Tuned out, turned off: Publishing squabble ends the music at Cafe Louvre
An Edmonds coffee shop is caught up in a strong-armed attempt by the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) to force performance venues to pay licensing fees for the more than 10 million works in its catalog of copyrighted music.
As a result, the live music has ended at Cafe Louvre, which for the last four years has refused to pay for its open-mic shows presented by Edmonds Tunes.
Some may applaud ASCAP’s resolve to ensure artists are compensated for their original music when others play it. But others insist it’s a petty move to punish small venues like Cafe Louvre, whose owners say they simply want a place for people to discover local talent.
So is it right to penalize amateur performers who throw a version of Jason Mraz’s “I’m Yours” into the mix of their original music?
It doesn’t matter. What ASCAP and other performing rights organizations are doing is nothing new, certainly legal, and punishable through copyright infringement lawsuits. ASCAP is pressing hard, especially in today’s recorded music paradigm, where CD sales have shrunk to historic lows due to the internet and assorted streaming music options.
(In a recent Rolling Stone interview, Stevie Nicks said, “I don't think there's any reason to spend a year and an amazing amount of money on a record that, even if it has great things, isn't going to sell.”)
Bob Zborowski, an Edmonds resident who brought the music to Cafe Louvre through Edmonds Tunes, released a statement last week explaining why he’s hunting for a new location for music.
“(Cafe Louvre), in an effort to save paying the legally required copyright licenses fee, has decided not to host any further live music events,” said Zborowski, who adds that he appreciates Cafe Louvre for hosting Edmonds Tunes and wishes nothing but the best for the owners, Nabil Alhussieni and Haifa Faika Alhussieni.
But U.S. copyright laws require any public establishment hosting live music to have a license through ASCAP and other performing rights organizations such as Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI) and SESAC.
“It's not unlike having a liquor license,” Zborowski told The Beacon. “The amount of an ASCAP license fee is based on many factors, including the venue's capacity, and is therefore different for each venue.”
The cost to Café Louvre amounted to $366 per year (about $7 per week).
“Sadly, Café Louvre decided to end all live music at the café rather than pay the fee,” Zborowski said. “Although I’m deeply saddened and shocked – and, truthfully, somewhat puzzled by their decision – I respect the fact that it’s their decision to make.
“We are also very grateful to the café for allowing us to do our show at their establishment for the past four years. So many wonderful Edmonds Tunes memories were created at Café Louvre, and we are in their debt for that alone.
“Unfortunately, Edmonds Tunes was caught in the crossfire of a dispute in which there was no shortage of stupid. On one side is a huge multimillion-dollar organization spending several years, a fair amount of money, and countless attorney hours chasing down a small café in a small town.
“Surely ASCAP has better use for their resources. On the other side, we have a café owner who is clearly in the wrong, legally speaking, but is stubbornly refusing to pay a license fee he deems as 'harassment'. A fee he could easily afford from the sales he enjoyed during Edmonds Tunes shows alone, let alone the other music events the café hosts.”
‘A great venue’
Manya Schilperoort and Jeff Stilwell of Manya Vee Selects created Edmonds Tunes six years ago at the now-closed Red Petal Coffee House on Main Street. “Cafe Louvre is such a great venue,” Schilperoort said this week. “I'm sad to hear it's ending there.”
She added that ASCAP never contacted her about paying royalty fees.
On Monday, Haifa Faika Alhussieni reiterated that Cafe Louvre would not pay ASCAP fees. “We just want to connect with people. We were doing it for fun, then it stopped being fun when it became about the money. We don’t have plans to go back and forth with ASCAP. It’s a headache.”
ASCAP has fired off several letters to Cafe Louvre during the past four years, the last dated Feb. 12 and signed by Marc Angel, ASCAP regional account manager. The letter, which The Beacon obtained, requested annual payments by check or credit card.
“We have reached out on many occasions about your legal responsibility to obtain permission to publicly perform copyrighted music at your business,” the letter reads. “We have also offered an ASCAP license agreement on multiple occasions that would allow you to perform our members’ music lawfully.
“ASCAP licenses more than 700,000 businesses, both large and small. These businesses recognize their obligation under the law to ensure songwriters, composers and publishers are fairly compensated for their work. We urge you to do the same.
“Under U.S. copyright law, if you continue to use ASCAP members’ copyrighted music without authorization, you may be subject to copyright infringement, resulting in potential statutory damages ranging from $750 to $30,000 for each musical work infringed, plus the plaintiff’s legal costs – an amount much greater than the annual cost of an ASCAP license. It’s good business sense to obtain an ASCAP license now – and the most cost-effective way to meet your legal obligations.”
The Beacon reached out to Angel and others with ASCAP with several phone calls and emails, but received no response. (To read ASCAP’s rules on collecting fees, go to bit.ly/2oZRN3u).
Cafe Louvre’s owners say they plan to bring back live music, and to tell performers that only original music should be played, even though they realize they won’t be able to police all songs on a given night. In addition, they know that many open-mic performers, real amateurs, don’t write music or lyrics and mostly warble through their favorite cover songs.
