It's easy to find a brief night of escapism through live local music at one of Denton's staple establishments, Rubber Gloves Rehearsal Studios. It's usually a safe bet that when you enter the doors of this time-honored venue on Sycamore Street you won't be talking over some band's rendition of CCR to your friends. It's usually new and it's usually original.
That is how they are perceived in the eyes of the Publishing Rights Organizations (organizations like ASCAP and SESAC), who administer fees across the board and to all venues, for the purpose of receiving royalties of any licensed material performed in their establishment. We talked to RGRS Owner/Manager Josh Baish, who recently created a soon-to-be monthly event, a sort of benefit show that will host any bands who desire to perform their favorite or least-favorite hits. The money made will go towards easing the choke-hold that grips this humble establishment's yearly budget, if even in the slightest bit.
So what's the deal with the ASCAP/SESAC/BMI fees? Can you give a little background on it for those that don't know?
ASCAP/ SESAC/ BMI are the three big PROs (Publishing Rights Organizations), which are responsible for collection of royalties, between copyright holders and parties who wish to use copyrighted works publicly.
So you were threatened with a lawsuit from these entities?
It's been threatened, but as far as I know, nothing's been filed as of this writing.
For the most part, it seems RGRS is pretty much one of Denton's oldest venues to house local shows of original artists, how do you think the PROs came up with these unfair fees?
They each have their own calculations, but it's mainly based on the square footage of the location, capacity, how many nights you're open, if you play recorded music, etc, but their fees increase for other things like if you play music on your website. I've recently heard they're trying to charge for a ringtone going off outside of your home, constituting a "public performance". It's ridiculous.
Is this just a flat fee blanketed across all venues, in which case, in order to get your money's worth, you would have to start booking One Direction cover acts or punk bands that must agree to do at least one or two Katy Perry renditions?
Basically, yes. In their warped and completely antiquated business model, it doesn't matter if a band here covered an obscure Hüsker Dü b-side once three months ago, or if we had nothing but every single band that plays here do nothing but cover songs by whatever artist is in the Billboard Top 10, 7 nights a week, 365 days a year, 24 hours a day.
We don't want bands necessarily playing covers. We're here mainly to encourage and showcase local and touring bands artists playing their own compositions. To put us under a "blanket fee" which includes other venues as say, "Dick's House of Fergie" which features only a Black Eyed Peas tribute act playing covers, is, to me, wrong and completely unfair.
I want to make it clear that we are all for musicians making money for their music. Absolutely. But in the current system, it's actually hurting the smaller bands and venues. Brent Best, singer/ songwriter for Slobberbone (and who bar tends at RGRS), wrote this that was included in an Observer article published in 2008:
I am an ASCAP member. This means that I should collect money, based upon their system of the tracking of 'use' proportional to said 'use' of my music. Problem is, their bullshit system is the biggest one-sided bell curve you've ever seen...In the end, I, or anyone else 'represented' by ASCAP make no money proportional to what I sell or what of mine is used unless or until I'm as big as Mariah Carey or who-the-fuck-ever. In fact, all those publishing songwriters affiliated with ASCAP who aren't on that monetary level actually make money for those who are. If I go from selling 10,000 albums a year to 40,000, along with the predictable increase in 'use' (such as jukebox plays and the like), I will never see a proportional increase in royalty payout from ASCAP. Instead, the extra money I earn, along with the thousands of other artists on the lower rungs earning progressively more, will go the top 2 or 3 percent of ASCAP artists already earning millions a year from their vapid shit.
I think that says it all.
How do you think this system should be changed, as it seems there's no real way to keep every venue in check?
Their answer to everything is to say, "We can't be there to monitor every band and every song, therefore we must charge you the maximum amount."
What other organization operates this way? What if the utility company came up to you and said "We're going to charge you the same amount as the house up the street, you know, the one that keeps his lights on all day and night, and waters his yard until the street floods. We're not going to put in the effort to fairly monitor you, but we will send someone out to check and see if you're using our utilities. We assume everyone uses our services at some point anyway, so you'll pay what the house up the street does."
They hire people to go into venues with hidden equipment to tape any given band that night, and then they go back and analyze that recording. If you're found in violation of infringement, you could be liable for $30,000.00 per copyrighted song played. If the venue owner is unaware of the violation. If the band plays a cover with the owner's permission, the fine skyrockets to $150,000.00 per song. Somehow in all this, they're unable to set a fair and balanced business model.
