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A petition to exempt small venues from “prohibitive” licensing fees has been circling the Internet. Since its first signature on May 30th, the petition has garnered 1,844 signatures (just 166 away from their NEW goal of 2,000).

The petition requests PROs “grant venues and cafes under 350 capacity exempt status from the prohibitive licensing fees levied by ASCAP, BMI and SESAC for the public performance of copyrighted material.”

Hosted on MoveOn.org, the petition is addressed to Paul Williams, ASCAP’s President of the Board, Michael O’Neill, BMI’s President and CEO, Pat Collins, SESAC’s President and Co-CEO, and John Josephson, SESAC’s Chairman and Co-CEO.

A number of the petition’s supporters are themselves members of these PROs.

Signatories’ comments all deliver a united message: communities and musicians alike suffer from the current small venue licensing fees.

“In our community of 6,700, it’s prohibitive to ask for large licensing fees to perform music. Don’t eliminate music from our lives.” said Nancy Thornburn of Fort Bragg, CA.

ascapWilliam Kiel commented from Alamo Heights, TX, “Our local music venue was closed after 25 yrs due to ASCAP policies. [These fees] will destroy the very thing ASCAP supposedly wants to protect, the song writers and their wonderful music.”

Small businesses often aren’t able to pay PRO licensing fees, and ultimately stop hosting live music, regardless of whether potential acts are playing original music or not–all it takes is one person playing one copyrighted song for the risk to outweigh the benefits of live music.

Bauhaus Kaffee is a small establishment in Farmington, MO (pop. 18,000) that was directly affected by these licenses. When ASCAP found out they hosted occasional live music, the PRO contacted them and threatened a lawsuit if the coffee house didn’t pay the $600 yearly license fee (determined by the fire department’s set capacity of 96, although they only seat 55).

bmi Next, BMI requested $500, and then SESAC requested just over $700.

This meant the coffee shop was paying $1,800 per year to host an occasional live music night.

The owners of Bauhaus spoke with the PROs, explaining the musicians they hosted played only original music. No luck: the owners were still required to pay the fees in case a preexisting song was performed.  Ultimately, the $1,800 proved to be too much for the small, independent coffee shop, and the town’s primary venue shutdown their music.

sesacChoices like these are happening throughout the U.S. — many of the petition’s comments tell the same story of small venues reluctantly shuttering their live music events because of cost-prohibitive fees charged by the major PROs on a ‘just in case’ condition.

ASCAP musician Ari Herstand wrote about the fees, saying he would rather take an unnoticeable cut in his monthly royalty check and let music in small communities thrive.

“I’m an ASCAP songwriter. I appreciate the ASCAP checks I receive. I know that a tiny, minuscule fraction of that $600 that Bauhaus paid went to me. But at the same time, I don’t want my performing rights organization to force small businesses offering a service to the community to stop.”

What do you think? Should ASCAP, BMI and SESAC continue with their concurrent licensing fees for venues of 350 capacity or less, or should the PROs exempt such small businesses?

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19 comments

  1. Far from raising any money from songwriters, or for them, all this extortionary practice does is drive small places, especially non-alcoholic, weekly or monthly venues, out of business. If there were a way to accomplish exactly the opposite of what you set out to do, this is it. It is especially distasteful to me personally, because I have made it my business for many years to do only public domain material. In an age when every play from every digital source could be tallied automatically, neither traddies nor small time songwriters make much of anything off this practice. The whole scheme is a scam benefitting only major artists, not ones who struggle, like I do, to make a bare living at what amounts to an artistic calling.

    1. Thanks so much for sharing your perspective, Andrew! Particularly since you’ve specifically chosen to play public domain material. With all of the focus on digital now, it certainly seems high time to loosen the strings on small venues hosting live artists (performing in person!), does it not?

  2. We have suspended all music performance at our cafe because of them. ASCAP “graciously” reclassified us because we only play Pandora DMX on a radio, which is identical regular Pandora except that it costs $24.99 a month instead of $3.99 a month to pay the licensing fees.

    1. So this hit pretty close to home, John. Wow. Such a shame, to lose live music being performed anywhere, let alone in intimate venues like yours. How were you approached by the PROs — mind taking us through the process you experienced? And what is the “new” classification that ASCAP gave you once you switched to Pandora DMX?

