“When you buy your first bar nobody ever tells you about ASCAP or BMI. If you listen to them, you need their license to open your doors,” said Tom Goettle. Goettle and wife Flo Mowery ran the Fat Cats honky-tonk in Leucadia during the late ’70s.
ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers) and BMI (Broadcast Music Inc.) are licensing groups that collect royalty fees at bars, concerts, jukeboxes, and from TV and radio broadcasts. BMI/ASCAP then distributes royalties to songwriters.
“Today, if we had music three nights a week, we would have to pay $4000 to $5000 a year [to ASCAP and BMI],” said Goettle. “There is no way I can justify that.”
One club owner, who did not want to be identified, said his live music nightspot will be paying more than $7500 this year to ASCAP and BMI.
Goettle said those two groups — and their collection techniques — helped him and Mowery decide to end live music at their current bar, Longshot, in San Marcos.
“It used to be they [ASCAP and BMI agents] would come in pinstripe suits and bolo hats and look like Hugo the ape. They would come in and say they are not leaving until they get a check, even if it’s a bad check. They would say that if we close down the bar [and not pay them], they will be back to padlock it the next day. They can put a lien on your place. They can come in and put a marshal at your till. Who’s gonna come in and buy a drink with a marshal standing at your till?”
Goettle says it is futile to fight BMI and ASCAP.
“ASCAP has a pretty good record. The last time we looked into it, they hadn’t lost a case since 1939.”
Goettle recalls his first ASCAP horror story.
“When we were down at Fat Cats, we had a band that played only original music. [If a live band plays no cover songs, the licensing companies have no right to collect licensing fees.] This guy from BMI walked up to the band and said, ‘I wanna hear “Okie from Muskogee.” ’ The musician said, ‘We don’t play covers. We only play our own music.’ The guy said, ‘Come on, my wife is here, and this is my wife’s anniversary. I’ll give you a hundred bucks.’ They took the $100. They played the goddamn song. He walked over and laid a contract on the bar and said, ‘I’m not leaving till you sign this contract. He just played a copyrighted song.’ ”
Goettle says the people who most benefit from ASCAP and BMI are ASCAP and BMI. “Eighty-five percent of the money that they collect goes to enforcement and their own little administration and henchmen… If you are a big musician, you might get big money [from ASCAP/BMI]. But if you had one or two hits, [the royalties] don’t get you beer money. I would be willing to say that 90 percent of the artists don’t even know it happens like this. If they knew they were gouging every mom-and-pop bar with a three-piece country band, I’m sure they wouldn’t support this.”
Goettle says he has no music in the Longshot except for a jukebox. “The jukebox companies pay them themselves. We will do anything to avoid paying them.”
Which includes not having sports on the bar TV.
“ASCAP comes along and says they want to charge us for the songs used in commercials on football games. Even the national anthem is copyrighted. They wanted us to pay $550 a year just to show football and baseball. I don’t turn the TV on anymore.”
“There are an enormous number of untrue statements,” responds Jerry Bailey, BMI’s director of media relations about Goettle’s remarks.
Bailey said a new law that went into effect in January 1999 allows bars under 3750 square feet to have a TV without paying performance royalties, “if that’s the only music they are playing, if they have less than five TVs, no more than one per room, and if they meet certain equipment stipulations.”
Regarding the “Okie from Muskogee” incident: “I can’t speak to what may or may not have happened 20 or 30 years ago. I know we are occasionally accused of things that don’t happen. Behavior like that would not be tolerated today.”
Bailey said 83 percent of BMI’s income goes to songwriters and publishers and that only 17 percent goes to pay its staff of “500 or 600…we’re a nonprofit organization…our figures are widely published.”
The Nashville-based BMI spokesman added, “Taking a business to court is a last resort. That is not the image we want to portray.”