© 2003 by Richard Hayes Phillips

It was Memorial Day, and I had just finished the most successful stand of my
career on the fringes of the music business.  I had been playing acoustic
music at a restaurant in the Hudson Valley for almost a year.  I was their
house musician, appearing on holiday weekends and whenever there was a
special event that drew hordes of tourists to the town.  I knew that I was in
some kind of trouble when the owners, Joe and Kim, asked me to step outside.
They did not appear to be angry with me.  If anything, they seemed about to
cry.  “We’re going to have to stop the music for now,” said Kim.  Then she
asked me if I had ever heard of BMI.  I knew that BMI is a worldwide
publishing empire that, along with ASCAP, owns the performance rights to
“virtually” every song published in the United States.  I also knew that
their ubiquitous agents demand and collect licensing fees on an annual basis
from owners of restaurants, coffeehouses and bars where copyrighted music is
performed.  “But I didn’t sing any cover tunes,” I protested.  “I just played
a four-hour concert of all original and traditional material.”  “It doesn’t
matter.  BMI is demanding a license even for Irish music,” said Kim.  “We
never heard of BMI before.  We don’t know anything about it.  Would you take
care of this for us?”  “I’d be happy to,” I answered.  “I know the origins of
every song that I sing.”  I hoped that BMI would concede my right to sing
original and traditional material, and that I would get my job back.
Stunned, in shock, I sat down to eat my grilled salmon salad, the best thing
on the menu.  I told a friend what had happened, and I asked him: “What does
BMI stand for, anyway?”  “World domination,” he said.  BMI also stands for
“Broadcast Music Incorporated.”  I found this out when Joe brought me a copy
of a letter he described as “threatening.”  The letter advised Kim of her
“need for a BMI license.”  It claimed that “whatever music you perform to
benefit your business, its public performance requires a license.”  It
specifically mentioned Irish music.  This was not just one little irate BMI
employee trying to make a name for himself.  The letter was written by Craig
Stamm, Director of General Licensing at BMI headquarters in Nashville.

I had seen references to ASCAP and BMI on covers of record albums since the
early sixties.  I had no idea who they were until the mid-eighties when I
encountered frightened restaurant owners in the Connecticut River Valley.
Many of them had received letters, phone calls, or personal visits from
agents of BMI or ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and
Publishers).  They were told that if any musician ever sang even one ASCAP or
BMI song on the premises, they would have to buy a license or be subject to
an exorbitant fine.  ASCAP was founded in 1913, and BMI in 1938, in order to
collect royalties on behalf of songwriters and composers whose works are
publicly performed.  They sell blanket licenses, on an annual basis, allowing
the performance of any song in their catalogues of representation.  The
reasons are obvious: it would be far too cumbersome for the promoter to track
down every composer to whom royalties should be paid, or for the composers to
track down every promoter who owes them money.  But the licenses are not
cheap.  The cost depends upon how many musicians are playing, how often they 
play, and the maximum allowable occupancy under local fire codes.  Federal 
copyright law provides for fines of up to $30,000 for each copyrighted song
performed without a license, and up to $150,000 if the infringement is 


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