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September 10, 2008

ASCAP vs. the Hexagon

hexagonLast week, a representative from the American Society of Composers, Artists and Composers (ASCAP) emailed the owners of The Hexagon (the new live music space where the Lo-Fi Social Club used to be, pictured).

In case you're not familiar with ASCAP, this organization represents hundreds of thousands of musicians/songwriters/etc. from all corners of the music world. From the ASCAP web site:

"ASCAP protects the rights of its members by licensing and distributing royalties for the non-dramatic public performances of their copyrighted works."

Most people don't realize that whenever a copyrighted song is performed in public, a (small) royalty is owed to the person who wrote the tune. "Happy Birthday" brings in a lot of money, I hear. Seriously.

Since it's impossible for ASCAP to monitor how many times a cover song is played in every club and cafe in every city, they make most live music venues pay an annual licensing fee.

I'll bet you know where this is going ...  

In the email, an ASCAP representative demanded the Hexagon pay $3,000 or be sued. Since the Hexagon is a small, low-budget club (most of the money they do make goes into venue improvements), they don't exactly have three grand lying around.

When they first got the e-mail, club management freaked out and canceled last Saturday's show, co-owner Josh Atkins said.

Atkins and the other owners are trying to negotiate a lesser licensing fee. In the meantime, the shows will go on, he said.

"I think we're going to continue as usual," Atkins said. "I'm talking to this guy. We're not going to cancel any [more] events."

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Posted by Sam Sessa at 9:41 AM | | Comments (15)
Categories: Local music


ASCAP is like a legally sanctioned Mafia... They come in and "shake down" establishments with threats - while literally none of that money makes it to the lower tiered musicians that actually need it.

City Paper did a big feature on this issue. Sort of a double edged sword scenerio, depending on if you view music as public art of priced commodity

I suspect the owners of the copyrighted material don't view ASCAP as a legally sanctioned Mafia. Life for composers would be a lot harder if the copyright laws didn't exist; ask Mozart (you may have heard of him, wig, piano, movie with bad history in it.)

Here's a link to City Paper's story, from March of this year:

ASCAP is the worst of the bunch. BMI comes in second, and in third, SESAC, with not too many negative things to say.

When I was an agent with William Morris we constantly heard terrible things about ASCAP from artists, talent buyers and producers. .

Not only does ASCAP routinely engage in Gestapo collection tactics, but they are notorious for consummating deals with clients that are over overly beneficial towards ASCAP.

If you are an artist interested in protecting your work, I would recommend SESAC.

eCommerce Consultant,
Since they are using music to as part of running their business for profit, shouldn't they pay for use of it as part of their operating expenses like rent, utilities, payroll and inventory cost?
The case is make weaker if they collect a cover charge.

If you have complaints about how ASCAP distributes the collected moneys, that is an independant issue.

How many "big-name" artists are playing at The Hexagon? Not many I'd venture. Places like The Hexagon are essential for exposing new talent. ASCAP is effectively stifling that by imposing these ridiculous fees. Hit up someone like the RNC for using a song, leave the small people alone.


"Big Name" artists are the only writers who choose to protect the performance of their work through a performing rights organization. ASCAP, in fact, is 100% member owned and governed by participating members, the vast majority, not big name artists.

A properly managed independent artist/group will increase their yearly revenues in excess of 30% through royalties and licensing arrangements, not to mention a publishing deal.

SESAC is the second oldest of the big three. However, they are the smallest. They go out of their way to create actual relationships with their members and overall, payout quite a bit more, per artist than BMI or ASCAP.

One big problem as I see it is that the fees/fines ASCAP is asking for are just too high. The clubs in question have the choice of either shutting down due to these high expenses, or not playing ASCAP music in order to avoid the fees altogether. Either way ASCAP (and thus the artists they represent) loses. So why don't they just charge a reasonable amount? That way everyone wins.

