As lawsuits over digital music and video sales loom nationwide, the fight to keep intimate, local live music going may be in trouble in Sequim.
The Oasis Bar & Grill, 301 E. Washington St., one of Sequim’s few venues, hosted its last live music performance on New Year’s Eve after years of pressure from music licensing companies to pay royalties for songs being played by performers.
Owner Dale Dunning said he most recently received a citation worth nearly $8,700 from BMI, Broadcast Music Incorporated, stating an investigator visited the restaurant and found them in violation of copyrighted music.
Dunning said he doesn’t plan to pay the music corporation because if he did, then he must pay other agencies including the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) and the Society of European Stage Authors and Composers (SESAC). His bill, he said would be more than $5,000 a year in licensing fees for cover bands to play.
“The fees make it impossible to operate,” he said. “They are killing venues. There is nothing in the world that we treat like music copyright. With cookbooks you don’t have to keep paying each time you cook a recipe.”
Last year, Dunning said he spent $48,000 on live music but finds it was only about break even financially for him.
“Wednesdays are slightly profitable, Fridays are always popular and Saturdays are hit or miss,” he said. “As they say, for every dollar you spend you have to earn four.”
Dunning and his wife Janice have a contingency plan though.
They intend to shift the restaurant to an all-ages eatery through 9 p.m. daily while sectioning off the 21-and-over area. He intends to keep some special events like Trivia on Sunday nights, too.
For now, Dunning encourages local artists and supporters to write their state representatives to lobby and change music licensing laws.
“We feel horrible about stopping music,” Dunning said. “People have come to rely on it.”
The Oasis follows another Sequim eatery, the Old Mill Cafe in Carlsborg, which stopped live music last year after pressures from the music agencies.
However, Sequim’s biggest venue, 7 Cedars Casino in Blyn, continues to offer live music but pays the annual fees.
Jerry Allen, casino CEO, previously said they’ve been paying the fees a long time, “maybe $20,000 a year” based on capacity.
With the Oasis stopping its music, the casino remains the most likely option for some artists, but many aren’t sure what’s next for their music ventures.
Sam Klippert, who plays for Final Approach, Dukes of Dabob and Discovery Bay Pirates, was playing at the Oasis at least three times a month.
“Dale doesn’t have any other choice,” Klippert said about stopping the music. “I guess they (BMI) have a legal right to do what they are doing but they are hurting a little town and not gaining much from it.”
Klippert said he isn’t sure of the fate of Final Approach because it depends on finding more places to play.
“We could play at the VFW but it’s for tips,” he said. “There are a few places in Port Angeles. We could reorganize and hopefully the band won’t break up but in reality it probably will.”
Dukes of Dabob, he said, continues to play in Port Hadlock and the Discovery Bay Pirates will consider playing the casino.
Klippert said he enjoyed playing at the Oasis because it was spacious for eight-piece-bands like Dukes of Dabob but now he anticipates it’ll be easier to find gigs as a soloist or two-piece.
Steve Sahnow with the Old Sidekicks, a country/bluegrass group, played on New Year’s Eve for the Oasis’ last night of music. He’s played there 10 years off and on with different bands and plays 15-18 gigs a year at the Oasis.
“It’s an unfortunate thing for us,” he said. “Our people love the fact they knew when and where they could see us. It’ll take some other operation in order to provide a place now.”
Members of the band have been satisfied playing at the Oasis and VFW, Sahnow said.
“We bring a good crowd and it earns money for the business, which we like,” he said. “We understand they have to make enough to pay us and make enough for themselves.”
Looking at other options, Sahnow said they used to play at the casino.
“We’re old guys,” he said. “The casino is pretty structured in what they are looking for. We can play 9 p.m.-1 a.m. or 6-10 p.m. and we’re not going to do that either.”
Sahnow also said his band has too many players to fit into smaller Sequim venues who are likely to be the next ones targeted by the music companies, too.
Country artist Buck Ellard, who makes his living as a musician, said he’ll be looking to find 12 new shows to fill his schedule after losing his monthly spot at the Oasis.
Annually, he performs about 180 shows, including at assisted living facilities and private parties.
Ellard, who does originals and covers, said he is a member of ASCAP and there are a lot of people who depend on live music in Sequim.
“I have mixed feelings. It’s extortion in a way,” he said.
“I play a lot of older country like Alan Jackson, Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings. I can’t see how ASCAP money is going to these guys … We try to cover all the bases and they are still nailing the venues.”
Ellard has gone so far as to rent his own venues to play and he’s anticipating the need to travel more to play shows.
“I used to tour and never played in the area but we really like playing where we know everybody,” he said.
Music licensing rights’ impact stretches throughout Sequim such as at the Sequim Farmers Market.
Market manager Lisa Bridge said they’ve tried avoiding paying large fees to ASCAP for live music on Saturdays.
“We did some collaborative work with the city and in the end ASCAP refused to recognize that collaboration,” she said. “We have paid them thousands of dollars and during this coming season we will be condensing our live music season to just a few months because the cost has become prohibitive. We hate to do this and feel great frustration towards these multi-million-dollar organizations creating a barrier to live and local music vitality.”
Bridge said the market pays a fee that is based on a structure that puts them in the same category as a shopping mall.
City Attorney Craig Ritchie said the city pays licensing fees for the its Music in the Park program and it could for the Saturday market but it opted to pay ASCAP itself, avoiding possible litigation that Ritchie said the city could represent. The city’s fees are based on free public performances using licensed music and the rates negotiated at lower rates for cities.
This year, the city pays $335 to ASCAP, based on a population from 1-50,000 people, $327 to BMI and nothing to CESAC because they’ve never been contacted by company.
“It isn’t fair but that’s not necessarily our problem,” Ritchie said. “They take the money to pay their own overhead and pay artists based essentially on the Top 10. Money goes to who are on the popularity rank. It does not necessarily to go the artists we play.”
Churches are another venue that must pay music licensing fees.
Joel Rosenauer, director of Worship, Music and Arts at Sequim Community Church, said they pay a yearly fee for access to thousands of songs as an overall package through the Christian Copyright Licensing International, CCLI.
Rosenauer said sometimes the company will audit churches requiring their music leaders to keep track of songs over a few weeks and send in the list.
Jon Wright, music director for Dungeness Community Church, said its annual fee is based on congregation size and that they’ve budgeted about $450 a year for music licensing in 2015.
How the process works
In the Gazette’s previous story “Venues under pressure” by Mark St.J. Couhig, Vincent Candilora, ASCAP’s executive vice president for licensing, said the music agencies are becoming more active in seeking out license fees and they do that largely by searching band’s and venue’s websites and social media.
Licensing managers, about 160 or so across the country, work from home or by automobile to investigate venues like the Oasis.
If a venue is using music without paying, Candilora said they send the venues a letter, then call, then if they don’t respond, the area manager will stop by and introduce themselves, ask if they’re received the information and explain everything.
Representatives with BMI did not return phone calls and e-mails by deadline for inquiries about the Oasis.
Reach reporter Matthew Nash at email@example.com.