Six months after raising the curtain on their gourmet coffee shop in the beachside Indian Harbour Place shopping center, Laurie and Jim Hall decided to offer live music on Friday and Saturday nights.
The performers, normally duos, mainly covered songs written and made famous by other musicians. There was no cover charge, no pay for the musicians, no limit to how long patrons could sit on a couch with their coffee, playing chess and enjoying the music.
Then a few months later, music industry giant ASCAP started calling and sending letters saying East Coast Coffee & Tea was in violation of copyright laws. The fee to continue the music was $400 a year.
"At the time, the shop was losing money, so we had to break it up into payments," said Laurie Hall. But the Halls paid, and the music continued.
Six months later, other music copyright companies began calling the Halls and demanding money. Most days there would be three or four phone calls from each company, Hall said. Finally, unable to afford the fees, she had to call most of her musicians — those who did not play original music — and tell them they would not be allowed to continue performing.
This aggressive — but legal — posture being taken by music licensing companies has the potential to unplug live music in many restaurants, bars and coffee shops in Brevard County.
It comes on the heels of a massive music industry crackdown during the past several years on illegal downloads from the Internet. Whether it's a professional recording taken from a Web site or an accordion player singing a Jimmy Buffet tune in a small venue, the industry is working to collect royalties for whoever wrote the songs.
"They have threatened to shut down my place," said Lou Andrus, owner of the popular beachside nightclub Lou's Blues.
When a songwriter signs with one of the licensing companies — the country's three biggest are BMI, SESAC and ASCAP — his or her music is copyrighted.
Unless Hall pays the three major companies, and even some of the smaller ones, she would be breaking the law by having musicians perform songs written by others.
"It makes me so angry," Hall said. "People like playing here because it's not a bar, there's no smoke and it's a clean environment. I feel like the greedy music industry is extorting money from us and hurting these musicians just starting out."
In addition to the $400 she has already paid ASCAP, she routinely receives annual bills from BMI for $305 and from SESAC for between $250 and $300.
She doesn't understand why a little coffee shop is in the same "eating/drinking establishment" category as places where music is more front and center, such as Lou's Blues or Meg O'Malley's in downtown Melbourne. Hall said she likely will start offering music just one night a week.
SESAC spokesman Shawn Williams said in e-mail responses to questions that it is his company's responsibility to enforce copyright laws, many of which were enacted nearly a century ago.
"The copyright law requires each business that publicly performs music to obtain permission prior to performing any copyrighted music," Williams said, adding that the owners of East Coast Coffee need to decide whether music "is important to their operations and overall profitability. We have many license agreements with small establishments."
Williams defends the money collected.
"This provides the majority of income to songwriters," he said.
Andrus, the owner of Lou's Blues, said he has had many run-ins with the copyright companies over the years.
"It started 15 years ago when I had a guy come out to our other place, Cantina dos Amigos, and play Mexican music on his guitar on the patio," Andrus said. "They came after me for money. Are they really sending royalty checks to the songwriter in Mexico?"
Andrus said he pays BMI and ASCAP about $3,000 a year but is ignoring the smaller companies that seek royalties from him.
"There are so many damned companies you don't know who to pay," he said. "One guy called and said I had to pay him if I played any gospel music at all. It's really a mess."
Hall insists that her coffee shop makes no extra money when the musicians play. Unlike a bar where patrons may imbibe several cocktails during the course of the night, her customers normally order one cup of coffee per performance.
But Andrus and others who refuse to pay could find themselves paying anyway — in the form of fines.
"The law provides damages ranging from $750 to $150,000 for each song performed without proper authorization," Williams said.
And in no way do the songs have to be performed live, or even on the radio, to elicit calls for royalties.
Andrus said a friend of his who owned a restaurant that did not feature music was contacted by a company looking to charge him because it owned the rights to a Hank Williams Jr. song, "Are You Ready for Some Football?" The song preceded every "Monday Night Football" telecast, which the restaurant carried on its televisions.
He said his friend simply chose to turn the volume down when the song came on.
The licensing companies use a variety of methods to find out whether copyrighted music is being used.
"ASCAP representatives may visit establishments and find that they advertise live entertainment," explained Richard Reimer, senior vice president of ASCAP, in an e-mail. "Local newspapers carry advertisements for venues that present live entertainment and, of course, the Internet is a valuable resource as well."
Singer/songwriter Al Urezzio, who played at East Coast Coffee, said he recently lost his steady gig at the Getaway Lounge in Suntree because the owners were being asked to pay copyright fees as well.
Now Urezzio, who performs as "Grumpy Al," is relegated to performing only his original compositions. That means his options on where to perform are limited.
"This is really bull," said Urezzio, who owns the Burger Inn on U.S. 1 in Melbourne. "East Coast called and told me to only play originals from now on."
Chad Fagg, one half of the pop-rock duo "Just Blue," also is without a steady place to perform. Like Urezzio, the group was told recently that they could no longer play at the East Coast Coffee — where they've performed for four months — unless they played only original music.
"It's very disappointing, and it's frustrating," Fagg said. "They gave us a shot before anyone else would. I understand it's about royalties, but it's such a small place."
Nightclubs and coffee shops are not the only places affected by the industry crackdown.
Neil Butler, owner of Hawk's Gym in Melbourne, said he has had to pay a few hundred dollars a year to licensing companies in order to pipe in satellite music to his fitness center. Commercial radio is free to play because the radio stations have already paid the necessary fees.
Professional guitarist and singer Eddy Fischer, who performs in the group "Robin and Eddy," has been a member of ASCAP since he was 17. Having performed with members of The Monkees and The Mammas and Pappas, Fischer figured it was a good idea to protect himself. But even he thinks the industry might be going a bit too far.
"I think this is a little out of line," he said a day before playing his new age-style folk music at the Halls' coffee shop. "It seems kind of rough that little coffee houses with no stage or no lights that were not built for live music have to come up with that kind of money."
But ASCAP's Reimer said the licensing fees are "affordable for any small nightclub, restaurant, tavern or coffee house." He said there was little option available other than seeking permissions directly from the songwriters.
Andrus agreed business owners really don't have a choice.
"It's extortion, it's intimidating. It's such a scam."
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