I think if they can afford to throw lavish banquets and awards ceremonies, "members" fees could be better utilized in creating a better monitoring system. But there's no reason for them to, and why would they? Why change a system that allows them collect every dollar they possibly can? So you're throwing a "FUCK YOU, ASCAP, SESAC, and BMI!" night of cover bands in January in response, or was this a sort of knee-jerk reaction?
It's a knee jerk reaction to a problem I've been dealing with for 17 years. That's how long we've been going back and forth with ASCAP, who is the "Al Capone" of the PROs. They've been the most aggressive. They're the ones calling you, writing threatening letters, coming by your business, reminding you about all the money you owe them, telling you if you don't pay up, they'll sue, and "Oh yeah, did we mention that we've never lost a case?" This is an organization that SUED THE GIRL SCOUTS OF AMERICA FOR SINGING 'PUFF THE MAGIC DRAGON' AROUND A CAMPFIRE.
We pay them when we can. To date, we've probably paid them close to $10,000.
Years ago, I got a phone call from someone asking me if the Impotent Sea Snakes were playing anytime soon. I looked at the calendar and told them no, no bands by that name were playing. Then he asked if they'd ever played here. I told him no, I didn't think so. He thanked me, then hung up.
A couple of weeks later, I got a letter from an ASCAP attorney, saying that we were in violation of copyright law, and listed Impotent Sea Snakes (who I learned were a KISS cover band) as an example. That's how they operate. That's just shady. That's bad faith.
SESAC was the next one to catch wind of Rubber Gloves, and they too started with in with the emails, etc,. I recently got a letter saying that they had 231 documented cases of infringement, and that if I didn't pay up, their next step was to sue. When I told them there was no way they had this kind of documentation against us, I learned that SESAC doesn't just regulate bands playing cover songs by other bands, but also an artist playing their own music as published by SESAC, and that the 231 documented cases were just that: some band performing their own song.
BMI just hit us up for the first time this month, and that's what kind of just broke it for me. If you pay one, you pretty much have to pay them all. They're like sharks, and they're each out for blood. Each wants approximately $2,000.00 per year, and for a mid-sized live music venue that doesn't feature cover bands regularly, $6,000.00 per year is a lot of money. It's make-or-break kind of money.
The last conversation I had with a PRO representative ended with her telling me that I needed to pay up the full amount owed, plus make my monthly payment on time, or they would turn the matter over to their legal department. I told her that if came down to paying my employees and the bills, or making sure they got their money, I'm sorry, but they're shit out of luck.
Have you generated any interest from bands wanting to throw down some Top 40 hits, or at the very least, helped spark a general "fuck you" sensibility within the local venue community?
We've had a good number of bands offer their support. We're planning on doing it monthly, so we're always going to need more people to participate. So if you're a band, and you want to play cover songs, let us know.
Our plan is to have 3 to 4 bands play one night a month. They can cover whomever the hell they want, I don't care if it's Slayer or Katy Perry or anyone in between. Whatever money is made from the door that night will be divided three ways between ASCAP, SESAC and BMI. It's like, "Here's your money from your covers, it's all yours. This is what people paid to listen to your songs." Hopefully by doing that, we can stay a place that continues to host touring bands that play their own music, and a home to the local music community. We'll see.
It's funny, over our almost 18 year existence, we've hosted benefits for everything from a friend's cancer treatment to the Denton Humane Society. Now we're having to throw a benefit in the name of raising money to pay the PROs. That's sad.
What Top Billboard artist(s) would you like to see a horrible cover of?
I grew up on Top 40 radio, whether it was listening to oldies with my parents, or just being a kid of the 80's. There's lots of songs from those eras I absolutely love. I honestly don't know much about acts that break into the charts these days. There's a couple of Lady Gaga songs I like, I guess. I'm old. If I heard a band covering any of today's Top 40, I can guarantee you I'd have no idea who they were.
Do you think there is a chance that an actual lawsuit would happen, or do you think they'll just file you in with other venues and wait for the checks to come rolling in?
I hope not, but sadly, I wouldn't doubt someone associated with any of the PROs would read this, and then we'd getting another threatening letter, email, or even an office visit. They're honestly like the mafia, except they're operating with the law on their side. You pay them so they won't sue you. Venues are afraid of them. They've forced countless places that are the pillars of their respective local music community to close simply because they can't afford their fees. It's shakedown money. There's a sense of genuine fear that goes along with dealing with them, like if you speak out against them, they'll come down even harder.
I'm at my wit's end. If this concept night doesn't appease them, I don't know what else to do.
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If a lawsuit is filed, what's next for RGRS?
I hate to say it, but I imagine that'll be it. They're huge multi-million dollar organizations with a legal team at their disposal that has never lost a case. We can't compete with that.