Bands like Moby Dick, Love Gun or Chango are strictly cover acts, but there is no shortage of cover songs creeping into the sets of just about every other Santa Fe band. Hell, covers are fun to play and fun to hear (at least when they’re not subpar, note-for-note renditions that we could just as easily hear on the record) and generally a great way to suck in a crowd.
Yet, despite the lack of serious income generated at most local shows across the globe, there is the constant looming threat of companies like ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) and BMI (Broadcast Music Inc.) casting a shadow on these clubs and bands.
These licensing companies represent artists both large and small in the public space. That is, they look out for live performances and broadcasts that feature songs owned by represented artists and work to ensure they are properly compensated for their intellectual property.
At face value, this doesn't seem crazy; composers own songs and should therefore be paid. However, when we look at issues such as a BMI lawsuit from March of this year levied against Medina, Ohio, bar, 69 Taps, which seeks damages up to $1.5 million because some cover band played tunes by bands like Creedence Clearwater Revival and Poison, we begin to notice a disturbing trend that can ultimately be labeled as needless gouging of smaller-time clubs and bands.
The band in question wasn't named in the suit, which presumably means they won't be on the hook as well, but to seek over a million bucks from a mid-sized venue for something so trivial casts BMI in a negative light and sets a dangerous precedent, especially in a town as cover-happy as Santa Fe. It boils down to what is, in most cases, an unnecessary cost for any number of businesses types.
Did you know that restaurants, nightclubs, etc. aren't supposed to play music via radio or television without paying licensing fees? It's true and it's kind of ridiculous, but these companies are hard at work making damn sure they're squeezing out every last dime they can. On top of that, venues and restaurants are expected to self-monitor and provide these companies with numbers on capacity, projected earnings and so forth, all of which seems like a fairly unreasonable set of roadblocks.
Y'see, according to ASCAP's website, licensing fees are necessary because, "while we may have emotionally adopted the song, it still legally belongs to the songwriter who created it and the music publisher who markets it." Though true enough, this statement reads like anyone who dares to switch on a radio or cover a song is governed by irrational attachments to music and might just feel like they somehow own "Jessie's Girl" despite not having written the thing. It also makes one wonder what happens to all the money. ASCAP states that all income after operating costs of 11.3 percent are paid in royalties to members. Information on BMI's operating costs weren't readily available, but both entities require a one-time fee for representation, and neither charge annual dues. This sounds objectively reasonable, but some local musicians say they rarely, if ever, receive payment.
"I signed up with BMI when we started the band and released the Heavy Rescue EP," Broomdust Caravan's Johny Broomdust says. "I haven't ever received a check."
D Numbers' Paul Feathericci tells a similar tale and describes royalties as "nominal."
Neither Broomdust nor Feathericci condemn ASCAP or BMI, and some local artists and venue officials find the fees reasonable.
"I think ASCAP or BMI have the approach that people should always pay for music, which of course, artists need," says Brian Mayhall, also of D Numbers. "But it isn't fair to have a big company bring in a team of lawyers to a small bar somewhere to set an example."
Besides, few or no royalties for lesser-known artists points to one hard-to-ignore issue: It may not be entirely worth it for bands to align with these companies unless they're pretty huge.
Of course, it's probably safe to say that even though bands operating on the level of Broomdust Caravan may enjoy notoriety in various markets, they probably aren't being played on the radio or covered enough for any kind of significant royalty income. Either way, with record sales designed to take care of labels and touring/merch sales earning the bucks for the artists, companies like ASCAP and BMI look to be little more than the means for third-party sticklers to wring money out of every conceivable situation. How much is enough?
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