Let me make something very clear at the outset of this post: Both my husband and I are songwriters and artists and as such have a vested interest in license and distribution royalty rights--in fact, it makes us absolutely giddy to be paid for our work. That being said, I find the harassing, heavy-handed tactics employed by ASCAP
against small, independent cafés to be not only petty and tiny-minded but also shortsighted and just plain bad business.
ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers), BMI (Broadcast Music, Inc.) and SESAC (Society of European Stage Authors and Composers) are the three main licensing agencies, representing composers and music publishers worldwide. While few if any would argue against the positive need for their existence, they have become monopolistic bullies under the guise of unionization.
KING 5 Television in Seattle, WA reported
on Monday about the issue of public broadcast of music CDs and digital music in cafés, highlighting two locally owned coffeehouses, Caffe Bella
, with only one location, and Diva Espresso
, which has six shops. While the reporter did not make it clear as to whether Diva Espresso was targeted, the owner of Caffe Bella was, forcing her to make a choice between paying hundreds of dollars in licensing fees to the agencies, playing commercial radio or going with satellite radio. She chose satellite radio, with fees paid automatically, at $150 per year, a hefty amount for a single shop to carry while working mightily to keep afloat.
Again, I have nothing against artists getting paid and I wish more of us actually did receive fair compensation for our work, but the amount of time, effort and money these huge licensing agencies spend on tracking down small, independent businesses is simply a waste. Not to mention the animosity they create by threatening legal action against coffeehouse owners who, in a good year, see a mere 1-2% profit margin. The fines for not paying licensing fees can be astronomical, reaching into the ten of thousands of dollars and driving people right out of business. In sharp contrast, ASCAP alone raked in $863 million in revenue last year.
The small café is most often the best friend of songwriters and musicians, giving play to those who rarely if ever get airtime on commercial radio stations and introducing their work to a wider audience. This is free publicity, free marketing and free advertising, the real value of which is undeniable. ASCAP, BMI and SESAC not only represent big artists, but hundreds of thousands of struggling, largely unknown artists. It is these artists, making up the majority of the agencies' membership, who stand to lose the most when their leaders tread the path of harassment and intimidation of small business.
So what is the solution? My suggestion is that members of ASCAP, BMI and SESAC exercise their own muscle of sheer numbers to convince the agencies' leadership that their heavy-handed tactics against small, independent coffeehouses and other businesses is not in their best interest and is in reality doing more harm than good. Perhaps a compromise can be reached in which businesses that operate less than a certain number of locations--let's say six--can receive a waiver from the agencies to play CDs and digital music free of charge. In exchange, the businesses would publicly display detailed information about the music being played, complete with composing and publishing credits, and where the music can be purchased.
The main goal of ASCAP, BMI and SESAC is to obtain fair compensation for work done by their members. In tandem with working to make sure that large businesses, radio stations and other broadcast mediums pay their share of fees, the agencies' leadership must also recognize the value of marketing and advertising to the public so that their members can grow an audience who will purchase their material. But if the agencies continue to cut off one of the best avenues of marketing and advertising, one for which neither they nor their members pay a cent, they have lost sight of their goal and the negative consequences of that rest solely on their shoulders.
It's time to work together, people, for the benefit of all.
Post originally published by Milwaukee Specialty Food and Coffee