ASCAP <= RIAA and the other evil empires, hurting musicians

I ran across something tonight that really struck a chord with me, and learned a lot about ASCAP – an organization that uses tactics that should land it on the “evil organizations” list.

The Greenfoot booking machine is running on all cylinders right now, and part of that is because we’re trying a lot of new things.  In mid-July we’re scheduled to play at Pizza Hut of all places.  I realize that “Pizza Hut” isn’t synonymous with live music, but it’s a great concept that we’re really excited about.  As a local musician, I appreciate any way a business tries to outreach to the local music community, and as a band we’re excited to appeal to a different demographic of fans.

Tonight I got an email from the gal that is coordinating the shows, stating that ASCAP (the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) have made their presence known, threatening to take action if any of the band makes unlawful usage of someone else’s music – in the form of cover songs.  They’ve made the Pizza Hut manager aware that they will be on-hand to monitor the shows and make sure no one violates the rules.

I read this and was floored.  I’ve heard bands do cover songs all the time it was under the impression that as long as a band didn’t record or sell a recording of the song – they were fine.  I got on and did some research and found out just how wrong I’ve been.  (Note – I’m not a lawyer and my research consisted of about 30 minutes on Google, so I still have a lot to learn).

First off, a royalty fee needs to be played for every cover song that you do.  Here is where things get crazy – it’s not on the band to pay the fee, but actually on the club owner or promoter to pay the BMI, ASAP, SESAC (this is what I got from  The logic here is that the club owner has the most to gain from you playing that song, which is why they should pay the fee.

I was little surprised to go to the DrummerWorld discussion forum and find that most musicians had little sympathy for the bar owners.   On one hand, I can see how this can make sense, and I can also understand that this is common knowledge and not a big deal to the bar owner that has live bands playing every night.   Where I take issue is that ASCAP is harassing a smaller place (and yes I know I’m talking about Pizza Hut) that is trying to do what it can to support local music, and has this “take no prisoners” approach.  I read a story about how a bar in Oregon was going to have to close down because a band played a cover song at their bar.  In the end they’re hurting musicians in the name of helping musicians.

I realize Pizza Hut (under Pepsi Co.) is a huge corporation with deep pockets, but this idea to bring in live music isn’t coming from a board room – it’s a locally grown idea started by the team that works at that location, in an attempt to partner with and support the local music scene.  These intimidation tactics are only going to result in businesses being discouraged to venture into efforts like these, and abandon it all together.  I hope that the bands scheduled with PIzza Hut draw a good crowd this year, because I wouldn’t blame the owner/managers deciding that ASCAP breathing down their necks is more trouble than it’s worth for next summer.

As band that plays original music – that hurts us.  There aren’t an abundance of venues for original-music bands, and the last thing we need is for places to get shut down in the name of protecting musicians.

This also hurts us on a musical level as well.  Although Greenfoot is original-music, we’re starting to look to playing some cover songs to help us fill out needed time slots, as well as find ways to appeal to new fans.  How many times do you sit in a live-music bar and hear a familiar song that you like, which encourages you to listen and opens your ears for the band’s original material.  The last thing I want to do is watch song-writers get robbed – and if a band is an exclusive cover band making money off other people’s music then they probably should pay – but what ASCAP is doing in cases like ours is simply robbing Peter to pay Paul.

What’s worse, this introduces an entire gray area for our band.  We’ve been asked to play at some company picnics this summer. Naturally this is great exposure for our original music, but the picnickers want to hear songs they also know.  If we play covers, who pays ASCAP?  The company sponsoring the picnic?  The musicians being hired to play?  My girlfriend’s was going to encourage her company to have us play at their grand opening, but with this fee confusion they may just be persuaded to go with a cover band that has a blanket fee established – thanks ASCAP for screwing original-music artists.

This is just another demonstration for the need of copyright reform, and companies employing their archaic business models to cannibalize their own industry.  Do you remember how in the movies when people in a bar randomly break out in song?  I hope if that ever happens to me in real life, no one from ASCAP is sitting at the table next to me (especially if I own that bar).

Technorati tags: ascap, musicians, original-music, copyright, cover songs