Editor’s note: This is third in a series about different aspects of Sequim’s arts community. Look next week, April 29, for Part 4.
On any given afternoon or night, there’s a good chance you can catch live music in Sequim, whether it’s a fiddle group at the farmers market, a rock band at the casino or a symphony concert at a church.
But if you’re looking for original music or cover tunes, it all depends on the venue.
Dale Dunning, owner of the Oasis Bar & Grill, 301 E. Wash-ington St., remains a vocal opponent to music corporations pressuring him to pay royalties for songs played by performers.
Dunning said he received a citation worth nearly $8,700 from BMI, Broadcast Music Incorporated, stating an investigator visited the restaurant and found it in violation of copyrighted music.
In response, Dunning went silent with music on Dec. 31, telling the Gazette he would have to pay more than $5,000 a year in licensing fees for cover bands to play between different agencies. In addition, Dunning said he spent $48,000 on live music at the Oasis last year with money made during those shows a break-even proposition.
A handful of venues continue offering evening entertainment in Sequim such as 7 Cedars Casino, which pays about $20,000 in licensing fees annually.
Some venues have stopped live music due to licensing fees such as the Old Mill Cafe or faced pressures to pay too like Krush, which is now closed.
The Sequim Farmers Market is condensing its live music season to just a few months because the cost has become prohibitive, market manager Lisa Bridge said.
However, other venues like churches and schools fall under nonprofit fees.
The City of Sequim pays $335 to ASCAP, based on a population from 1-50,000 people, and $327 to BMI to host the free Music in the Park program running June 30-Aug. 25 at the James Center for the Performing Arts, north of Carrie Blake Park.
City Clerk Karen Kuznek-Reese said they stopped movie showings due to cost ($500-$600 per movie) and lack of sponsors but still seek $400 per week to pay the musicians each week.
After silencing his music, Dunning converted the Oasis into an all-ages eatery through 9 p.m. and said his food sales are way up.
“I’ve compared all my numbers with and without music and we’re doing just fine without,” Dunning said.
He also brought back live, original music from The Whisky Minstrels for one night on April 4, for which he said every seat was taken.
But Dunning said he didn’t pay for live music simply to make money.
“The reason I did it was to create a community,” he said. “There were dancers who scheduled around it because music is important to a lot of people.”
“It annoys me that people say we are making money off of it and that we are greedy. It was the greed of these (corporations) that led me to silence the music.”
Legislative HB 1763
State Rep. Kevin Van De Wege (D-Sequim) took notice of the Oasis and several other venues’ issues with music corporations and drafted House Bill 1763. The bill would keep music licensing companies accountable by registering with the state before targeting music venues for royalty citations.
The bill contained multiple parts such as an annual $1,500 fee to register with the Secretary of State, representatives to identify themselves before seeking a payment for royalties and to notify the business owner 24 hours in advance, to provide a list of artists covered by each agency and to not use abusive language, all subject to $1,000 penalties.
The House of Representatives passed Van De Wege’s bill 92-6 on March 5 before going to the Senate. The Senate’s Committee on Commerce & Labor heard public testimony on March 20 and discussed it in executive session on March 31.
Van De Wege told the committee on March 20 that he’s “not trying to keep people from paying. These people legitimately have to pay. All this bill does is regulate BMI and ASCAP and tactics to interface with businesses across the state.”
But the music licensing companies proposed some amendments that were approved on March 31.
Van De Wege said a majority of his original bill was gone, except for the annual $1,500 licensing fee and consumer campaign through the Attorney General’s office.
“It became apparent we would not be able to pass a bill this session,” he said.
Senators and opposition
Between House and Senate testimonies, BMI had two representatives, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) one, and a Seattle-area musician testify against the bill.
Lisa Thatcher, a BMI representative, said at the House testimony on Feb. 23 that the bill preempted federal law and that 25 states have regulated music licensing companies, but none require a representative announce his or her presence.
In the Senate testimony on March 20, she said licensing companies wouldn’t have an avenue in court to make businesses pay royalties if they are prohibited from doing investigations.
Branden Daniel, a musician and member of BMI, said the company collects royalties for him and protects his band’s rights.
“It’s such a minimal fee,” Daniel said. “All the big venues I play in Seattle, Tacoma and Olympia and across the state, they all pay this fee. Because this annual fee on average is $700, it’s such a small deal. It ends up as pennies in my account.”
A BMI representative estimates about 1,200 clubs, bars and taverns pay royalty fees to them in Washington.
Prior to approving the bill to carry on, Sen. Karen Keiser (D-Kent) said the amendments made the bill better.
“I can’t see the need for this legislation and I am really reluctant to support real change in policy based on an anecdote from one individual member’s district,” she said. “So I cannot support it.”
Sen. Steve Conway (D-Tacoma) said he was impressed 25 states took action on the issue.
“I’m a little worried we’ve lost some of the important oversight from the original bill,” Conway said. “I do hope (Sen. Judy Warnick, R-Moses Lake) and I can work more on this on regulating the industries.”
A portion of the amended bill still includes the $1,500 licensing fee for corporations like ASCAP and BMI to sign up for a license.
Van De Wege said the Attorney General’s office estimates there are as many as 30 agencies to help bring in about $45,000 for the consumer campaign about music copyrights.
Music licensing companies say they use representatives to investigate businesses but they largely search bands’ and venues’ websites and social media looking for show dates. This usually is followed by a letter and a visit from an area manager.
Despite a portion of his bill moving forward, Van De Wege said he intends to wait and find a much stronger bill to put forward next session.
“ASCAP and BMI not only use shake down business practices with restaurants and music venues but they did some disingenuous lobbying here,” he said. “I have gained a tremendous energy to see them regulated.”
Over the summer, Van De Wege plans to contact more businesses and musicians affected by the licensing companies.
Dunning said after the success of his first live music in three-plus months, he plans to book The Whisky Minstrels again for August and Brian “Buck” Ellard is working on original music to play there, too.