Performing Rights Organizations: PRO’s – LEGAL WOLVES in the FLOCK of SMALL MUSIC

Al Petteway and Amy White brought their magic to our little farming town.  They are good at magic.  www.alandamy.com

In 2005 they graciously traveled from North Carolina to Atwood, KS to support the 1907 Shirley Opera House Project (restoration/rehabilitation) with a fundraising concert.  Their music mesmerized the audience and began a new life for the old building. www.westks.com/aberdeen

The Shirley Opera House holds that indefinable energy that flows from musician to listener and back.  Built from locally kilned bricks in 1907 it was recognized for its authentic character by the Kansas and National Registers of Historic Places as it turned 100 years old.  As a member of the Boulder Acoustic Society exclaimed “there’s music in the walls”.   www.boulderacousticsociety.net

Since that first event, many others have followed.  I call it our Monthly Music Fix and encourage people to view a night at the Opera as better than drugs.  Anti-depressants, that is.

Now, six years later I am depressed, angry, frustrated and outraged.  We are facing the same fate as many small venues that host live events to make magic, not money.  In the course of hosting extraordinary musicians I have learned about the mega-power of BMI, ASCAP, SESAC and their international brothers in arms.

Combined, they are a dragnet system that gathers, under the guise of artist promotion and intellectual rights protection, full control (backed by hard legal authority) of the musicians, their songs and the venues vital to the music.  They are well established and voracious for what they have decreed is theirs.

 PRO’s (Performing Rights Organizations) 101: 

ASCAP - American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers has been in business since 1914.  According to their glossy brochure, which features a packed room of folks enjoying food, drink and dancing, they represent all types of music and claim over 8 million musical works in their repertory.

BMI - Broadcast Music, Inc. represents 6.5 million works 

SESAC - founded in 1930 to represent European artists, the name no longer stands for anything; it just is. And it has Bob Dylan among many, many others.  I reviewed their website and could not find an easy listing of how many works are in their control. 

BMI claims revenues of approx. $920 million with $790 million paid out in royalties – leaving about 130 million for business practices.  ASCAP and SESAC don’t publish their revenues and payouts for easy access.  However, in all cases the payouts go primarily to the big successes, based on surveys done of radio and TV airtime.  The majority of songwriters find themselves on the ‘waiting for the big one’ list.

Venues such as ours, that pay 100% of the ticket take to the musicians, encourage them to sell their CD’s, provide meals and lodging as needed and have even filled a gas tank or two directly benefit the very people that do not receive the money taken from us as ‘permission’ to play songs we aren’t playing.

This is not a new issue, nor has it not been fought.  I could refer you to a long list found by using search engines on the net, but here are just a couple that exemplify the results: Harvey Reid’s article found at www.woodpecker.com  It is an older article but well researched and with clear explanations.  www.techdirt.com carries several articles regarding the inequity of the system and how it is pointless to fight.  The account of HOW ONE INDEPENDENT MUSICIAN DEFEATED BMI found at www.woodpecker.com/writing/essays/phillips is such a sad case because even though he won a battle he should never have had to fight, he still lost his job.  Other sites will lead you to some outraged and rough speaking recipients of abuse.

In my own case, I asked for help from the musicians who are booked at our venue for the upcoming year.  I hoped they might have suggestions that could prevent us having to close.  Here are some responses – written with their permission:

Chris Proctor: www.chrisproctor.com “One of the ironic things about this issue is that these folks claim that they are protecting us, and our intellectual property, from abuse, while in reality they are high-tone extortionists. I’m a member of BMI and they are very helpful as my advocates in dealing with large institutions, but they need to recognize that this business model does great harm when they apply it to small presenters like yourself, which are 1/2 of the venues that present my music.”

Dorian Michael: www.dorianmichael.com “I was a member of BMI for just a minute 12 years ago and then I wrote them a letter saying take me off their rolls.  I think they are the mafia…and I never had any truck with ASCAP or SESAC.  I wrote ASCAP years ago thanking them for screwing up several of the venues that once gave me work and who then said “Forget live music it ain’t worth it because of ASCAP.”

 Joe Scott: www.acousticeidolon.com So sorry to hear of your troubles with these org. This stuff is absolutely ridiculous and drives me crazy. This may not be the best advice but I would ignore them and if push ever comes to shove Hannah and I will come and vouch/testify on your behalf.  We are members of BMI and while we appreciate their efforts to get any monies owed to us, BMI and all the other performing rights org. go way over board in the smaller venues and communities. If they keep this up they will ruin it for all of us independent musicians and venues.

I was also encouraged to research the Folk Alliance International group who has worked out a deal with BMI and ASCAP to exempt ‘house concerts’ from these fees under the understanding that these are private events in private homes.  The increased popularity of this as an option for traveling musicians reflects the squeeze put on venue availability.

What to do?  I am trying to negotiate our fee with the PRO’s to an equitable, reasonable level.  They currently base the audience by square feet of the building – coming up with the ridiculous number of 150.  We have had as few as 15 at an event and max out at 50.  The building is large, but most of it is unusable for music.

If that fails, or the pressure becomes too great to stomach any longer, we will have to close and go “underground” via the house concerts.  I am much opposed! 

For further sad evidence of  America’s creative freedom be sure to watch “BEFORE THE MUSIC DIES” www.beforethemusicdies.com & www.bside.com

SUPPORT LIVE MUSIC WHEREVER YOU LIVE – take a young person with you to share the magic and send letters to BMI, ASCAP & SESAC protesting the punitive system for small music.

Alice Hill

February 10, 2011

Alice Hill is a short story writer, restaurant and venue operator, mother and Kansas farm wife.

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4 Responses to Performing Rights Organizations: PRO’s – LEGAL WOLVES in the FLOCK of SMALL MUSIC

  1. Alice Hill says:

    UPDATE: one of the major PRO’s has negotiated a fair rate for the Shirley Opera House. A piece of lamb is better than no lamb at all!

  2. admin says:

    Thanks for the update Alice. Congratulations on a win?

  3. Alice Hill says:

    A small win, but this will keep us open for now. I hope the other major PRO follows suit. AH

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