We love hearing music played when out at a restaurant, a farmers market or public events. Enjoying a good tune and sharing that with others are part of our American history.
As much as all of us enjoy music, the singers and songwriters have certain rights. We all understand when a musician or band tells Donald Trump not to play their music at his political rallies. They work hard, they have some control over their art and certainly deserve to be compensated for their music.
But there are other issues besides musicians being compensated and having control over their works; big business has a habit of getting in between musicians and listeners in order to collect a tidy profit.
Last year we heard from owners of bars, restaurants, breweries, nightclubs, dance halls and other establishments throughout our districts. They are being harassed and strong-armed by so-called music licensing agencies.
Organizations like the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) and Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI), hire individuals to stake out locations that play live or recorded music and then, as soon as a song is played that these organizations have the rights to, they swoop in and demand royalty fees – big ones – that benefit the music licensing agencies way more than the singers and songwriters.
These licensing agents claim copyright infringement of music. But if a business owner wants proof, they can be crushed under a weight of legal documents to try to force them into submission.
One proprietor is Dale Dunning, who owns The Oasis Bar and Grill in Sequim. He said he had to pay almost $9,000 in fees.
The licensing agent doesn’t even have to identify which songs they own the rights to – leaving owners without a clear idea of which songs to avoid playing if they want to stop paying fees.
It’s a giant, messy racket. That’s why we’re supporting legislation, House Bill 1763, to regulate the music licensing agencies in Washington state.
Music licensing agencies won’t be stopped from collecting fees they are due. We aren’t taking away any rights. All the bill does is require these companies to document their copyrights with the secretary of state’s office, apply for a business license and pay an annual fee.
That fee will go to educating businesses on their rights and communicate how owners can raise issues when they’re being mistreated by the licensing agents.
For business owners, there is no readily available option to avoiding certain music. Most of the time, if they ask a music licensing agent for a list of songs that they will owe royalties on, the agent can refuse.
Music becomes a liability, instead of something to be enjoyed.
The musicians, the artists who create the music and even the companies that own the rights deserve fair compensation. No one is trying to take money from their pocket; if you play their music, you owe them royalties. That’s not in dispute.
What needs to be addressed is the conduct of these music licensing agencies. How can small business owners plan their budgets if there is no oversight on the fees they can be hit with, or any way of knowing if what they’re paying is fair, or even if they’re paying the company that holds the copyrights?
The legislation is simple and maintains the rights of the musicians and those they work with to enforce their rights. But it also protects local small businesses from being ambushed with predatory tactics.
So the next time you’re out enjoying a meal or a drink with a friend, stop and listen to the music. If we don’t stop ASCAP and BMI from taking advantage of our local establishments, those tunes might fade away.
State Rep. Steve Kirby, D-Tacoma, is a former cover-band musician who represents the 29th Legislative District. State Rep. Kevin Van De Wege, D-Sequim, represents the 24th Legislative District.