Could BMI Live Help Local Musicians Get Paid? 

The service aims to pay musicians royalties for playing live, but could it be too good to be true?

A year ago, the music licensing giant BMI launched a new endeavor called BMI Live, which allows songwriters to register for free and get paid royalties for their live performance (as far back as six months prior). Yet few musicians seem to know about the program.

BMI Director of Corporate Communications Ari Surdoval said the company is trying to spread the word about BMI Live to bands and encourage them to sign up. Musicians enter their show information online (or through an iPhone app), and royalties are distributed quarterly. According to Surdoval, the amount of royalties depends on various factors such as the venue, how many songs performed were written by you, and if you're the sole songwriter. "We had people who made thousands of dollars last year," he said.

So what's the catch? And what's in it for BMI? Surdoval says, in effect, nothing. The not-for-profit company is only trying to pay hardworking songwriters their due. (Songwriters, however, cannot be registered with another licensing company and must show proof of termination of their contract.) Last year, he said, BMI paid out just shy of $800 million in royalties to its registered artists, an increase from the year prior. Among those: John Doe, Cat Power, Jesse Malin, The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, The Cramps, Gillian Welch, and Todd Synder. Most of their registered songwriters, however, he said are not household names.

But local musician Conan Neutron (Replicator, Victory and Associates) holds a far more skeptical view of music licensing companies like BMI and ASCAP. Neutron says he has been registered for ASCAP for about ten years. Occasionally, he'll get $5 for royalties from his band Replicator, he said. Twenty bucks was the most he ever made in a year. "It's total horse shit, because I know for a fact we get played in a couple movies and low-rent TV shows and such, but it's like trying to grab grains of sand fighting for it. Who has the time or interest in chasing after $20?"

When informed of the concept of BMI Live, Neutron sounded optimistic at first, but then saw the program as a potential way for BMI to use the service as leads for venues operating without proper licensing. "Listing an 'underground' venue or all-ages space that operates below the radar is the functional equivalent of giving their name and address to the mob. ... It's messed up, and it's messed up because it's done in the names of artists that usually are legitimately struggling, but for the benefit (mostly) of BMI and artists that don't really need it. ... And in the process, BMI's shakedown artists have their detective work done for them for new venues and performance spaces to shake down."

As we've previously reported, underground venues have been hugely instrumental to developing a strong local music scene in the East Bay, and most probably can't afford licensing fees. At the same time, musicians might collect more royalties if more venues were properly licensed.

According to BMI's own stats, signing up with BMI doesn't sound terribly lucrative at this point: Its website says more than 500,000 songwriters are registered with them, (and Surdoval said 40,000 to 50,000 new songwriters sign up every year). Eight hundred million dollars distributed evenly among 500,000 songwriters is $1,600 per year (and that's a generous estimate). With big-name acts like Lady Gaga and Celine Dion on BMI's roster, it's safe to say that they're getting much more than the average. Which appears to leave little for the independent musician.

Despite his misgivings, Neutron said he may sign up for BMI Live anyway. "But [I would] only put the venues that are already known to BMI... no weird funky art spaces or house shows, no small bars that put on the odd show. Just legit, totally above-board venues that make you fill out tax information and such.

"It's a damn shame, because considering how little bands actually get paid locally and on tour, this could be a valuable tool," Neutron continued, "but the cynic in me says this will help BMI far more than it would help Victory and Associates."

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