ASCAP is a great organization that is owned and operated by its own songwriter and publisher members. this club should pay royalties to use their music just like 100's of thousands of other clubs in the USA.
Songwriters have kids and mortgages and car payments like everyone else

Do ASCAP or any of these organizations, when charging a licensing fee, have a sliding scale based upon venue/club size?

GDA: In a sense, yes. ASCAP fees are based upon occupancy/square footage and a couple of other things. Rams Head Live doesn't pay the same as, say, the Ottobar.

Also, anecdotally, ASCAP tends to overstate that size, for obvious reasons.

"Songwriters have kids and mortgages and car payments like everyone else."

This is a misrepresentation of who ASCAP works for, at least at this stage of its existence. Don't buy it.

Standard argument, but it bears repeating: those above mentioned songwriters get started in venues like the Hexagon. Heavy handed performance rights organizations do the opposite of foster small venues and, thus, are a barrier to the development of future "working musicians" and a healthy creative environment in general.

Personally, I hope more venues take the as220 route ( and boycott the PROs and their music. When this becomes a movement, more and more musicians will refuse to register their songs with them, lest their music get ignored (see how that works, jeon?) and with a shrinking membership, ASCAP (etc.) will have to reform.

That, or someone finally puts together a solid anti-trust case against ASCAP.

Elsewhere in the real world....

"Songwriters have kids and mortgages and car payments like everyone else."

Sounds like the case guys used to make to their employers in trying to get a raise before women and housewives, in large numbers, started to pursue careers.

1) ASCAP is a huge bully, and will try to strong-arm any and everyone with threats. They need to be brought DOWN.

2) Most of the "artists" they represent claim that they don't really see much payment, and that the way ASCAP has it set up is NOT for the artist's benifit - it's for ASCAP's and the top 2-3 % of the mega artists.

3) People hear "Non-Profit" and think this organization isn't making money. Non-Profit DOES NOT MEAN that ASCAP doesn't make a ton of money with their extortion.

4) The whole "$300" flat rate blanket fee is rediculous. I run a convention company. We don't even play music. If we hire a band, we expect them to have whatever licensing they need. If the hotel we're at is playing music, we expect them to be licensed to do it. ASCAP has harranged me to get their license for 2 months, "just in case" we play music. Screw them.

Say a book store has a story hour and reads a book to a bunch of kids. The person reading the book aloud does not have to pay the publisher for the right to read the book, nor does the book store. The act of reading this book will likely cause the sales of said book to increase. Why should a venue pay ASCAP "just in case" a band plays a song, or even a snippet of a song, that ASCAP holds the rights to? How does this make sense? I have no grudge against artists being paid for their work, but my venue makes practically no profit and I cannot pay ASCAP. I can't. Besides, shouldn't it be the BAND who pays? They are the ones using the material.

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About Erik Maza
Erik Maza is a features reporter at the Baltimore Sun. He writes for several sections of the Sun paper and contributes weekly columns on music and nightlife. He also writes and edits the Midnight Sun blog. He often covers entertainment, business, and the business of entertainment. Occasionally, he writes about Four Loko, The Block, the liquor board, and those who practice "simulated sex with a potted palm tree." Before The Sun, he was a reporter at the Miami New Times. He's also written for Miami magazine, the Orlando Sentinel, the Sarasota Herald Tribune and the Gainesville Sun. Got tips? Gripes? Pitches? He's reachable at Click here to keep up with the dumb music he's listening to.

Midnight Sun covers Baltimore music, live entertainment, and nightlife news. On the blog, you'll find, among other things, concert announcements, breaking news, bars closings and openings, up-to-date coverage of crime in nightlife, new music, round-the-clock coverage of Virgin Mobile FreeFest, handy guides on bars staying open past 2 a.m. on New Year's Eve and those that carry Natty Boh on draft. Recurring features include seven-day nightlife guides, Concert News, guest reviews of bars and concerts, Wednesday Corkboard, and photo galleries, as well as reader-submitted photos. Thanks for reading.

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