Music fee strikes sour note for Marysville
The furrowed brows of Marysville City Council members told of their confusion.
A polite letter of warning received early this month urged the city to pay $309 to an organization that council members have never heard of — and for services they never knew existed.
"I believe it's a scam," Councilman Dale Whitmore said Tuesday.
But Broadcast Music Inc. , more widely recognized in the music industry as BMI, is one of two primary licensing agencies that represent songwriters, composers and music publishers, and distribute payment to them in the form of royalties.
BMI, headquartered in Nashville, Tenn., has historically targeted radio and television stations, as well as businesses, to pay fees for the use of copyrighted music.
But licensing agents there, as well as at the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers , a competing but similar organization, have recently taken to hitting up municipalities.
Cities, after all, tend to use copyrighted music — recorded and otherwise — during public events and in public places, according to Jerry Bailey, senior director of media relations at BMI.
"We're doing more of that (targeting cities) than we used to," he said.
Not all municipalities in the region have been contacted. City officials in Chico — which has roughly seven times the population of Marysville — said they have not paid fees to BMI or ASCAP.
"We'll get to 'em if we haven't done 'em yet," Bailey said.
Yuba City has paid annual fees for several years to BMI and ASCAP, according to City Clerk Terrel Locke.
Colusa, which, like Marysville, received a warning recently from BMI, decided Tuesday to take its chances. Colusa City Council members voted not to pay the fee until they can figure out how BMI tracks performances of songs at public events and how the formula works for paying songwriters.
Good luck, said Jim Lang , a songwriter and musician in Los Angeles.
Lang, who has scored numerous movies and television shows, including the Academy Awards, said he receives roughly eight paychecks of varying value each year from ASCAP, the organization to which he holds a membership.
"It's crazy complicated," he said of the formula that calculates where and when any particular piece of music has been played, and what each performance should be worth.
Most of his own song writing income is counted by ASCAP through television screenings.
For instance, Lang wrote songs performed by characters on "Hey Arnold!" an animated children's show, as well as that show's theme song, and underscoring for each episode. These are calculated separately, and the day and time of each airing is factored into the equation.
While some of his musician's income is generated elsewhere, "those payments are really what keeps the lights on," he said.
Artists who get paid through BMI and ASCAP, said Bailey, "are mostly people no one's ever heard of."
Likewise, Bailey said, he did not find it surprising that many city officials in the Sacramento Valley had never heard of BMI.
"In some ways, we're very strange organizations," he said. "We're totally unique."
BMI and ASCAP represent roughly 98 percent of licensed music in the U.S.
Similar organizations operate in about 85 other countries and cooperate with those in the U.S. to help calculate performances of imported music, included via movies and television shows.
Of the fees BMI collects, Bailey said, 87 percent are paid out to members like Lang.
Most who research legal records for BMI and ASCAP find that penalties for playing copyrighted songs without a license — and the diligence with which the agencies' "researchers" function — are too great to ignore.
In spite of the fact that dying radio markets have changed the landscape, Bailey said, new technology has mostly worked in BMI's favor.
BMI tracked 32 million musical performances in the year 2000, and 92 billion in 2010.
On the advice of city staff, Marysville agreed last week to pay the fee as they had done previously in response to a similar notice from ASCAP.
"It's a relatively small fee for the year," said a reluctant Dave Lamon, Marysville's city services director.
Whitmore said he felt put out by the ordeal, especially in light of the city's ongoing budget woes.
"I certainly did not want to pay it, but I felt that we did not have an option," he said.