ASCAP & BMI – Mining the WV Mountains for Royalties

So there I was minding my own business in an afternoon session of the Create WV conference, listening attentively at a panel called “Creating Places to Hang Out.” The premise is simple enough: How to create so-called “third places:”

“The places we spend our time away from work and home are important, especially to creative, New Economy workers. Whether it is for food, entertainment, or just a pleasant place to hang out, people are attracted to public and semi-public spaces to be around others, share ideas and dream up new opportunities.”

The panel boasted the proprietors of some of the very coolest places in WV, including the Cathedral Cafe in Fayetteville, WV (by the New River Gorge), the near-legendary folk/acoustic venue (and RoeDeo-RoadTested) Purple Fiddle in Thomas, WV, and the much-buzzed-about Cafe Cimino in Sutton, WV, population 993.

The discussion naturally turned to questions about what makes a “Third Place” cool and attractive, and what visitors/tourists/customers are looking for. Places that are dog-friendly. Places with books. Coffee available all the time. Comfortable places, nooks, and crannies. Oh, and people are looking for more live music.

And that’s when the entire conversation took a sudden left turn.

The answer from the panel: Chances are that you’re going to be hearing LESS music – both live and pre-recorded, rather than more.

Tim Urbanic of the Cafe Cimino then proceeded to tell a harrowing tale of harrassment from ASCAP and BMI….demanding copyright payments (both for piped-in music from radio stations as well as cover bands playing Eagles tunes) running into several thousands of dollars. Threatening lawsuits. And getting 10 calls in a row from BMI on a Friday night, the caller trying to overhear the live music being performed in the background to determine if it’s a song in copyright.

Astonishing. Unbelievable. And the facts – and tactics – confirmed by all of the other live music providers in the room.

So maybe all of the other doomsayers are right. If the PROs are trying to dig copyright coin out of the hardscrabble West Virginia soil, they must either be really desperate, or have built a scarily efficient enforcement machine.

Or both. So, my question: If enforcing the copyright rules for clubs, cafes, and stores is happening on this scale in lil’ ol’ West VA, how’s this playing in Austin, Nashville, and New York? Or Branson, Missouri, for that matter?

It should be noted, by the way, that ASCAP posted record revenues last year: $785 million, of which they paid out $680 million to their members. So I guess it’s working.


  1. Bonni McKeown (Barrelhouse Bonni) said:

    Yep, I was part of that discussion in W.Va. last week. Thank you Ben for posting it on your blog so that others can wake up to this issue. The PROs are picking on small venues…and at the other end,they are failing to develop a system that captures on-air plays of small musical acts. To register on the BMI counts, you have to have many, many radio plays of your song…and how many blues or bluegrass bands, jazz composers, and original songwriters of all genres get hundreds or thousands of plays on commercial radio? Public radio is great but the showtimes are largely limited. What is happening is the stifling of musical talent at ground level in venues all over the country.

    yours truly, Barrelhouse Bonni

    19 November 2007
  2. ThumMeister said:

    If the cost of playing other people’s music is rising, then isn’t the relative cost of performing original music falling? One might hope that this could favor small groups performing their own original works.

    20 November 2007
  3. bendinend said:

    We’re in the same boat down here in Hinton. The Chestnut Revival Coffee/Tea and Book Exchange is as small potatoes as it gets, 20 seats. There is an open mic once a week on Saturday night and don’t you know, ASCAP pounced. By the time they figured it out, between BMI, ASCAP, and SESAC the bill would come to about $1000/ yr.

    13 April 2011

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