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Pay to play: Songwriters’ group sues local businesses

Remember C+C Music Factory’s hit song “Gonna Make You Sweat”?

Everybody dance now!

Or how about Lenny Kravitz’s “Fly Away”?

The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers certainly hasn’t forgotten about those jams from the 1990s. And now the group wants a strip club in South Carolina and two restaurants and a bar in North Carolina to pay for playing those tunes, and other copyrighted songs, without having shelled out thousands of dollars for licensing fees.

ASCAP, which represents 650,000 songwriters, composers and music publishers and has a repertory of more than 11.5 million musical works, filed 11 copyright infringement suits against businesses across the country earlier this month.

Among the defendants are the owners of GoodFellas Cabaret in North Charleston, two Ham’s restaurants in Greensboro and the Draught bar in Charlotte.  

The suits allege that the businesses have been playing copyrighted music while refusing to pay ASCAP licensing fees, which can be as high as $5,500 a year but average about $750 annually, according to the group’s vice president of business and legal affairs, Jackson Wagener of New York.

He said songwriters receive 88 cents of every $1 that ASCAP collects for licensing fees and many of them rely on those royalty payments to “put food on the table.”

“The vast majority of businesses … pay these licensing fees,” he added.

But ASCAP alleges in suits filed in federal court that the proprietors of Draught and GoodFellas have refused to ante up, while Ham’s initially entered into a license agreement but later failed to pay the fees. GoodFellas license would cost about $3,600 a year, while Ham’s license was about $1,000, Wagener said. The businesses do not yet have attorneys on record.

According to Wagener, ASCAP staffers identify the types of venues that are likely playing music, whether it be DJs, live performances or through streaming services such as Pandora and Spotify.

“That’s the genesis of how the whole thing starts,” Wagener said.

After a business is on ASCAP’s radar, the group’s representatives contact the owners and try to work out a licensing agreement based, in part, on the venue’s capacity and the frequency in which it plays music.

“We’re trying to be reasonable,” Wagener said. “Our goal is not to put anyone out of business but to ensure that there’s fair compensation” for the songwriters.

He added that ASCAP views litigation as a “last resort” and only sues after repeated attempts over a year or more fail to convince a business owner to pay licensing fees or stop playing copyrighted music.

Before ASCAP files suit, it sends a private investigator to the establishment in question to take note of the copyrighted songs being played. Those songs are then used as examples of alleged copyright infringement in the suits.

The private eye who went to GoodFellas reported hearing the aforementioned “Gonna Make You Sweat,” along with Huey Lewis’ “I Want a New Drug,” Godsmack’s “Moon Baby,” and Fetty Wap’s “Trap Queen.”

Ham’s allegedly played the S.O.S. Band’s “Just Be Good To Me,” Jaheim’s “Just In Case,” and Kravitz’s “Fly Away.”

And the songs allegedly heard at Draught Charlotte were Blind Melon’s “No Rain,” Cher’s “Just Like Jesse James,” Melissa Etheridge’s “Come to My Window,” Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car,” and Vance Joy’s “Riptide.”

Under federal law, the businesses could be on the hook for statutory damages of $750 to $30,000 for each cause of action, which ASCAP brings on behalf of music publishers. ASCAP also has asked the court to restrain Draught, GoodFellas and Ham’s from playing the copyrighted music until they pay the licensing fees.

Meliah Jefferson and Wallace Lightsey of Wyche in Greenville, South Carolina, and Michael Allen of Carruthers & Roth in Greensboro, North Carolina, represent ASCAP.  Attempts to speak with them were unsuccessful.

While ASCAP tries to avoid litigation, Wagener said that in some years past the group has filed hundreds of copyright suits . But during other years it has pursued fewer than 20 cases.  

The group’s latest round of suits have targeted, aside from Draught, GoodFellas and Ham’s, a lounge in New York, a nightclub in Inglewood, California, a sports bar and grill in Las Vegas, a restaurant in New Orleans and other businesses in Florida, Texas, Virginia and Washington state.   

Follow Phillip Bantz on Twitter @SCLWBantz

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