CC-Style Music Licenses For Small Businesses?

Much has been made of this article in the New York Times about the work of the BMI in enforcing the law that any business in the US playing music (radio, CDs, spotify, live etc.) needs to pay a public performance license, the cost of which is based on the size of the business.

There’s much in the article that has been attacked – the suggestion that they take money from struggling businesses, the idea that their ‘enforcers’ are referred to as ‘sales people’, and of course, the much bigger problem that very little of what gets played ever gets paid for thanks to the reporting process using ‘sample data’ – from local TV and radio – to decide what’s likely to have been played.

The situation is similar in the UK, with the PRS collecting from venues as well as keeping data on radio plays based on the sample day idea (though I know that with the PRS, at least in some cases, it’s possible to call them, tell them where and when your music was played, and get paid even if it didn’t land on a sample day…)

I ended up on the list of artists that got paid after my tour opening for Level 42 round the UK. I got paid a LOT of money for playing my own music, and then got a series of top-up payments (which were either money that was missed from the tour, or based on the assumption that tours like that rarely happen in isolation so I was probably missing out on money elsewhere… which I was, however uncomfortable I am with the ‘success breeds success’ approach to allocating where the extra cash goes)

So, I have two suggestions that it’d be interesting to have batted around on here:

Idea a) There are numerous ways to report exact playlists these days – being the most obvious. Why aren’t businesses allowed to use such a service (an extra-verified account, especially for the business, that draws metadata from an approved source, for example) to report exactly what they play, so that the actual writers of those songs get paid.

And b) why not have an opt-out and a ‘free to use in cafes’ Creative Commons-style license that requires the licensee to display a list of the music that is currently being played along with contact details for the artist. The terms could be defined by business size or type (not valid for any establishment charging entry, or using a DJ, for example), so only for places that have background music, but it would mean that those artists who are currently not getting paid even when they do get played can opt out and instead of their non-existent pay-outs, can have some exposure. I know that a number of times in my life I’ve heard background music in cafes and bars that I REALLY wanted to buy, under this license, the music would’ve been displayed, and Sting wouldn’t be getting paid for the privilege. Their playlists could be public via the option in Idea A too, or they could even pull the music from a specific web-based central pool (would work well if something like Spotify was available in the country where the venue operated, but only if Spotify had a more open submission process for music…)

It would mean that bars that thrive on playing top 40 music could still do so, and play the license that means those people get paid, but bars that play jazz, blues, folk, indie etc. who still have to pay but who are understandably pissed off that the royalties they pay DON’T go to the artists they are playing, they get to do something INSTEAD of paying a meaningless license, something that is pro-music. It would encourage small, struggling businesses by removing a burdensome license fee that may otherwise mean they don’t play *any* music (which clearly none of us want).

Question 1 – Any further suggestions? Any modifications needed to make it work?

Question 2 – would you as an artist sign up for such a scheme? What terms would you want added to the license?

Thinking caps *ON*:

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  1. Makes perfect sense to me. When I worked in radio, ASCAP/BMI only took a sampling of what was played throughout the year (usually a week or two window) and based payments off of that. We have the tools and technology – why not make sure everybody gets what they deserve?

  2. Hey Steve – I just had a flashback to my days in college radio when I took over as manager of the radio station and saw an invoice from ASCAP and called them – they were extremely rude as this punk kid from the suburbs did not know who they were and was asking them to justify the expense!

    I have always said that if the RIAA and other agencies spent half of what they spent on lawyers instead on R&D we would have some amazing tools and experiences for music! We certainly have the technology for anything we could do, but what do we want to do?!

    I don’t have an answer here, but as a small businessperson myself, if I were playing music openly say, using Sirius/XM or satellite, then I would want it billed thru there. If I use an online service, roll it into there as well. Make it easy for me, and heck, everyone else.

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