Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Got it covered — Musicians chip in to help Veronica’s pay to play

By Jenny Neyman
Redoubt Reporter

When Diane Hooper and Kathy Miller bought Veronica’s in Kenai in November, they vowed to revive the quirky coffee shop’s tradition of live music performances in part as a service to customers, and as a way to support and promote local musicians.

Little did they know they’d be contributing to the likes of Paul McCartney, as well.

A new song
Music and Veronica’s go together like the sweet, golden cornbread that ubiquitously accompanies soup and sandwich orders. No matter the shape, size, consistency or flavor, the place wouldn’t be the same without it.

The coffee shop itself is musical, with the squeaks, creaks, sighs and whispers of a 90-year-old, added-on-to wooden building weathering the perpetual wind atop the Kenai River mouth bluff in Old Town Kenai. Add to that the percussion of a bustling kitchen, squealing espresso machine and furniture wobbling for balance against the worn-in floor and it’s a symphony in need of a melody.

That’s one of the reasons Hooper and Miller were drawn to buy it.

“It’s a magical place at night with the snow falling and the lights on and the music. And now I can be part of it every day,” Hooper said.

Previous owners Rebecca Lambourn and Stan Coleman had cut back on live music because of declining revenue. Music nights weren’t big moneymakers but Lambourn hired musicians anyway, if for no other reason than her own enjoyment and dedication to the local arts community. But as fewer and fewer customers came out to listen last fall, she was less and less inclined to continue the practice.

When Hooper and Miller took over, they kept open mic nights going, on Fridays, and reinstituted live music Saturdays. But with all the costs involved in taking over a business, Hooper said she and Miller didn’t have money to spare. They needed the music nights to pay for themselves in order to continue.

That prospect became more daunting with the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers on the scene, sending letters and making phone calls insisting Veronica’s pay for a blanket performance license if they were to host live music nights, or even play CDs over the speakers.

To the tune of $300
ASCAP is a membership association of more than 320,000 U.S. composers, songwriters, lyricists and music publishers of all genres that collects and distributes royalties from the use of members’ copyrighted songs.

Think of it as the intellectual property police for music. Every time a copyrighted song is played for public consumption, whether it’s live, used in a commercial, or piped over the speakers at a hockey game, airplane or restaurant, whoever composed the song and wrote the lyrics is supposed to be compensated for it.

That’s where ASCAP and similar organizations, including Broadcast Music Inc., come in. In the case of radio or TV, where music is extensively tracked and logged, ASCAP collects a fee each time a song is played. Establishments like restaurants or bars that play recorded music or host live performances where copyrighted songs are played can pay for a blanket license every year that covers any of their songs that are covered.

“You have basically five exclusive rights that are yours, that’s how you raise money from intellectual property. One of those rights is the right for public performance. If someone wants to perform your song in public, they need your permission. They need to pay you something,” said Vincent Candilora, senior vice president of licensing with ASCAP, based in Nashville.

Candilora points out that ASCAP isn’t part of the big recording labels, and the money the organization collects doesn’t go to Britney Spears. It’s for the people who write the music, who aren’t always the ones making it big performing the songs, or the record companies that rake in cash from selling them.

“Most people think that if you write a hit song you’re on easy street, but that is not the case. You need to separate out the difference between recording artists and songwriters,” he said.

Take the hit country song, “The Gambler,” for instance. Who comes to mind?

“Kenny Rogers. But Kenny Rogers didn’t write that song. It was written by a guy named Don Schlitz,” Candilora said. “When Kenny Rogers’ bank account goes down, he can go on tour and sell tickets to concerts and T-shirts. A couple years ago he was selling roasted chicken. Don Schlitz can’t do that. I haven’t met anybody who wants to buy a Don Schlitz T-shirt. That’s the difference between a songwriter and an artist.”

An ASCAP license is a routine business expense, Candilora said, like a restaurant buying parsley that’s only used to spruce up a plate.

“You have to get permission to use someone else’s property. It’s not theirs, so there’s that fairness aspect to it,” he said. “The other aspect I like to think of is how do you put a value on music? … I think it makes a major contribution to our culture, and people who have been gifted with the ability to write this music should be able make a living from it. That shouldn’t be overlooked, either. It isn’t just parsley.”

