I was reading recently about a couple of 'unfortunate’ gourmet coffee shop proprietors who have trouble understanding the value of music.
Apparently they allow musicians to perform to their customers, free of charge – other than the coffee of course – and with no payment to the musicians.
But now they are being asked by ASCAP – the American Society of Composers Authors and Publishers – for money so that the writers of the songs that are performed can be paid.
And they don’t think this is fair. They think that songwriters should provide their music to businesses such as theirs for free.
How awful for them. They expect something to be free, but it isn’t, and they are complaining bitterly that they are being 'bullied’ into paying.
Let’s start from basics. Their coffee shop is a business. It exists to make money. They charge their customers for coffee and provide a suitable environment in which to drink it.
We’re not talking about someone’s home, a hobby or a charity. It is a business and it exists to make a profit.
How much do they pay in rent I wonder? Or does the owner of the property allow them to use it free?
How much did their coffee-making equipment cost? Or did the companies donate it? And the coffee?
And their furniture? Free again I presume. And the people who come and clean the premises after the customers have gone home do it for the sheer love of it and don’t require a cent in payment.
The musicians – well, musicians like to play and can’t always get a paying opportunity. No-one is twisting their arm to play. They choose to play for free. They don’t have to if they don’t want to.
But what about the songwriter? Out of all of these people contributing to this business, the songwriter is expected to provide their products for nothing.
So why are songwriters singled out for this special treatment?
The answer is purely and simply that the owners of the coffee shop want to use music to enhance their business and expect to be able to do so without paying for it.
Imagine a songwriter going into their shop and not paying for their coffee. Would the owners be so happy about that?
There are two sides to every argument, and perhaps the coffee shop owners have not been treated entirely fairly.
If their shop was in the UK, then if they didn’t know their obligations already, they would sooner or later receive a visit from a representative of the PRS (Performing Right Society) who would explain that they needed to pay a licence fee to perform music.
This licence fee is set according to a scale for different types of business, size of premises and the way in which the music is used – it could be music played from a radio for instance.
The fee scale is set by The Copyright Tribunal where copyright users also have a say in how much the fees should be.
In general, business owners realize that they have a choice. Use music or don’t use music. If music enhances the profits of the business, then clearly it has a value and the licence fee is simply another business expense out of many expenses to many suppliers.
Since it is impossible to track every piece of music that is performed, revenue from this source is divided up among members of the PRS. Every UK composer whose works are capable of earning money is a member. Members of foreign societies also get a share.
However in the US it isn’t just ASCAP that is after the money. It is BMI (Broadcast Music Inc.) and SESAC too (Society of European Stage Authors and Composers, but they don’t use their full title anymore).
So a business owner first gets a visit from ASCAP and pays up. Then they get a visit from BMI, and they pay up reluctantly. Then SESAC comes round and they start to think whether it is some kind of extortion racket.
And since these organizations are in competition with each other, they set their own rates and there is no perceived need for anything like the UK’s Copyright Tribunal. So it can seem like a tax collector setting the rate of tax.
So it’s complicated for a business owner.
But – poor them – business is complicated. Didn’t they know that before they started? Don’t they realize that there are suppliers to pay, rent and taxes to pay, legal obligations to fulfill?
To ensure to get ASCAP, BMI and SESAC licenses to perform music to the public is a trivial issue in comparison.
Bottom line – music has a value and songwriters deserve to get paid.