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Thread: Is ASCAP the Mafia?

  1. #1

    Default Is ASCAP the Mafia?

    In Seattle lately, ASCAP has been aggressive in trying to shake down small cafes and restaurants for licensing fees. They demand from several hundred to thousands of dollars a year. I'm referring to cafes, bars, and restaurants that are not hiring performers, but offer an occasional venue for local singer/songwriters, performers, and poets to share their art. The music is primarily originals or public domain, although some copyrighted material is performed by some performers. ASCAP also wants to be paid if the radio is on: even if its the cook listening to the ballgame in kitchen. (maybe they own the 7th inning stretch song) One cafe owner has canceled the weekly open mic. One paid a negotiated lower fee. Another is looking for a lawyer.

    I was at a restaurant a few years ago when they sent a couple of thugs that to all appearances and verbal threats were there to work over a local guitarist who has steadfastly refused to pay this extortion: As he plays entirely his own original music he believes he is not obligated to. As he couldn't possibly pay the huge fee they demanded anyway (thousands) - and they knew that, we guessed they wanted to make an example. Fortunately they didn't catch him alone at closing as they expected, and left when a waitress called the police.

    I wondered what advise or resources there are against these hustlers. I wonder if anyone here knows exactly what music use ASCAP or other entities are entitled to collect for, and what their legal entitlement is in terms of exact monetary compensation per use, and what legal recourse a cafe or restaurant owner may have to not be taken advantage of. I am referring here not to professional music or performance venues, but to restaurants and cafes, where performing music is offered as a community service, recorded music or radio is played in the background, and no exchange of money is involved for the music.

    Perhaps there is a compliance code a restaurant can conform to: Only allowing originals, public domain or foreign artists. I would have thought that ASCAP or BMI etc. already collected from radio stations, but I guess they can double dip?
    Last edited by artzeal; 06-29-2012 at 12:46 AM.

  2. #2

    Default Re: Is ASCAP the Mafia?

    Quote Originally Posted by artzeal View Post
    I was at a restaurant a few years ago when they sent a couple of thugs that to all appearances and verbal threats were there to work over a local guitarist who has steadfastly refused to pay this extortion: As he plays entirely his own original music he believes he is not obligated to. As he couldn't possibly pay the huge fee they demanded anyway (thousands) - and they knew that, we guessed they wanted to make an example. Fortunately they didn't catch him alone at closing as they expected, and left when a waitress called the police.
    As I understand, it is the venue's responsibility - not the performers' - to pay the performing rights organizations. In that context, this anecdote is puzzling (unless the performer was also the restaurant's owner)...

    I wondered what advise or resources there are against these hustlers. I wonder if anyone here knows exactly what music use ASCAP or other entities are entitled to collect for, and what the their legal entitlement is in terms of exact monetary compensation per use, and what legal recourse a cafe or restaurant owner may have to not be taken advantage of. I am referring here not to professional music or performance venues, but to restaurants and cafes, where performing music is offered as a community service, recorded music or radio is played in the background, and no exchange of money is involved.

    Perhaps there is a compliance code a restaurant can conform to: Only allowing public domain, original or foreign artists. I would have thought that ASCAP already collected from radio stations, but I guess they can double dip?
    If you want an overview of how that side of the business works, I'd suggest taking a "business of music" course at your local community college.

    Unfortunately there's no short answer to your question. There a lot of complicated things going on behind the scenes.

    BTW, whether a performer is paid or not has no bearing upon the obligation to pay the performing rights fees. The whole issue revolves around the artist's entitlement to be paid for for their work.
    David

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  3. #3

    Default Re: Is ASCAP the Mafia?

    Thanks for the info. And the community college suggestion.

    Still, it would appeal to my sense of fair play if they charged a fee per use: perhaps a dollar a song like iTunes?, even if the entitlement money isn't actually compensating Cole Porter or Kurt Weill.
    Last edited by artzeal; 06-29-2012 at 01:18 AM.

  4. #4

    Default Re: Is ASCAP the Mafia?

    They left when the waitress called the police? That right there smells fishy. Maybe they're even scammers and don't belong to ASCAP at all. They're hoping, as scammers go, that gullible people will just pay.
    Can't wait to be home with papa.

  5. #5

    Default Re: Is ASCAP the Mafia?

    Indeed, as I read the law, restaurants are expected to pay if customers sing "Happy Birthday", or recorded music is used for ambience. ASCAP and BMI have successfully sued numerous restaurants, retailers, etc. for playing recorded music without a license. Not just restaurants, but any business where the music can be heard by the public, or even a non-commercial gathering. They even went after the Girl Scouts for singing around the campfire. Part of the cost of doing business I wasn't aware of, or the small cafe owners that recently shared with me with their concern at being asked for hefty fees. So, ignorance is no excuse, and the penalties are stiff. The law sets fines up to $25,000 or a year in prison, or both, for non-compliance.

    According to what I am reading; both BMI and ASCAP employ "Rovers" or "Investigators": so perhaps the "enthusiasm" of these contractors (paid on commission?) is not closely monitored by the organizations.

  6. #6

    Default Re: Is ASCAP the Mafia?

    It may be that the companies are allowed to contact the owners of these establishments but must be contacted, say, by mail first and then by attorney the police, etc. These rovers probably have no authority to ask for payment and can only let the owner know he's in non-compliance. That would then let a letter to the proprietor be more of a second warning where they owner can't deny he was playing music requiring a license. I'm not saying that's the exact situation but it may be something similar going on there.

    It's easy for these rover guys to try to pocket cash outside of the company's interest.
    Can't wait to be home with papa.

  7. #7

    Default Re: Is ASCAP the Mafia?

    You're probably on to something there.

    One particular cafe (I'm helping out - an intelligent and capable immigrant, but without an extensive understanding of the vast web of US regulations (not that I'm much better), doesn't understand why he should be compelled to pay several hundred dollars a year to play CDs of the music of his native country which was made and purchased abroad.

    I just read that: according to the 1999 Music Licensing Reform revisions the cafe is exempt from radio and TV royalties (Its less than a third of the under 3700 SF that gets an exemption). Compensation for radio use was specifically included in the demands: so that much is clearly not valid. So, the cafe can play the radio for now. I get the sense that ASCAP figures if any music is played at all, some percentage of that music must be theirs, and therefore they are entitled to coerce - errr - I mean "negotiate" as much as they can out of the venue, with minimal effort troubling themselves with the particulars of the establishment, or the details of the law.

    Got to keep an eye out for each other. In difficult economic times, the predators are hungry too.
    Last edited by artzeal; 06-29-2012 at 03:47 PM.

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