I arrived at belly-dance class last night to find my instructor(and business owner) in deep distress. ASCAP is up her ass to pay them licencing fees for the music she uses when she teaches dance. They've sent her threatening letters and have progressed to threatening phone calls.
On the surface, this seems reasonable. After all, you are utilizing the creative work of others, it makes sense that they should be compensated in some way. Apparently, any venue that provides music in any way should by law be paying ASCAP, BMI and SESAC annual licencing fees. That includes retailers, music venues, restaurants, dance studios, airports. Basically, any venue that you walk in that you hear music in, the entity that owns the business playing the music should be paying a licensing fee for it.
So on the surface- reasonable. Where it gets tricky is when you understand how these entities work. The fees are different for each organization and may depend on the amount of people you have in your venue on average. One article I read quoted $1700 annually for just ASCAP for a small music club. (The owner mainly had bands that played original songs but you are required to pay the fees for any music played in between sets and in the off chance that someone plays a licensed cover) Multiply that times 3 and you are looking at severely straining a small business. So depending on the size of your business, these fees can be a severe handicap.
Next let's look at how the artist gets reimbursed. Obviously, the licensing agents to not know which artist song is being played and how many times in every single venue in the US. To simplify their process: payment to artists is based on the amount of Commercial Radio airplay you get. (It's really complicated so if you really want to know the ins and outs google it.) But suffice to say, the obscure middle eastern artists that get played in a belly-dance school are not likely to see a penny from what my instructor may be playing in her school. Not to mention I suspect a large amount of the money collected by the licensing agencies goes to the admin costs of collection!
Now lets talk about the strong-arm tactics. Threatening letters including contracts filled with unreadable legalese. "Secret Shoppers" visiting your establishment with micro-recorders to determine if you are using any of their artists. Exorbitant fines if they catch you not in compliance and mentioning that if you were to be fined and couldn't pay it- it is a criminal offence and you would go to jail. Once you pay your annual fee the first time you can retro-actively be charged for all the years they think you may have been using music before they targeted your business for harassment.
This just makes me mad because I feel that it is an injustice that a person could go to jail for playing music - and that the artist would likely never receive any of the money anyway. Big dance clubs, I get it. Small corner ethnic groceries? Tiny dance studios? It just all points to the fact that intellectual copyright laws are severely outdated and have been since long before the internet.
Here's an interesting article from a venue's point of view:
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