Making Live Music Fun and Fair

Originally published in the Memphis Commercial Appeal, 9 Mar 2018.

Memphis is a music city with a rich musical heritage. With Beale Street and the wide assortment of music venues across the metro area, on any given night you can find just about any kind of live music that you want.

But did you know that many of the rightsholders of the music you hear are not being paid for the songs being performed?

There are organizations in the music industry called “Performing Rights Organizations“, also known as “PROs”. Their purported goal is to protect these rights and look out for their members, usually writers, performers and musical artists.

However, unlike radio and TV, where everything is tracked digitally, there is a gaping hole in how rights are protected and monetized for music that is performed in venues. In short, it ain’t right.

PROs use what is called a “blanket license” in order to convince (usually force) a venue or a bar that it must license its entire catalogue of music in the event any song from that catalogue is played.

These are expensive and generally cost hundreds or thousands of dollars a year, and you must license from all the three major PROs (ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC). Major PROs collect several hundred million dollars per year in “general licensing” fees.

Many venues cannot afford these expensive licenses and, therefore, will avoid it, despite the very real threat of a copyright lawsuit coming from the PROs if they do not comply.

Many of my peers in Memphis have received continued threats of lawsuits and non-stop phone calls from PROs suggesting that venue owners who do not comply are in danger of a copyright lawsuit. Mom-and-pop shops are put out of business each year or simply stop having live music when faced with this dilemma.

It’s not that they don’t want to license. They cannot afford it;  moreover, they don’t know what they are actually paying for, or even if the music that is being played is being paid out properly.

The murky licensing structure is antiquated and based on decades-old laws and lack of suitable technology. As a result, most writers and artists whose content is actually played in these venues are not being properly compensated.

We need better technology. Shazam can quickly identify recorded music using digital fingerprints. Why not do the same thing for live music? Some of us are working on that.

My company VNUE, is developing the MiC System. It uses AI and custom algorithms to identify songs and facilitate payments to exact rightsholders.

We recently announced the acquisition of a music tech outfit called Soundstr (soundstr.com), started by Eron Bucarelli, a founding member of platinum-selling artist Hawthorne Heights. Their “in venue” device called “Pulse” will become an important part of the overall system.

Meanwhile, organizations such as the Fairness in Music Licensing Coalition (musicfairness.org) are lobbying Congress for copyright reforms and other changes.

Every musician, artist, writer and publisher out there needs to be aware there is a good chance they are not getting paid for their work (i.e. ripped off). They need to sound a steady, constant and loud drumbeat to move the industry forward.

Let’s start that movement right here in Memphis.

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