The bottom lines of a few new downtown Auburn bars just got a little smaller after they were contacted by music performance rights organizations.
Within the last month, The Good Shepherds Brewing Co., Prison City Pub & Brewery and Moondog's Lounge have been contacted by the organizations. Under U.S. copyright law, they collect licensing fees from venues that either play recordings or host live performances of music by the artists the organizations represent, then distribute the money to those artists. Venues that feature copyrighted music without the proper licensing have been taken to court by the organizations.
The three major organizations are the Society of European Stage Authors and Composers, which contacted Good Shepherds; the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, which contacted Prison City, and Broadcast Music Inc., which, along with SESAC and ASCAP, contacted Moondog's.
Lynn Stillman, co-owner of the 24 State St. lounge, said it secured licenses from SESAC and BMI shortly after opening last summer, but received literature from ASCAP within the last month, too. Each organization formulates its license fee based on the venue's size and frequency of music. In the case of Moondog's, which hosts two to three bands a week, that means paying between $550 and $600 annually to each organization. And for a bar that partially built its identity on live music, pulling the speaker plug is no option.
"Basically, they back you into a corner," Stillman said.
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Prison City co-owner Dawn Schulz said she was recently asked by ASCAP to pay a yearly fee of $481, which covers the music played through the 28 State St. brewpub's sound system and the handful of bands it hosts monthly. And at Good Shepherds, owner/brewmaster Garrett Shepherd said SESAC has requested a yearly fee of $714 to license his 31 Loop Road nano-brewery's two-speaker setup and monthly live band.
"That's crazy for a small business like us," Shepherd said.
The three Auburn business owners said the organizations haven't suggested that they're owed the fees for past infractions. Instead, they seem to be prompting the businesses to pay ahead for new licenses. And the owners do agree with the organizations' stated purpose, they said.
"You want the artists to be paid for their work," Schulz said. "It's just the way they go about collecting their licensing fees isn't necessarily fair."
Stillman questioned the process, however. For instance, none of the organizations has named a particular artist in its notices to Moondog's. They don't seem to care whom they're collecting for, Stillman said, and such broad-based tactics make her wonder how much the appropriate artists are being compensated, if at all.
The organizations seem to rationalize such tactics statistically. BMI, on its website, says, "Approximately one out of every two songs played on radio is BMI-licensed music. In addition to the music of our U.S. copyright owners, the BMI repertoire also includes the music of songwriters and composers in more than 90 other countries."
Regardless, Stillman expects Moondog's will eventually have no choice but to secure its ASCAP license and renew its SESAC and BMI ones.
"Anybody I've talked to about this has said 'Yeah, it's just the way it is,'" she said. "Paying $600 is going to be cheaper than paying a lawyer."