Brewers Association to Craft Taprooms: Don’t Let the Rhythm Take You Over, Bailamos

Austin Ray
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Given the important role music plays in creating unique taproom atmospheres across the country, the Brewers Association wants to make sure its members aren’t breaking any laws through their sound systems. The nonprofit trade group announced last week it has partnered with Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI)—one of the largest music rights management organizations in the country—to create a discount licensing program for its brewery members in hopes of enabling them to save money while complying with copyright laws.

Through the program, BA members can save 10% on licensing fees, the organization says. BMI already offers similar discount programs to many “eating and drinking establishments,” meaning members can ultimately take advantage of discounts from two streams and save up to 20% on fees.

The partnership was made public a week after the BA positioned its political weight behind the Transparency in Music Licensing and Ownership Act, a bipartisan piece of legislation that seeks to “establish a database of nondramatic musical works and sound recordings to help entities that wish to publicly perform such works and recordings to identify and compensate the owners of rights in such works and recordings.”

“If passed, this legislation will bring transparency to music licensing for Brewers Association members, giving them the ability to purchase the music licenses they want while ensuring that they are not violating any copyright laws and are fully compensating hardworking artists and songwriters,” according to the BA. “As a result of increased transparency, under the new law brewery owners would be able to choose the licenses that best fit their music needs.”

Under the status quo, brewers must acquire licenses from performing rights organizations (PROs), such as BMI, American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), SESAC, and others in order to legally play music or have artists perform protected renditions of other songs. And that wouldn’t change. The problem, though, as outlined by the BA, is that there’s a lack of clarity “as to which copyright ownership information is connected with which PRO.” Subsequently, the organization says, brewers are paying for music they don’t actually play.

Reached by GBH, Katie Marisic, the BA’s federal affairs manager, says there is a “growing demand” for clarity on the matter from its dues paying constituency. “Over the past year,” she tells GBH, “we have heard from our membership that they would like more information about music licensing and increased transparency from performance rights organizations.”

It’s unclear exactly how widespread this is as an issue. But running afoul of any given PRO can be a potentially costly mistake, especially for smaller businesses. In 2015, ASCAP sued a Chicago bar for playing, among other songs, Madonna’s “Into the Groove” without licensing it. As detailed in the federal copyright infringement lawsuit, the PRO sought $150,000 in damages.

And this is hardly an isolated incident. In 2016, BMI and Sony sued Chicago’s Piece Brewery and Pizzeria, alleging the company played music by Willie Nelson, Weezer, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and others without paying royalties. And earlier this summer, ASCAP sued Willoughby Brewing of Ohio over unsanctioned performances of “I Will Survive,” “Just What I Needed,” and “Play That Funky Music White Boy.”

If you're curious how these companies get caught up in this type of mess, there seems to be a pattern: Essentially, businesses are alleged to have stopped paying licensing fees. From there, a PRO attempts to resolve the matter. If they’re unable to, a PRO will send an investigator to the business in question and, with perked ears, listen to what music is filling the room. Pretty simple!

Such organizations are so diligent, they say, because they know the value of music to such establishments and it’s important, especially in today’s world of ubiquitous pirating, to compensate the artists that create the work.

“Hundreds of thousands of well-run businesses across the nation recognize the importance of paying music creators to use their music, and understand that it is both the lawful and right thing to do,” said ASACP in a statement detailing its Willoughby lawsuit. “However, each of the establishments sued today has decided to use music without compensating songwriters. By filing these actions, ASCAP is standing up for songwriters whose creative work brings great value to all businesses that publicly perform their music.”

—Dave Eisenberg