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Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on February 20th, 2014, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 14, Issue 50 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [] - Volume 14, Issue 50

Local music venues must fork over hundreds of dollars to provide live entertainment


If it seems like there are fewer places at which to play or listen to music on the Central Coast, it’s because there are fewer events. Recent efforts by organizations designed to collect music-licensing fees on behalf of writers and publishers have prompted a number of venues to limit or even stop offering music altogether.

“I had to shut down my Sunday Blues Jam because BMI came knocking. Shame to have to do it. But we’re working on getting something else going,” said Randall Kirkendoll, owner of Creative Juices Lounge in Guadalupe.

BMI is Broadcast Music Inc., one of three performing rights organizations, or PROs, as they are referred to in the industry.

In order to play music of any kind, venues are required under copyright law to pay a licensing fee. PROs collect those licensing fees from venues playing music covered under copyrights. There are three PROs: BMI; The American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP); and The Society of European Stage Authors and Composers (SESAC).

John Wright, owner and winemaker at Standing Sun Winery, pays the fees to cover the two to three monthly music events he offers. He said his venue books artists who typically play to arena-size audiences, giving them the opportunity to play in a more intimate setting. He considers the fees just a business expense.

“We’re on the lowest tier for that. We’re a winery, and we just have music events, so we pay the lowest tier. It’s about $500 a year per license to the three different agencies, so we just make sure everyone gets their slice,” Wright said.

While some venues just chalk it up to a business expense, other venues don’t have the margin to offset the fees and have thus been forced to stop offering music or limit the music they do offer.

Business attorney Edward Ned Hearn, whose practice focuses on intellectual property rights, said bars, coffee houses, and concert halls are all subject to paying the licensing fees.

“It’s pretty much any venue where music is played so that the public can hear it,” Hearn said.

That includes music played through a speaker system, on a CD player, or even a jukebox, he said.

The fee scales differ depending on the size of the venue, the catalog of music played, and even whether there is a cover. Hearn said most venues are aware, or are made aware, of the licensing fees by the PROs.

However, because of the extent of those fees, it can become a little confusing sometimes. Hearn said he knows of a concert venue that thought it didn’t have to pay the licensing fees because the actual singer was performing at the venue and the owners were already paying the singer. He said that, according to copyright law, venues still have to pay licensing fees to have musicians play their music at a venue—even if the venues pay the musicians themselves.

Hearn said organizations aren’t doing anything “mean or nasty”—they’re just following through with collecting what is due to music writers and publishers.

Agents for those organizations identify venues playing music, and if the venue isn’t registered for a license through their organization, they contact them—though some venues say they don’t “contact” them, but rather threaten them with lawsuits.

Josh Snow of O’Sullivan’s Pub in Santa Maria said he once got a call from a representative who was particularly scary.

“‘We will come in and we will bury you,’ he said. That’s a direct quote. I’ll never forget it,” Snow remembered. “‘We will come in and we will bury you.’”

He said the bar’s previous owner stayed under the radar. After taking over, Snow attempted to promote the bar as a venue for music; almost immediately PRO representatives contacted him.

Snow began paying fees to two PROs even though the musicians he was booking mostly played original songs because a friend advised him that it’s easier to pay the fees than to prove covers aren’t played at his venue.

He was recently contacted by a third PRO that sends him three pieces of mail per week and at least one phone call a week asking for payment.

“Live music has never been a big moneymaker for my bar. You want people to have a little entertainment, but the fees make you think hard about whether you want to do it,” Snow said.

Because of the fees, Snow has stopped holding his open mic nights. He only has music once or twice a month, but still pays about $500 a year to one PRO, $650 to another, and the third is asking for $900.

“The best way to describe the PROs is ‘old-school protection money,’” Snow said.

He said the licensing doesn’t provide any other benefits to the venues; they aren’t even highlighted to the artists as places to book a performance.

Hearn said the PROs take generally 10 to 15 percent of the fees and the rest is distributed to the music publisher and writer. If the musician is also the writer and publisher, they get both fees. Venues that violate licensing can be sued for copyright infringement resulting in tens of thousands of dollars in damages.

Wright, Snow, and Kirkendoll all said they have no problem paying artists what they are due for their music. However, some venue operators question whether the money they pay actually gets to the artists after everyone takes a cut along the way.

“The thing is, if you were the agency contacting me and I knew you were giving every penny to the artists, I wouldn’t have a problem with it. But how do I know they are doing that?” Kirkendoll said.



Contact contributor Shelly Cone through the managing editor at

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