License fees threaten to unplug local music

Published 12:00 am Thursday, February 5, 2009

For more than two years, Daniel Boone had been hosting live music every Thursday night at his coffeehouse in Vicksburg. The shows didn’t always bring in a crowd, but he felt good about providing local artists a venue, as well as giving tourists and locals a place to hear local talent.

If you go

Four bands will perform at Highway 61 Coffeehouse, 1101 Washington St., on Friday and Saturday to raise awareness about and money for licensing fees local music venues are required to pay to host musicians. Donations of $5 are asked, but not required. Lannie McCann and the Backwater Band, Lee H. Abraham & the Boone Brothers and Osgood and Blaque will perform Friday beginning at 7 p.m. Bridging the Gap will play on Saturday beginning at 1 p.m.

Email newsletter signup

Sign up for The Vicksburg Post's free newsletters

Check which newsletters you would like to receive
  • Vicksburg News: Sent daily at 5 am
  • Vicksburg Sports: Sent daily at 10 am
  • Vicksburg Living: Sent on 15th of each month

Then, in November, Boone started receiving letters from performance rights organizations such as BMI and ASCAP demanding licensing fees to host live bands — and he was forced to pull the plug on the performances.

“Between all of them, they want close to $1,000 per year, and they’re very aggressive about it; they threaten you with a lawsuit if you don’t pay and continue to have live music,” said Boone, owner of Highway 61 Coffeehouse on Washington Street. “In this economy, I just don’t have that kind of money.”

Although his initial thought was to stop the music, Boone has since changed his mind. In the process he hopes to bring attention to the challenges small businesses face when trying to stage local musicians.

“I hate to just quit having live music because I really think it’s important for the community and adds value to our city,” said Boone, who is a musician as well as a business owner. “So, I started thinking, ‘Well, they have all kinds of music benefits for various causes, and we ought to have a paying-your-dues benefit.”

On Friday and Saturday, Highway 61 Coffeehouse will host its first live bands since November in an attempt to raise awareness about — and hopefully a little money for — licensing fees.

Beginning at 7 p.m. Friday, bluegrass and country will be provided by Lannie McCann and the Backwater Band, while Lee H. Abraham & the Boone Brothers will play rock and blues tunes. Osgood and Blaque will also bring their R&B and soul selections to the stage. On Saturday, beginning at 1 p.m., Bridging the Gap will play old time and Celtic music. Boone is asking for a $5 donation from those who attend, although he doesn’t anticipate it covering the $1,000 licensing fees he said he will pay to continue to host local bands.

“It’s something I don’t think many people are aware of, but it really puts a club owner in an adversarial position,” said Boone.

Licensing performance rights goes back to a 1917 Supreme Court ruling on copyright law, said Jerry Bailey, spokesman for Broadcast Music Inc. Along with the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, BMI represents about 97 percent of all copyrighted music in the country. The Society of European Stage Authors & Composers represents the remaining 3 percent of songwriters, but has some notable artists such as Bob Dylan and Neil Diamond.

Fees range from about $300 to $9,000 per organization, depending on how much music a business plays and how often. And the fees aren’t just collected for live performances. Virtually every business from bowling alleys to department stores pay licensing fees to play recorded music for their patrons and customers.

“Radio stations. TV stations. Cable networks. The NHL and NFL. Political parties. Cruise ships. Fitness centers. Dance studios. Skating rinks. Web sites. You name it. If they’re playing copyrighted music, they’re required to pay licensing fees,” said Bailey.

The only legal way to get around paying a licensing fee is to host bands that play only original material or, in small bars or stores, play only a radio. Other than that, playing copyrighted music for the public means paying a licensing fee. The licensing organizations could even go after the starving or homeless musicians who busk on the streets for tips.

“Under copyright law we could do that because it’s a public performance, but we operate on the basis of efficiency. Obviously, if it becomes too expensive for us to collect the revenue we don’t pursue it,” Bailey said.

Some businesses owners in Vicksburg pay the licensing fees, and some don’t. Robert Ware, owner of The Ware House Sports Bar and Lounge, said he pays anywhere from $1,000 to $5,000 a year to host live bands, provide a jukebox and offer videos on demand for his customers.

“I think it’s relatively inexpensive for the entertainment it provides,” said Ware. “It definitely makes it financially tough on small venues and businesses, but I can understand it. We are profiting on their goods.”

Angela Lovins, who co-owns The Loft with her husband and parents, doesn’t see it that way. Lovins said The Loft pays licensing fees on its jukebox, but has not yet been hassled for an additional fee for the live music it provides several nights a week — and she doesn’t intend on paying one, either.

“You would think the artists would be happy that you’re promoting them, but instead they try to charge you an exorbitant amount of money,” she said. “If I had to pay a huge fee every year I would consider cutting the live music out. It could end up costing you a fortune. There’s already some nights that we don’t cover the $800 or $900 it takes to get a band.”

Bailey said most people assume songwriters are the superstars they see on television and hear on the radio. In some cases, they are. However, Bailey said the majority of the 375,000 songwriters BMI represents are people you’ve never heard of and probably never will.

The licensing fees are filtered to owners of music copyrights using a formula that estimates a song’s popularity. “People don’t think of the songwriter as a small businessman, but most of them are. They have bills to pay and kids to put through college, and they’re struggling, too,” he said. “We’re not some big corporation out to make money. We operate on a nonprofit basis and our overhead is less than 12 percent. We operate more efficiently than most charities do, and we exist solely to make sure our songwriters get paid.”

BMI’s revenue last year was approximately $901 million, said Bailey, of which only about 3 percent came from bars, restaurants and coffee shops. The majority of its revenue comes from radio and TV stations, as well as international use of music. Still, he said, pursuing small live shows is worthwhile.

“Well, 3 percent of $901 million is about $27 million. We can’t just write that off. If we did the songwriters who are affiliated with BMI would immediately want to go down the street to our competitors,” said Bailey. “In addition to that, copyright laws state we have to treat every business the same. We can’t give a brother-in-law deal to one business that we don’t offer every other business. We are looking at ways to give the little guy a break — we’re not opposed to it — but we have to be fair to all business owners.”

Many businesses around the country have tried to take on BMI and other licensing organizations through the years. However, Bailey said most end up either losing the suits filed against them or settling outside of court once they have copyright laws explained to them. Boone has read the stories, and said he hopes his benefit show will help his business and others in Vicksburg write a new story in the history of licensing fees.

“The stories out there are all about businesses either being sued for hundreds of thousands of dollars or just giving up on live music. We really want our story to be different,” said Boone. “We’re not going to get sued, but we’re not going to give up either. We’re going to work together to get through this.”


Contact Steve Sanoski at