Didn’t They Already Get Paid for That?

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Licensing fees are good.  They provide the musicians whose music we enjoy to get paid.  It’s their job, so they absolutely should get paid.  But have you ever felt that we are paying, paying, and paying some more?  This issue is coming to the forefront as ASCAP (the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers) demands royalties from establishments where the game, Guitar Hero, is played.  Does this help or hurt artists?

Whenever bars, restaurants, stores, or other establishments want to play music, they must pay a licensing fee.  PROs (performing rights organizations) and licensing companies than divvy the fees up based on how often they a particular artist is played.  Recently, many bars and clubs have stopped offering live music to their patrons because the licensing fees are too steep – or just too arbitrary and confusing.  Many places have been offering the music game, Guitar Hero, so they can have music and a participatory environment, similar to karaoke night.

But ASCAP is saying, “Wait a minute.  You have to pay for that too.”  Owners may counter that they have paid for it.  They shelled out $100 for the Guitar Hero bundle.  Isn’t that enough?  No, it’s not, according to ASCAP.  They say that the songs on Guitar Hero should be considered “performances of registered songs.”  They have singled out a bar owner who only allows original live music (no cover bands or songs) so he doesn’t have to pay a licensing fee.  He offers Guitar Hero.  “Patrons are paying for the entertainment of the game not for the licensing value of the music,” he says.

ASCAP, not surprisingly, disagrees and says that the real value is in the songs (and not in your buddies pretending to be David Bowie or the Beastie Boys).  The songwriters, then, should get a cut of the profits.  But didn’t Activision pay them already when the game was developed?  And bar owners have to pay again for songs that are being performed in fun, more so people can make fools of themselves, not because they want to seriously perform “Under Pressure,” and cut a record deal?

What is the effect on the artists, who ASCAP purports to be protecting?  The fees that would generated by playing a video game are likely very negligible.  And as many have pointed out, as artists try to free themselves up for fans, the PROs try to restrain them.  Techdirt writes that ASCAP “has been particularly ridiculous…of course, the end result has actually been harming many up and coming songwriters and musicians, as more and more venues forgo music entirely, because it’s just not worth having to pay up the fees that ASCAP charges.”

This doesn’t hurt artists or writers like those feature on Guitar Hero, who can forgo a few buck – quite literally, a few bucks.  But it does hurt artists who get exposure at venues like this.  Fees are necessary to ensure that musicians and songwriters earn a living – but how many times do we have to pay?

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