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The Day the Music Died: How Greed Is Killing the Cover Band Scene

Aggressive enforcement by ASCAP and BMI is forcing bars and restaurants to stop offering live music, or forcing them to close all together because of excessively high fees, or lawsuits.

Aggressive enforcement by ASCAP and BMI is forcing bars and restaurants to stop offering live music, or forcing them to close all together because of excessively high fees, or lawsuits.

If you want proof that music is dying, just watch the Super Bowl halftime show. Aside from paying $100 or more to see a huge arena show, or watching a television spectacle, very few places are left these days to hear live music. Especially for free, or close to it.

That’s because ASCAP and BMI, the performing rights organizations that pay performance royalties to artists, have been actively targeting the local bars and restaurants that still feature cover bands playing live music.

They are bombarding the ever-shrinking scene with threats, fines, and in some cases, lawsuits, for not paying annual performance fees to host cover bands. The venues have been forced to either stop providing live music, or, in some cases, close shop permanently.

Cover Bands: Playing for Love Not Money
Playing in a professional cover band is hard work. We give you an entire evening’s entertainment just for the price of a few beers. Routinely, we play for three hours or more, twice as long as even headlining original acts. We ask nothing in return except that you “Like” our Facebook page. If we’re lucky we make pennies a night for the privilege of entertaining a room full of drunken college kids, who, if they had the choice, would probably rather listen to a DJ. We compete with a hundred other bands, most of whom suck but whose followings dwarf yours so they get the good gigs. Just try dealing with owners/managers who routinely come off as if they’re Bill Graham booking the Fillmore. In reality, they’re more likely to be running a dumpy Irish pub on the outskirts of town with faulty plumbing and watered down booze. Obviously, most of us don’t do it for the money. We do it because we love it. Me, personally, I would pay you to let me play–covers, originals, whatever. Playing for five people, or five hundred, it’s what I love to do. But it’s getting harder and harder to find places to do it. Check out the band’s Web site here.

— David Fagin

Now that I’m playing in a cover band, we’re finding it harder and harder to find decent, respectable venues to perform – not to mention encountering numerous bar owners who lament about not being able to have live music anymore, due specifically to this issue.

So, I decided to make a few inquiries to learn why ASCAP and BMI have become so aggressive seeking payment from establishments that are mainly interested in providing some harmless entertainment for a few dozen regulars on a weekly basis.

After all, we’re not talking about Madison Square Garden, here.

Being first and foremost a songwriter, and someone who, to this day survives on the royalty checks sent by my performing rights organization, however small they now may be, I am all for paying artists what they deserve. But, I’m also for a fair and balanced system.

Turns out, when it comes to administering fines or fees as it relates to local live performance, the system is neither fair nor balanced. Shocker.

The issue of musical copyrights, and the matter of artist compensation has been a hot button issue since the day Napster and downloading first burst onto the scene and turned the entire music business upside down.

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It seems that entities like Pandora, Spotify, Rhapsody, Sirius/XM, and even iTunes, are constantly sparring over what rate is fair for this broadcaster and that one. Even Capitol Hill has no idea what’s going on most of the time.

Both ASCAP and BMI pretty much stick to their guns when it comes to their position on the issue. They say they do their best to educate bar and restaurant owners as to why they need to pay these fees. And they say they try to avoid lawsuits and legal action whenever possible.

That’s all well and good. But, while I agree collecting fees helps songwriters, I fail to see how collecting a fee for a band performing a Springsteen tune helps the aspiring original songwriter with his or her career.

After all, I’d venture to say 99.999 percent of cover bands don’t cover aspiring original acts who currently have about 126 Facebook likes. Ten times out of ten, the songs performed by cover bands are written by artists who are already mega-stars.

Not that these stars don’t deserve to be compensated for their work. They absolutely do, but this is where the “fair” part comes in.

It seems there’s no cap on how much the performing rights organizations can charge. One year they could set the bar at $3,000. The next, they can come at you for double that. There’s currently no regulation in place to set the “bar,” so to speak on fees.

They also apparently base their assessment on a bar’s or restaurant’s total square footage, even though an establishment might have 3,000 square feet of dining space, with only 500 square feet or so set aside for music.

There’s also the issue of ownership. In many instances the owner of the publishing rights may not be the writer. Thus, large corporations, such Universal Music Group or EMI, are the real beneficiaries.


David Fagin

David Fagin

David Fagin is a New York writer, producer and musician. His resume boasts an incredibly diverse range of contributions, from top news sites such as Salon, AOL News, Yahoo and The Huffington Post to a wide-range of humorous entities such as The Onion, The Muppets, Comedy Central, Dennis Miller, and Howard Stern. He is fascinated by technology and social media and the seemingly love/hate relationship we have with the changing world. He is also a food snob.

Additionally, a bar may have original bands most nights and cover bands only one or two nights a week. Yet, they’re paying for all seven. Obviously, not the best deal if you’re a bar or restaurant owner.

Collectively, BMI and ASCAP say they have “less than 100” bars or restaurants in the New York area currently under litigation. Which probably means 99. Given the number of bars and restaurants, they think that’s a pretty low number.

But I challenge you to find 50 upscale bars or restaurants that do live music on a weekly basis. You’d be lucky to find 35 or so.

I’m not saying the performing rights organizations and their respective writers shouldn’t be compensated, but there should definitely be some type of fixed, reasonable sliding scale based on actual nights of cover music, those nights’ average capacity, and venue revenue attributed specifically to it.

And please stop trying to claim collecting royalties for the guys in Def Leppard and Bon Jovi help the up-and-coming guy singing in the subway. It just doesn’t make “cents.”

Let us know your thoughts, check the band’s Web site here and be sure to follow IM on Twitter for the latest music news.


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