  3. My community has a population of less than 2000. I used to let my friends bands play in my small bar. No stage no PA system and no cover charge. We are a rural community money is tight. I would not nake money on band nights it was a break even at best. I had to cancel live music due to the harassment of the big three music mafia bloodsuckers. Now my town has no live music and the bands suffer. They meaning the artist created this monster and they need to reign it in. Why dont the big three liscense musicians and I’ll agree only to hire liscensed acts.

  4. Yearly total $3688 in BMI and possibly ascap figured in still fighting that one. No idea what sesac will cost but I know within a year they will call.

  5. Small businesses should be exempt. Cover bands charge outrageous amounts to play for 3 to 4 hours. They demand cash only with the bar owner left with only a hand written receipt. You never make money if your patrons refuse to pay a high cover charge. If your a small business you cannot charge a cover nor can your seating capacity afford to make up for that event because 50 people would have to pay high covers. They won’t so your left with no business and fees. We wont be having music next year because we cannot afford it. Its simply not worth it.

    1. Great insight, Adrienne. Thank you for your thoughts. Take it you’re a bar owner? Could you have bands playing original music instead of ditching music all together next year?

  6. Once we all start banning music from our establishments, perhaps things will change. A Petition was signed and sent. Where are the results? Why are we made to pay multiple times for music that we dont recieve a profit from? Another way to tax the poor.

    1. Interesting point, Jack. How do you mean exactly “pay multiple times for music we don’t receive a profit from”? And cheers for the signing the petition!

  7. We have a small (165 seat) restaurant with a 25 seat patio where we were having local musicians play for a couple hours on Friday & Saturday nights. These were local amateur musicians just looking for a place to get up on the “stage” and “live the dream” for a few minutes. The people in town loved it, sometimes they’d come for dinner, sometimes they’d just ride their bikes by and listen. Thanks to ASCAP, BMI & SESAC, we’ve had to do away with all the fun. I suggested to the ASCAP representative that came out strong arm me into paying him the $900 a year he was demanding from me that we should all sing “American Pie” to celebrate the actual day the music died in our small town .. he told me that ASCAP owned that song to and I’d have to pay him if I sang it. I can’t believe this is the way things are supposed to work.

    1. I should clarify that the 165 restaurant area already pays for Pandora business and is thereby already paying fees for the music that plays to the customers. The live music can only be listened to on the patio, the patio seats only 25. The $900 (that’s for ASCAP only, we’d have to pay similar fees to BMI & SESAC) a year is for the 4 hours of music a week for those 25 possible customers.

      1. I understand that this kind of expense is not one that some small businesses can afford. And the other side is that this is the only way composers can get remunerated for continuing use of their music. Also, these rates are approved in rate courts, and are applied to many other businesses of your size and revenue potential.

  8. is this petition still happening?

    1. Ella Swift Redding

      Yes, it is Andy!

      1. Would like to know more. I have a very small business that’s not making it financially yet they are charging me because they read on Facebook that I was teaching line dance lessons. I had four people show up and learn a line dance and I now have to pay a tremendous E2 BMI. What can we do? I’m going to go out of business because I can’t afford to not have customers come in but I can’t afford to have customers come

  9. First the license is tax deduction. But even so small a venue may not have anything left to use the deduction. A license to fit the usage, instead of getting one for 365 days when they only have music 10 nights out of the year. Small venues also need to know they can negotiate a price, the pros, will not give in right away, so keep asking. Also it would be nice that the performer could get a license to play anytime. I would work every weekend if this was passed. It is Congress that needs to step up and fix this. It is so sad that Justin Bieber gets the roalties from the clubs we’re I play at, I would not or ever play one of his tunes.

  10. My daughter is a sixteen year old pianist. After winning first place in a state competition, she began playing piano for tips only at a local mom and pop restaurant to raise money to compete in the nationals. That is when we learned about the PROs. Thankfully, my daughter played mostly public domain Classical and Traditional pieces and we have removed the the few pieces that may have been still under copyright. However, the restaurant owner has been through this before and told us even then he is hounded about how he still needs to pay them in case she or anyone else might play one of their songs.

    I think it is time for another boycott of PROs songs like was done in 1940, that ended up making jazz, blues, and country music popular as they were the only songs being broadcasted and not in PROs, because those forms of music were not considered good enough for them to sign up. Look it up! If PROs are boycotted, then maybe some of the new and lesser known songwriters would actually have an opportunity to be recognized and make some money–and mom and pop restaurants giving local talent a chance to better their skills and earn a little in the process can stop being harassed.

  11. Agreed! I also own small venues with occasional music (original music and no cover charge). I hope there will be an exemption for small bars/cafes like mine (less than 100 capacity inside and out).