Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Pros and Cons of...

The PRO's

PRO's refers to Performing Rights Organizations, like BMI and ASCAP, who collect royalties for musicians when their work is used in commercial applications. For instance, if one of my songs gets used in a movie and I'm a member of one of these organizations, they'll collect a percentage of the money that's made from the movie, take their cut, and give me my share because I contributed to that movie's revenue.

I don't know anyone who objects to the PRO's collecting money for commercial use of someone's song. That is, if a song of yours or mine gets used in a movie, CD, DVD or some other genuine commercial venue. I'm all for that, and so are many, many musicians. I've never come across anyone who thinks anyone should be able to make any real money off someone else's song and not compensate the writer of that song.

What many of us object to though, is when the PROS go after micro-venues for general fees, fees that have nothing to do with who plays who's songs. For instance there is a local craft market in my town that pays musicians to add a little ambience to the thing. The musicians make maybe $50 for 2-3 hours of performing, plus they have a tip jar out. The market makes nothing at all for having music at the fair, it costs them money to have the music. The music is nice but does not really constitute anything like a "draw". There's no real place to sit and listen. Mostly people walk by, smile, maybe listen for a minute or two, maybe toss a buck in the jar. I can assure you that none of the crafters and artists would suffer any loss of sales if the music went away. It's strictly a case of an artists organization supporting the arts in a general way by giving local musician's a chance to be heard a bit.

Now, along comes ASCAP demanding a $2000 a year fee because one of the musicians who play at the market MIGHT play a cover song, a song licensed by one of their artists. But none of the money that is collected is going to go to Paul McCartney or Yoko One if one of the artists plays a Beatles song at the market. The PRO's don't even know who plays what at these things. They do sample larger commercial venues, things like radio playlists and the music festivals, but not these little micro venues. They also go after stores and restaurants who play CD's in their businesses, and they go after bars that have Karaoke nights. But none of the writers of these songs gets the money, only the PRO's do.

So, what's probably going to happen is that the Market will stop doing music and just rent out the "stage" space to another artist or crafter and make money instead of lose money on having music. That will mean over 80 gigs vanishing every Summer from our local music scene here in Ashland. I don't see how this is "protecting" musicians or doing anything good for anyone, except of course, the PRO's themselves. When they go after some little coffeehouse that has music on weekends, pays them $5 and lets them collect tips, I don't see how that helps anything.

The issue to me is A. whether any significant money is being made at the writer's expense and B. if there's any way to keep track of this and be sure that said money makes it to said artist.

So if my song is used in a movie? Sure BMI or ASCAP, go get my share, take your cut, and give me my money. But if someone covers my song in a farmer's market, makes $18 over the course of a whole morning playing music, no one keeps track of what songs they're playing, and then ASCAP demands several hundred dollars a year from them, none of which goes to me at all? That just seems wrong.

I don't even care if someone covers one of my songs on an album that they burn a hundred or two copies of. It doesn't amount to anything significant and they're actually doing me a favor getting my stuff out in the world. Even if I was to get $1 per copy, which is a huge percentage by "industry" standards, it'd amount to a couple of hundred dollars which is too small a total for me to get worked up about, start legal action, etc...If I found out that someone was doing that, I'd give 'em my blessing. Personally, I'd be flattered if anyone bootlegged my stuff, but I understand if someone else is upset about things like that. So if anyone wants to go after those bootleggers, go for it.

Personally, I'm against the commodification of every dang thing on Earth, especially music. I'm all for people getting paid for what they do, but especially with music, I think there needs to be some slack around the edges, so the music itself can spread, mutate and grow. In my view, nothing is "original", everything is intertwined and built on the work of others. I think we all suffer from the stringently applied standards of "intellectual property". For most of human history no one "owned" songs. They were considered some kind of divine inspiration and after that community property. Folk music has always existed outside the regular economy and probably always will in some form. I'm proud to be a folk musician and personally want nothing to do with "the industry" as it is now. The more "The Man" clamps down and tries to control music, the more the people figure out ways to get around him.

But this last bit is just my own personal feelings. As far as anything "official" that I am against, it is not about the PRO's collecting real money made by genuine commercial ventures. I am against them extorting fees and closing down small venues who generally don't even make money on the music. Balance is all I'm talking about. I don't want to throw out the PRO's entirely, Hell I'm a member of BMI myself, even though I strongly doubt that I will ever make dime one from them. Let them collect for the big boys. But I say, Lay off the little guys!

Interestingly, it's very hard to get most musicians to fight the PRO's in any way. Even though the vast majority of us will make no money, or next to no money, from them. Here's the rub: most us think we will someday! Even though the odds are staggeringly negative. We're like kids playing basketball in the playground dreaming of playing in the NBA. Hardly any of us ever will, but we don't want to upset the powers that be, in case we do. But most of us will end up being what I call "bottom-feeders" who will never reach "The Charts". In case you're a musician and want to see what I mean, just image search "ASCAP" and see if you see anyone who looks like you in the pictures that come up! We are precisely the people who the PRO's hurt by shutting down the micro-venues we have a shot at actually playing.

But really, all of the above is just a little rant by a bottom-feeder. The big boys have totally won this fight. No PRO has ever lost a court case. Ever. They are organizations made up of lawyers, they wrote the laws, know the laws, and they never lose. I'm just saying all of this to get it off my chest. The only thing that will bring down this beast, this legalistic casino where almost all of us lose, except the very few, is for a peak oil driven collapse of our whole legalistic way of doing things. Not bloody likely in my lifetime! Meanwhile, you can download all of my music free at

And here's a lyric from my soon to be released album "No Other Life" about these very issues:

Your Song Now by Gene Burnett (©2010)

For most of human history no one owned the songs

They were just part of the glue that helped us get along

No copyrights and legal fights to squeeze out every dime

Just people sharing music to help them ease the time

Songs of laughter—Songs of pain—To dance and worship to

Songs that helped to fill the space between the me and you

But now every one is numbered—Priced and up for sale

And cashing in on music has become the Holy Grail


This song came to me by the grace of God somehow

It just popped into my head/heart and I just wrote it down

Now it’s time to leave the stage and take another bow

It was my song when I wrote it—It’s your song now

Now I am all for people getting paid for what they do

Times have changed and I myself have made a buck or two

But something has been lost—Now that business rules the day

Now that we buy and sell what we used to give away

I do my part to tip the scales away from fear and greed

I mostly sing for nothing and my songs are mostly free

The big boys have their lawyers and the deck is surely stacked

But the people have their ways of taking the music back

Repeat Chorus

We stand on the shoulders of those who came before

We pick up where they left off and take a few steps more

Nothing is original—It’s all intertwined

Money isn’t everything—Once you free your mind

So sing it any way you want to—Sing it sharp or flat

I may not like it when you do—But I’ll get over that

Music is a living thing that dies where it is bound

It was my song for a minute—It’s your song now

It’s your song now

It’s your song now

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