I copyright the songs

Music companies like ASCAP use ‘mafia’ strategies to crack down on Sacramento businesses

Outside Butch N Nellie’s Coffee Co., the owners’ sign warns never to play cover songs—or else.

Outside Butch N Nellie’s Coffee Co., the owners’ sign warns never to play cover songs—or else.

Photo By Nick Miller

At Butch N Nellie’s Coffee Co., co-owner Kristi Bielski will immediately cut the microphone and boot someone offstage if they perform a cover song. Last week, while many Sacramento cafes and restaurants served a steady diet of Michael Jackson, Bielski played only original music by local artists over the speakers at her Midtown coffeehouse.

“We’re really hypervigilant,” she says, and there’s reason for worry: Recently, companies like the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers have ramped up local efforts, targeting businesses—restaurants, bars, venues—for illegal use of copyrighted music.

Niki Kangas, who co-owns music venue Javalounge, compared ASCAP’s sales approach to “mafialike tactics.” Bielski also invoked the mob when describing the company’s methods. Out front at her coffeehouse, she’s posted a sign: “Only original material may be performed … due to ASCAP & BMI copyright fines & laws.”

ASCAP, which touts itself as a performance-rights organization, has developed quite a reputation in Sacramento. Local business owners have complained of receiving unsolicited bills that demand immediate payment, repeat phone calls and visits from sales representatives, and even a bit of intimidation regarding fines and lawsuits.

It doesn’t take much for a business to violate ASCAP copyright. A neighborhood burger joint, for example, can infringe a songwriter’s copyright simply by playing a CD for its customers. In 2006, ASCAP sued the Sacramento’s now-defunct downtown club Sky Bar, along with 24 other U.S. businesses, for copyright infringement.

“[ASCAP] had been coming in for a few months, and we were just kind of dodging them,” Javalounge’s Kangas said of one local rep, who she explains was “very aggressive,” sometimes visiting her coffeehouse twice a week after she’d repeatedly said she wasn’t interested.

“He would say things like that a ‘narc’ might visit and make us ‘pay a $10,000 fine on the spot,’” says Kangas, who recalls that letters threatening fines and unwanted phone calls to the shop became more and more frequent.

Kangas insists her venue never plays copyrighted music. “We’re really passionate about supporting local music, and we don’t have the kind of money to pay [these fees],” she explains.

Bielski also isn’t interested in spending thousands of dollars on unneeded copyright insurance. “Based on my research, I’m not doing anything wrong,” she said.

ASCAP, like other music-copyright outfits Broadcast Music Incorporated and Society of European Stage Authors and Composers, has a history of aggressively pursuing licensing fees, often exploring new legal ground. The company, a nonprofit that collects fees for “public performances” of music and then pays royalties to its songwriter and publisher members, is most known for threatening to sue the Girl Scouts over camp songs like “Happy Birthday” in the 1990s.

Last month, ASCAP filed a court brief demanding that AT&T pay a licensing fee for every time a musical ringtone plays in public, arguing that a cell phone’s ringing is a “public performance” and violates copyright law.

In March, a district court ordered Google to pay $1.6 million to ASCAP for illegally streaming music online. Last year, a judge ordered Yahoo and AOL to fork over upward of $15 million in fines for one year alone.

Here in Sacramento, business owners say there’s little transparency—or consistency—to ASCAP’s methods. One music-venue owner, who prefers to remain anonymous, said the licensing-fee estimate dropped more than half when they rebuffed ASCAP’s initial fee proposal. Another owner explained that a local rep first explained that fee estimates were based on show attendance and frequency, then changed their story and claimed fees were based on venue square footage.

It’s estimated that ASCAP generates nearly $1 billion annually in songwriter and publisher royalties; the company retains less than 15 percent of that number to cover operating expenses.

ASCAP did not return SN&R’s multiple calls for comment.

“It’s a fucking racket. It’s ridiculous,” Javalounge’s Kangas said. Still, she and the venue’s co-owners “finally broke down” and decided to pay ASCAP’s licensing fees a couple months back.

Butch N Nellie’s is still holding out.