I’ve been hearing a few things, lately, about a push that the music industry is making to require places that host live-music events to have licenses for the music that’s played there. Here’s an article about it in the Boston Globe, and here’s a radio program that has the article’s author as a guest to talk about it.
The issue here is that if musicians play copyrighted music at a live venue, and the musicians who are performing don’t own the copyright, then the venue — not the musician, or maybe in addition to the musician — is responsible for any copyright violation. And when the copyright owners are the performance rights organizations (such as ASCAP and BMI), they are aggressively enforcing the rule, going out to small venues and shaking them down. To avoid trouble, these small venues — coffee houses, local libraries, and the like — have to fork out around $300 to each organization each year, just in case someone plays a song owned by that organization.
At one level, this sounds good: if I play your song at one of my performances, you should be paid for it. There are some problems with that, though. For one thing, if I’m playing your songs, it should be I who has to have a license from your company. It doesn’t seem that the venue should be responsible for that. For another, as you might expect, it’s mostly the PROs and the major songwriters who benefit from this. Small songwriters — the ones we’d all like to see get their due — get almost nothing from it, because, of course, the PROs have no way to know when someone happens to play your song in the South Salem Library in New York. They distribute the money based on expected balance, and a singer is much more likely to perform a cover of, say, an Eagles song than of one of yours.
Some venues have tried to insist that their performers do only original material, but they’re still getting strong-armed by the PROs, which say — correctly, I suppose — that the venue can’t be sure that the performers are complying with the demand, and if they might play covers, the venue needs to be covered.
That’s prompted some small places to stop having music, and that’s a sad thing. And I wonder where it ends. Square dance callers, who use recorded music and often call dances in school gyms and church social halls, have long had to have BMI and ASCAP licenses. But will the halls now have to get licenses as well? If so, will they refuse to rent their facilities to events such as those, which use copyrighted music? Whom does that benefit?
As I see it...
- Demanding that both the performers and the venues have licenses from the PROs is abusive.
- For the most part, performers should be the ones to get the licenses, since it’s they who are performing the copyrighted material, and they who are making the choice.
- In cases where venues need to be licensed, small venues such as local coffee shops and libraries should be exempt.
- If performers say they’re only performing their own material, no one should be expected to hold any licenses. Enforcement of this is as enforcement of anything else like it: the PROs will have to do spot checks, and challenge violations. They can’t be allowed to collect from everyone,
just in case.
- There needs to be a way for a performer to make sure the writers of the songs he sings are the ones who get paid from his license money. If I only ever cover songs by Bill Staines, say, then I don’t want Metallica getting my license fees.