Live music in Edmonds
One Edmonds restaurant that does pay performance fees is A Very Taki Tiki on Main Street.
“We have finally started paying two of the major three companies – BMI and ASCAP – over the last two years,” said Taki Tiki owner Bryan Benn. “I avoided them for the first two years of ownership, but eventually they sent investigators in and started the process of legally coming after us.”
Benn said he pays more than $1,000 a year to both companies. Ironically, those fees have meant less music – not more – at his Polynesian-themed restaurant.
“We cut our live entertainment in half for 2016, and our jukebox is now offline,” Benn said (ASCAP also charges for playing recorded music). “These companies are very aggressive, and call or send mail aggressively until you pay. The fees are unfair for our size and annual amount of live music and DJs. These companies are more about their own pockets, not the artists they represent.”
Unlike Cafe Louvre, Taki Tiki pays its performers, who must get their own licensing to perform copyrighted music.
The city of Edmonds also pays those who perform at its free summer music shows presented by the Edmonds Arts Commission. These include the concerts at City Park and Hazel Miller Plaza. Parks and Recreation Director Carrie Hite said the city pays ASCAP, BMI and SESAC music license fees, which covers music in all of the city’s city programs.
Port of Edmonds Executive Director Bob McChesney said the port does not pay license fees for its summer SeaJazz series, which features student musicians from the Edmonds School District.
Performance rights organizations have also been known to crack down on farmers markets. In Edmonds, the Garden Market and Summer Market are presented by the Edmonds Historical Museum. Jerry Freeland, who was named president of the board of directors this year after four years as treasurer, said the museum has never paid fees to performing rights organizations or to buskers themselves.
Art Walk Edmonds, the third Thursday staple in downtown Edmonds, also does not pay fees, said Rachel Dobbins. Any fees would be paid by specific stores responsible for having musical performances inside their stores or on the sidewalk.
It should be noted that ASCAP alone has more than 100 types of licenses, and venues that don’t have live music on a regular basis may be exempt from fees. Businesses can call 800-505-4052.
Way back when – say before the turn of the century – it was far easier for venues not to pay for a license since it was more difficult for ASCAP to assess infringement and demand payment. Social media changed all that, as ASCAP collectors can now find local music events from the comfort of their office computer just like anyone else, Zborowski said.
“Sites like Facebook and openmic.org are great tools for musicians looking for a place to play, but also makes it all too easy for ASCAP to check those listings against the list of their license holders,” he said. “I've no doubt that's how ASCAP found Edmonds Tunes at Café Louvre.”
Zborowski said that with CD sales, and therefore royalties, shrinking the last several years, ASCAP is on a mission to squeeze money out of every local, open-mic type event they can find. This has closed dozens of small, local music events around south Snohomish County.
“Business owners, faced with the threat of an ASCAP lawsuit or paying the license fee, are choosing to just do away with music events,” he said. “Local musicians are running out of places to play, and music lovers are losing places to go see music. It's a real shame.”
Zborowski hopes to find a new venue for Edmonds Tunes. But it won’t be Cafe Louvre. Although he said he appreciates the cafe’s support over the years, and even tried to pay the annual fee himself (ASCAP declined), there is a bit of bad blood between the two now.
“We never charged our host venues anything for our event,” Zborowski said. “The performers did not get paid, the producers did not get paid – we didn't even get free drinks from the café – and the audience was never charged a dime.
“The only entity that benefited financially from the show was the café, and they only benefited by way of the sales from our audience and performers on the night of the show.”
Zborowski said Cafe Louvre tried to post the following on the Edmonds Tunes Facebook page, which he didn’t publish: "We at Café Louvre regrettably decided to stop the enjoyable weekly one hour of Edmonds Tunes to end months of consistent harassment, for not being able to accommodate a time increase and a time change request, and to stop being attacked by a few of those who want to benefit from us financially, personally, or for any other reason."
“As you can see,” Zborowski said, “they make it sound as if Edmonds Tunes was somehow 'harassing' him, that we were 'attacking' him and not ASCAP, and that we were the ones trying to benefit from him financially. This is beyond absurd; it's completely false and it's hurtful. Nowhere in (the cafe’s) statement is ASCAP even mentioned. Not a word about the copyright license fee.
“If Café Louvre does not want to publicly air their dispute with ASCAP, that's fine. But it's wrong that they should make baseless accusations at Edmonds Tunes to cover up their problems with ASCAP. Problems, I should add, that were of their own making when they stubbornly refused to pay the legally required license for nearly two years.”
Zborowski said at no time did he ever request a time change.
“In the end, Edmonds Tunes was never about the music,” he said. “It was about community. Our community. The music was lovely, yes.
“But the laughs we shared, the friendships we forged, the smiles and the cheer we gave each other, is what made our show worth doing. It's what kept me working harder and harder, Friday after Friday, for the last two years. It's what I'll take with me going forward.”