Paul Heinz

Original Fiction, Music and Essays

Live Performing Woes, part 2

A few weeks ago I wrote about how performing live music – and industry already on life-support – is additional burdened by restaurant and club owners having to pay royalty fees  to musicians who are already rich and – more and more often – dead. I spoke with a musician last week who said that back in the 80s a good musician would have to be paid a minimum of $250 just to hold a Saturday night. That’s no longer the case.  Save for the big acts, live music earns a fraction of what it used to earn, and the strict enforcement of music licensing fees aren’t helping matters.

Or perhaps I have it wrong. I received a number of terrific comments for musicians and non-musicians alike, and the take away for me is that not everyone agrees with my conclusions and even those who do aren’t sure how to rectify the problem. 

One reader questioned whether small establishments are being paranoid to think that the big music publishing organizations are really going to charge fees for not following the rules. I wish that were the case, but unfortunately there are well-publicized examples of restaurants and clubs getting hit with fees from ASCAP, BMI and the like.

A friend of mine shared this little tidbit: a coffee house here in Elmhurst no longer allows musicians to play cover songs because they find paying the ASCAP fees prohibitive.  Another musician said that his band once had to change its playbill from “rock and roll covers of your favorite bands” to “live music” (or something equally generic) because of concerns of music licensing fees.

Other musicians noted how unfairly stacked the music industry is against the “little guy,” not only when it comes to live performing, but in the realm of downloads, streams and radio play.  As he says, “more opportunities equals harder to track,” and companies like ASCAP and BMI definitely have their hands full when it comes to figuring out how to collect fees for all of the different mediums out there. I couldn’t agree more. I believe that listening to a recording should garner income. I’m not as convinced about live performing, nor was this reader. After all, imagine if the Top Ten Club in Hamburg or the Cavern Club in Liverpool had been hounded by music royalty collection firms. Would The Beatles have been able to make a go of it?

But perhaps this view is erroneous, because it’s based on an entirely different system. One reader commented that back in the day everyone was working together: musicians would pay the union, the union would ensure that musicians were being paid properly, the clubs paid fees to the publishing companies, and people paid for live music. Today, people don’t want to pay for music unless it’s big time acts, and therefore club owners don’t want to pay fees (or musicians). This person wrote: “If successful songwriters remembered what it was like to play songs they loved for peanuts and (if) record companies kicked a little more back to the writer/artist they wouldn’t feel the need to squeeze as much as possible out of the everyday live musicians.”

But the model of people paying for music is “dead and buried,” lamented another reader. The songs are now “the fuel for the touring engine” whereas several decades ago the reverse was true. Fewer people are playing out on the weekends and they are earning less than ever, so the music collection companies must really be desperate to go after the little guys.

Another reader wrote that “both the bar and performers make money from playing music someone else wrote,” and he understands why fees should be collected. He does feel that the fees are out of proportion with the income that’s being generated, however. Another reader agreed, stating that “others should not be free to profit off your work without some remuneration to the owner,” but was at a loss as to how the current model can be changed.  He thought perhaps some percentage of total revenue generated from covering music should be paid as music royalties.

These were all welcome comments, and though I might wish that today’s business model were similar to that of decades ago, the time of musicians, music unions and clubs all working together to give patrons a quality live performance are largely gone. It all comes back to the consumer: if people aren’t willing to pay for recorded music and if they aren’t willing to pay a cover for a live band, then the whole system breaks down. What remains is a poor replacement. Good musicians – and some really, really bad ones, too – are being paid poorly for club owners who are probably being paid poorly but who still have to pay fees for already-wealthy musicians who no longer make money off of their old catalog because consumers are downloading it for free.

Say it with me: “Oy!”

Copyright, 2017, Paul Heinz, All Right Reserved