”

One Response to “Play originals or pay royalties, music companies say”

  1. That Monday Night Football thing is absolutely surreal. Who knew Kafka liked football?

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