Coffee Shops Getting Copyright ‘Shakedown?’

Florida coffee ships and other live music venues forced to pay royalty fees if performing artists play copyrighted music.

Want to hear a guy play a few Bob Dylan cover songs for free over a mocha latte half-caf grande? Well, the time to do so may be drawing to a close in coffee shops and other small live music venues around the country.

An article on Florida Today recounts the misery many of these owners are facing in dealing with music licensing companies who have been stepping up enforcement of copyright protection law which “…requires each business that publicly performs music to obtain permission prior to performing any copyrighted music.” Under the law, failure to do so can incur damages “…ranging from $750 to $150,000 for each song performed without proper authorization,” according to SESAC spokesman Shawn Williams.

Who is SESAC? Headquartered in Nashville, it bills itself as “The most innovative and fastest growing performing rights organization in the US,” and much like other performing rights organizations is “…designed to represent songwriters and publishers and their right to be compensated for having their music performed in public.”

That’s right, if you play a song in public copyright law says that one of these performing rights organizations is supposed to okay and license it even if there’s no cover charge involved and you’re not getting paid.

The owner of the East Coast Coffee & Tea shop in Indian Harbour, Florida mentions how he decided to start offering FREE live music on Friday and Saturday nights. Nobody was charged to hear them, and the musical artists weren’t paid to play. It was free music in every sense and to a logical person would seem a reasonable “fair use” of copyrighted “material.” But, one of the other performing rights organizations, ASCAP, didn’t see it that way and came knocking a few months later demanding a $400 a year licensing fee.

“At the time, the shop was losing money, so we had to break it up into payments,” said Laurie Hall, part of the husband and wife team that own the shop. But, about 6 months later several more performing rights organizations came knocking and demanded that the Halls pay a music licensing fee to them as well. As a result, the Halls decided to axe those musicians who didn’t play their own music.

“It makes me so angry,” Hall said. “People like playing here because it’s not a bar, there’s no smoke and it’s a clean environment. I feel like the greedy music industry is extorting money from us and hurting these musicians just starting out.”

How did they find out about their Friday and Saturday night “concerts?” Well, according to Richard Reimer, senior vice president of ASCAP, “Local newspapers carry advertisements for venues that present live entertainment and, of course, the Internet is a valuable resource as well.” He also furthers that “ASCAP representatives may visit establishments and find that they advertise live entertainment.” Yep, they actively seek out places that offer live entertainment and make sure that if any of the artists perform covers then the business has to pay a licensing fee.

“They have threatened to shut down my place,” said Lou Andrus, owner of the popular beachside nightclub Lou’s Blues.

“It started 15 years ago when I had a guy come out to our other place, Cantina dos Amigos, and play Mexican music on his guitar on the patio,” Andrus said. “They came after me for money. Are they really sending royalty checks to the songwriter in Mexico?”

He apparently pays BMI and ASCAP about $3,000 a year and chooses to ignore the smaller performing rights organizations.

“There are so many damned companies you don’t know who to pay,” he said. “One guy called and said I had to pay him if I played any gospel music at all. It’s really a mess.”

One things for sure, it’s certain to have an ongoing detrimental effect on small live music venues who certainly can’t afford to shell out money for licensing fees to every copyright enforcement organization that shows up on their doorstep. The music industry already managed to destroy physical CDs and record stores, is it now trying to kill off the ubiquitous coffee shop guitar player as well? I wonder if they realize that in doing so it will just further increase the demand for digital music via a portable music player listening alternative and thus hasten their slow, inevitable slide into irrelevance as music distribution entities.