The Dues

“We’re gonna play a cover [song]. If you are from ASCAP or BMI, you can fuck off.” That’s how Jackson Milgaten, singer/guitarist/bassist with Vision of a Dying World, introduced a Daniel Johnston song recently at the Ken Club.

ASCAP/BMI are the two major nonprofit groups that collect performance royalties from bars and nightclubs to pay songwriters. It’s not that Milgaten doesn’t respect the rights of songwriters; as the owner of local label Single Screen Records (the Sess, Red Feathers, Powerchords), he secures permission to use copyrighted songs on his CDs. For instance, he says he paid a $150 licensing fee so the Sess could record a song by a ’60s garage band called the Remains.

Milgaten’s issue with ASCAP/BMI has to do with the clearinghouses going after small bars that feature bands which occasionally throw in a cover song.

“Most of the larger venues, like the Belly Up, Casbah, and Beauty Bar, pay their [ASCAP/BMI] fees,” says Milgaten. “Besides, who cares if someone else plays your music in some small bar? Nobody is making any great money out here.”

Bar owners usually pay $2000 to $7500 a year to ASCAP/BMI for the rights to have bands perform cover songs. The fee is determined by the size of the venue and the number of nights music is featured. If the businesses don’t comply, they could be sued.

BMI spokesman Jerry Bailey says the statutory damages range from $750 to $30,000 per song. “And if it’s willful infringement, it could be up to $150,000 per song.… We don’t often lose [court] cases.” Bailey says BMI only goes after the business – not the artists who play the copyrighted songs.

BMI licenses about 600,000 U.S. bars and restaurants. Bailey says that only about 3 percent of clearinghouse income comes from licensing live-music venues; most of its income comes from radio and TV. But if a venue refuses to pay its license, BMI will send a “researcher” who will sit in the bar and write down the songs that are played and record them with a small recorder.

Milgaten says he blurted out the F-word out of frustration: he says he heard that ASCAP/BMI representatives recently paid visits to local nightspots. Bailey would not confirm the veracity of what Milgaten heard.

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