ASCAP does put a value on music. A blanket license is a calculated based on how music’s used and how many people an establishment holds. If a restaurant just plays CDs, a license would cost 3.11 times the number of people allowed in a building based on its posted fire code occupancy, Candilora said. If it hosts live music three or less days a week, it’s 4.46 times occupancy. If it hosts music four to seven days a week, it’s 5.34 times occupancy. If there’s a cover charge, the rate goes up again.

Veronica’s was facing a bill of a little over $300, and ASCAP was not letting them forget it. Candilora said ASCAP has 40 teams of license managers around the country. Some drive around looking for places that use music. Once they find an establishment, get its occupancy and determine how they use music, they record the information and the establishment starts receiving letters explaining what ASCAP is, what copyright law dictates and what they owe for a license. If they don’t pay, ASCAP follows up with phone calls.

If they still don’t pay, ASCAP might send a regional license manager in to speak to the business owner, and from there might pursue a legal remedy.

“As a last resort what we have to do, ultimately, is we will file suit for copyright infringement if it continues. It’s not something we like to do and, as I said, it’s a last resort, but we are always in the process of filing suits. There’s always a small percentage who think that, ‘We’re just a small place and you have bigger fish to fry. You won’t sue us.’ Once you’re on our radar screen, it really won’t go away,” Candilora said.

The nearest ASCAP regional team is based Seattle, Candilora said, but license managers do make trips up to Alaska, which is probably how Veronica’s ended up on the radar screen.

“Whoever draws the longest straw, or shortest straw, gets to do a little stint in Alaska. I’ll be honest with you, they’re not there 52 weeks of the year. Maybe three months of the year. ... Some places may not see a license rep but maybe once a year or once every two years,” he said.

The beat goes on
Veronica’s was faced with the same set of choices as every business that ends up on the ASCAP mailing list — pay up; ignore the letters and calls and hope they don’t get sued; switch to a format of all-original music, which precludes a lot of background music and makes live sets extremely difficult; or stop the music altogether.

For Veronica’s, it came down to paying or not playing. Not playing wasn’t the preferred option.

“No one else is really doing music in this town. It’s the only place that does music anymore that isn’t smoky and an alcoholy bar. I couldn’t let it die,” said Katie Evans, a musician who works at Veronica’s.

With the blessing of Hooper and Miller, Evans organized a fundraiser March 20 to pay for the license. She invited local musicians to play three-song sets, and local artists and community members to donate items for a Chinese auction. There wasn’t a cover charge, but a jug was set out for donations, and all the tips from the night went into the donations pile, as well.

Evans said she wasn’t sure how the event would go, since she’d heard grumbling over having to pay for the license in the first place.

Scot Q. Merry, a local musician and music producer who moved up from Nashville, said he understands why people may be resistant to paying for a license, but it’s beneficial in the long run.

“I don’t like to see them struggle to pay more bills than they should, but by the same token, intellectual property is something that is just getting so abused, and it trickles down to us,” Merry said, listing illegal music downloads as an example. “… I certainly understand those people who think it’s too small, it’s too something. It shouldn’t be required. It’s that same attitude, ‘Oh, music should be free.’ While I appreciate that hippy approach, the quality improves when a community supports the artists. It’s always good for the community, good for the people, good for the artists — it’s an important part of our culture. It’s the United States. Everything costs.”

The hardest-to-swallow chunk of the ASCAP blanket license is the fact that the money goes to popular songwriters, not necessarily the ones whose songs are played, Merry said. Since individual songs aren’t tracked with a blanket license, ASCAP notes the genre of music played at an establishment, and divvies most the license fees up among the most popular songwriters in that genre, under the assumption that the popular music is played most often.

At Veronica’s, music tends toward folk or acoustic classic rock.

“I’ll guarantee the Beatles will get some of the money Veronica’s will pay,” Merry said. “They break it down among the most popular songwriters in whatever genra you’re talking about. We’re probably gonna help pay for the light bill on Paul McCartney’s castle this week.”

Still, Merry said it’s a worthy bill to pay.

“With Veronica’s being a place that supports songwriters, even though the songwriters they support may not see any of that money, it’s the right thing to do. For one, it shows they really are supporting the songwriters in some way,” he said.

And vice versa at Veronica’s. Singers, songwriters and musicians filled the coffee shop to standing room only March 20.

“Everything went phenomenally,” Hooper said. “We were able to raise money to pay for almost three years’ licenses. There was tremendous support and outpouring from the local community. It was packed. It was just wonderful.

“We definitely are going to keep Friday and Saturday nights going. It’s been absolutely great,” she said. “The music will continue.”

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