Brewers Association Criticized for Supporting Controversial Music Bill

Austin Ray
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Last week, we reported on the Brewers Association lending its endorsement to a piece of legislation that aims to establish a massive database of music that would, ideally, serve its brewery members by allowing them to more easily acquire music licenses in compliance with copyright laws. Currently, the BA says, many members aren’t clear on which performance rights organizations (PROs) own the license to specific works, so they end up paying more to multiple PROs than they need to in order to play music in their on-premise locations. By creating one broad umbrella, the organization believes members will have clearer guidance on which PRO owns the rights to what music, thereby allowing them to pay for only the music they wish to play.

However, this particular bill is more controversial in the music community, and the BA’s assurance that it would also help in “fully compensating hardworking artists and songwriters” is one that strikes an unpleasantly dissonant chord in the eyes of many artists. In light of its endorsement of the so-called Transparency in Music Licensing and Ownership Act, one artistic activist asked aloud, “Why are microbreweries supporting a bill that takes away songwriter rights?”

But more on that in a moment. First, a bit on why the proposed legislation is so controversial: While the bill itself doesn’t seek to change the requirement that businesses license music from PROs, it does aim to put an added burden on songwriters themselves to properly register their work in the new database. Should they fail to do so (and later learn their music had been played unlicensed in an establishment), the bill would diminish the songwriters’ legal recourse by limiting what damages they can claim.

“It's basically a prophylactic for copyright infringement,” music copyright attorney Lisa Alter told NPR last month. “It puts the whole burden on the creators... It’s very cloak and dagger.”

But, the reason we’re here: the BA putting its weight behind the bill as well as its practical effects on the music industry doesn't exist in a vacuum. So in light of the trade group’s endorsement, The Trichordist, a blog dedicated to advancing artists’ rights, specifically decried the BA for supporting the bill. In doing so, musician and writer David Lowery argued the group is effectively working to complicate the matter further for brewers while simultaneously screwing over musicians.

“Think it’s a pain in the ass dealing with BMI/ASCAP/SESAC?” he writes. “Imagine if the licensing landscape required dealing with thousands of individual songwriters, publishers, record labels and independent licensing administrators. This sort of complexity favors big companies over little ones.”

Interestingly, Lowery went on in his post to draw a parallel between the beer and music industries that positions the BA playing a role not at all dissimilar to the multinational brewing conglomerates it generally stands against. He continues:

“We are both in businesses that are highly regulated and dominated by large monopolistic distributors.  Did you know that...the federal government controls more than 2/3 of our licensing and there are basically three multinational conglomerates that distribute almost all music? Sound familiar to you?”

Reached by GBH, BA federal affairs manager Katie Marisic responded to these criticisms, saying, in part:

“The Brewers Association hopes that if passed, the Transparency in Music Licensing and Ownership Act (H.R. 3350) will be beneficial to all the groups involved, be they breweries, restaurants, wineries, songwriters and/or musicians... We believe that a goal of this database is to give all artists a place to register so that breweries and other venues will have peace of mind knowing that they are complying with existing copyright laws and the assurance that hardworking artists and songwriters are being fully compensated for their work, whether that be through a performing rights organization or directly to the artist.”

So despite the concerns of the artists themselves, the BA seems to be doubling down on the value it presents for brewers first and shifting the burden through this legislation favored by larger distributors. There is a genuine need for clarity and transparency on this issue as it relates to the beer industry, PROs, streaming services, and—perhaps most sympathetically to the cause of “independent craft brewers”—the artists who labor over the music that sets the mood in thousands of taprooms and drinking establishments across the country. For now, though, those involved haven’t found the right harmony.

—Dave Eisenberg