An Uneasy Question: Music, Money, and it's Impact on Venues.

Welcome to the May edition of the KMF newsletter.  The weather appears to be finally changing, the leaves are popping out, and we have a whole bunch going on this month.  We have three shows scheduled at the Sumner Knight chapel; as well as two more at a new venue.  But more on that later….


This month, we are also introducing our Season Pass Premium as a gift to those who are interested in supporting our work, and seeing some good shows.  We are offering a one-year pass to shows at the Sumner Knight Chapel, or to all of the shows we sponsor.  You can go to our web site to find out more about this.


We are also now working with Main Crust Company in Marlborough, NH to create a new venue we are calling The Old Grocer’s.  This venue will showcase local and regional bands doing original music.  Unlike the Chapel, it’s conducive to all styles, so we hope to offer lots of different music there.  Part of the proceeds from this event will be donated to local charities, so it’s kind of a win-win when you think about it.


The development of this new venue comes out of a trend in the music industry that seems to be spreading in our local area.  I also know it’s been an issue in other areas as well.  It’s an issue that, currently, doesn’t have an easy solution.  It’s also an issue that non-musicians might not fully understand.  This is the issue of performance rights for music.


Put simply, when someone writes a song, it is his or her property for all intents and purposes.  If I like your song, and I want to sing it in public, current law states that I (or more accurately, the venue) is supposed to pay for that right.  Recent changes in US law have entitled performing rights organizations (ASCAP, BMI, SESAC) to collect royalty payments wherever music is played.  The assumption is that if you are playing music, it must belong to someone and you have to pay for using it; to all three organizations. 


On the surface, this makes sense; artists need to be compensated for their work.  No problem with that.  The challenge comes in whom the performing rights organizations are choosing to pursue for payments.  I know of two local open mics that have had to shut down because the cost of paying performing rights far exceeds what they take in when they offer an open mic.    I’ve also heard stories of farmer’s markets in Massachusetts having to stop live performance because they could not afford the performing rights fees.  Also in the mix are other businesses that have had to discontinue live music (and sometimes even canned music) due to the expense of performing rights fees.


While it’s only fair that artists be compensated for what they do, these laws have had some unintended consequences.  Venues for live music are shutting down because they can’t, or won’t, pay performing rights fees.  That ends up meaning that there are less and less places to play, and hear, live music.  And that’s just not good.


As a musician, it’s easy to see what you offer as a commodity; because it is one.  Lots of people do great stuff, and deserve to be rewarded for it.  But when the only reward that matters is money, you then have this kind of dark side appearing.  The saddest part of the issue of performing rights is that very few artists ever collect.  In thirty-five years of writing music, I’ve received a total of $9.78 in performance royalties.  For the most part, only record companies and big name artists really benefit from this system.  It’s obviously not about money for me; and I imagine that it’s the same for many others.


Music is a passion for me; I have no choice but to do it.  For many of us it’s an obsession.   For some, it’s a profession.  For all of us, it’s more than a commodity; it’s a framework for our lives.  In that regard, it would seem that music has to be about more than just money.  And if it’s more than a commodity, than there has to be a way to make it possible to share music, support the artists, and support the artistic community without turning it into a money thing.  I have no idea how to do this, but it certainly is worth looking at.  It would be a shame to see local music die because of something like this.