Turning the Karaoke Bar into a Speakeasy


Among the shady, illicit actions that could occur in a bar, karaoke would seem to rank pretty low on the list.  Not for BMI.  A while ago, we wrote about BMI and Taylor Swift suing Boomer’s Sports Cellar in Lewiston, Idaho because the small bar used some of her songs during a karaoke night.  The same situation is playing out with Chuy’s Mesquite Broiler in Tucson, Arizona for the alleged unauthorized use of fourteen BMI-licensed songs during two karaoke nights in February of this year.

Chuy’s owner, Mark Evenson, said, “We haven’t done anything wrong.  We answered the complaint, but they [BMI] wanted us to do ridiculous stuff.  Our attorney said to take it to court and see where it goes.”  Where is went was to the neighborhood of $49,000.  The bar was ordered to pay $3000 for each one of the fourteen songs, plus $6120 in legal fees, and $574 in taxable costs.

Mr. Evenson didn’t appear in court, so BMI won the default judgment against the bar.  It’s not clear what the “ridiculous stuff” is, though one could argue the entire suit was ridiculous.  Why?  Mr. Evenson maintains that he had third-party contractors handle the karaoke nights.  They, he says, were properly licensed by BMI, so there is no need for his establishment to be as well.

The $49,000 is just a drop into BMI’s $905 million dollar bucket, but it is quite likely a huge burden to Chuy’s.  Mr. Evenson owns thirty-nine bars; he most certainly knows that he needs licensing in order to play music.  Or he’d be in court all the time with BMI.  In this case, is it the karaoke vendor’s fault?  Were they not properly licensed?  And if the bar has to be licensed too, why should the contractors bother?   The judgment, it should be noted, wasn’t exactly a “win” for BMI.  A default judgment just means the other side didn’t show up.

There seems to be two different reactions to this news:  on one side, people say of course he should pay.  The artists should be recompensed for their work, and if you profit from their work, you have to kick a little back to them.  Yes, this is true (though, again, did Chuy’s or the karaoke vendor have to be licensed?).  On the other hand, many people think that $3000 per song is not only punitive, it is ridiculous.

BMI spokesman Jerry Bailey said, “It’s definitely about the money as well as the judgment.  We will take appropriate steps to secure the judgment.  This is not new to us.  We are experienced in this area.  Our attorneys know what to do.”  He says that these types of judgments send a message to bars and restaurants playing music.  It certainly sent Chuy’s one – though they plan to appeal.

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