When my father bought our neighborhood grocery store in Tall Timbers almost 40 years ago, it was hard to imagine that the quaint country market would grow into the deli, restaurant and bar it is today. While many of our patrons come for our stuffed ham or authentic Maryland seafood, they keep coming back for the entertainment and atmosphere. As a neighborhood destination, we frequently host live performances and play music to connect our patrons to local bands and musicians. However, it is becoming increasingly difficult to play music and host live shows.
Why? Because the lack of transparency in the music licensing process is putting a strain on our business. Whenever I, or any other venue owner, want to play music, we must turn to one of the four performing rights organizations that offer licenses for each of the millions of songs within their respective catalogs. Between the licensing fees we pay to these PROs and the subscription cost for business music streaming services, my expenses can add up to as much as $1,100 per year. The PROs, in turn, pay royalties to the musicians and rights holders so we can play music, recorded or live, in our venues in accordance with current copyright laws.
Licenses are standard business expenses; ours include everything from liquor and health permits to licenses for our delivery truck. It’s the same for music. But in our case, over 30 percent of our total licensing fee budget is allocated to background music and live bands. While we want to do everything we can to follow the law and ensure artists and songwriters are paid their fair share, under the current system we don’t even know which songs the PROs’ licenses cover. In fact, no business can know for sure because, although the PROs claim to have online “databases” with information about individual songs, each explicitly states in its terms and conditions that users cannot rely on them for licensing decisions.
If business owners can’t count on these databases to be accurate, actionable or up to date, how can we be sure we’re purchasing the right licenses? And how can I be sure that I’m meeting all of my legal obligations? The lack of transparency in the music licensing process is so frustrating that, in some cases, small business owners I know have considered stopping playing music or booking live performances altogether. In the absence of a solution that protects all stakeholders, Congress must step in to build a music licensing system that gives equal voice to both copyright owners and licensees.
That is why I support the bipartisan legislation championed by Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and his seven cosponsors: the Transparency in Music Licensing and Ownership Act. The proposed legislation would create the first-ever public database that provides all stakeholders in the music marketplace with authoritative and fully searchable records of music ownership and licensing information. The database would be free-of-charge and updated in real time. This is a common sense proposal and I hope that Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md., 5th) will join his colleagues in supporting it.
Music is not just an important part of my business. It’s an important part of many people’s businesses, and we need a system that empowers owners to make well-informed decisions about which licenses best fit their needs. I’d like to see Congress pass this legislation and help us build a music ecosystem that is both fair and transparent.