As I’ve discussed at length on this blog, live events are crucial for developing musicians in acquiring new fans, building a buzz, and getting to the stage where they can monetize what they are doing effectively. For artists just starting off, smaller non-traditional outlets like open mic performances at coffee shops, church or library events, etc can be a good place to make this first plunge into the live performance arena. And for these non-traditional outlets (which are not solely focused on music), hosting live music can bring in some additional traffic, as well as provide a way to support local arts. It’s a symbiotic relationship, which helps musicians to hone their live performance chops, and smaller businesses to engage with their community.
Copyright law dictates that any venue that hosts live music is required to have a performance license, and pay the associated annual licensing fee. As Joan Anderman points out in her Boston Globe piece this morning, the Performance Rights Organizations (who are tasked with collecting these licensing fees and distributing the proceeds to their members) are aggressively pursing these smaller “venues,” many of which make little or no money from the music they present. As such, many of these smaller business owners are eliminating live music from their schedule. As Anderman points out:
Among them is Magret Gudmundsson, who until recently hosted a monthly acoustic open mike in her Middleborough, MA cafe, Coffee Milano. “I like having it here, but we’re not making any money from it and they wanted $332 a year,’’ Gudmundsson said. “The town really needs something like this. They ruined it.”
The PROs counter that the music provided by these artists is adding value to these businesses, and they should pay for this value in the same way they pay for other utilities. There is no doubt that music has value, but if tiny outlets truly are not generating enough revenue from these performances to cover the costs of the license, is it more beneficial for the artists (whom the PROs are representing) to consider these outlets as a way to get their live chops down and hopefully start their local following, as opposed to an income generating vehicle? Are the PROs, as my friend Milan might say, killing an ox for a pound of meat?
I’m all for artists collecting money for their work. But if the end result of PRO field agents (who get paid a commission based on the fees they collect) working coffee shops for a license fee means that there are fewer small outlets for developing artists to perform at and perfect their craft, I’m not sure the ends justify the means.
Take a look at Joan Anderman’s Globe piece here