ASCAP: A Proposal For Fairness

I'm a small-time performer (keyboards) who has been playing in smaller restaurants, etc., around my town (Santa Fe, New Mexico) for the past several years. Recently, ASCAP representatives have been writing to owners of these establishments, insisting on large fees (between the three licensing agencies) to license the playing of copyrighted material.
While I certainly recognize the importance of providing this type of safeguard for composers, it does seem at least questionable as to whether this protection need apply to small rooms, particularly where there is no fee to the customer related to the music, and where the performances are limited to one or two times a week at most. In England, for example, it seems that the laws were recently modified to allow unlicensed performance in rooms seating under 200 persons. None of the places I play begin to approach that size.
The effect of the law and its enforcement by ASCAP, etc., at this point seems to be primarily the stifling of lower-level artists and the prevention of small restaurants from providing pleasant background ambiance to their patrons. The (again, very important) idea of protecting composers from having their material used for profit without compensation does not, in my opinion, hold true for these much smaller endeavors, where the licensing fees (upwards of $400 per agency, or at least $1200 total) make providing live music prohibitively expensive. Wouldn’t it, therefore, may sense to create a tiered fee structure, with the lowest level designed to make adding background music feasible for small establishments? While the English feel that there need be no charge for this level of performance, we, being the business-is-our-business folks that we are, may see the need to have some fee even at this level; at least, however, we could make it affordable.

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Lou Levin