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Dance and Exercise Studios Paying the Piper : BMI and ASCAP target businesses to collect music licensing fees under little-known copyright law

September 17, 1989|JULIE WHEELOCK

When Ellen Cavalli opened her small dance studio a few years ago in Santa Monica, she didn't pay much attention to the letters she began receiving from the American Society for Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) and Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI).

The wording in each letter was different, but the message was the same: In order for her to use recorded music in her new Studio West Dance and Exercise, she must comply with U.S. copyright law by agreeing to pay a yearly fee--based mainly on number of students--to both ASCAP and BMI.

"To tell you the truth, I've never totally understood it," Cavalli said. "For about the first year everything about starting a business was a burden to me and I didn't pay because it didn't seem right. I didn't understand why I had to pay to use my own records and tapes. But I was getting letters with threats of going to court so finally, rather than deal with the harassment, I paid the license fee to both of them. . . ."

Cavalli is one of thousands of people nationwide who are receiving demand letters, phone calls and visits from representatives of ASCAP and BMI, the two major American non-profit performing rights organizations that represent composers, songwriters and publishers.

BMI and ASCAP executives insist they are only trying to collect what is due their members under music copyright law. Wherever copyrighted music is played--on radio and TV, in theaters, in restaurants, bars, banks, shopping malls--a use fee must be paid under terms of the law, which was enacted in 1909 to protect the financial interests of songwriters and composers. BMI and ASCAP collect the fees and disburse payments periodically to their members.

Lamont Dozier, songwriter for such '60s Motown stars as the Supremes, the Four Tops and Marvin Gaye, says simply: "Without BMI, the songwriters like myself wouldn't have a voice. . . . We need to get paid for our work as well as anybody else. We have a business to run, too, and that business is music."

But despite massive educational efforts by BMI and ASCAP, there is increasing anger and confusion among the dance and exercise studio owners nationwide. They're angry because they think the purchase of the recordings makes the fee unnecessary--not realizing that under copyright law ownership of the physical recording does not give them the right to play the material on it for further profit. They're confused about the complicated calculations to set fees and why they must pay two different organizations for what they see as the same product. Because specific payments BMI and ASCAP make to composers and songwriters are not made public, the dance and exercise studio owners are questioning if the fees actually reach the artists. And they're resentful that the dance and exercise studios--along with other businesses that are major users of music--are the targets of a "focused marketing campaign" for collection of the fees.

They also fear the power of these two groups, citing intimidation tactics.

Patsy Swayze, Patrick's mother and owner of Swayze's Dancer's Studio in Simi Valley, says she started paying ASCAP recently "because they were coming down so heavy on me. Every month telephone calls, letters, threatening type things."

Henry Siegel of Voight Fitness and Dance Center in West Hollywood says: "We've been aware of people from ASCAP and BMI attempting to strong-arm business owners. They come in with a very aggressive and intimidating attitude. It's been done to me. I pay both of them and it's a nuisance fee."

Sharon Sockalosky, executive secretary for 105-year-old Dance Masters of America, a dance teachers' organization, says she's been hearing reports of BMI and ASCAP intimidation from members of her organization.

"I'm getting stories from all over the country--at least 100 in the past year--that either BMI or ASCAP representatives are coming to studios unannounced, during off hours, when the owner is alone," she said. "It's generally two large men and to these women they seem very aggressive or frightening."

Responding to Sockalosky's allegations, Tad Maloney, regional director of BMI's licensing department, says: "That sounds like ASCAP, not BMI. We do most of our work by mail and there is definitely no double-teaming. If I catch my guys intimidating like that they're looking for another job. That's not the way we work."

"I wouldn't say that any of our people are intimidators, and seldom, if ever, do they work in pairs--we don't have the resources for that," says Kenneth Gilman, ASCAP's director of general licensing. "We only have 135 representatives in the U.S. Our people try to visit during normal business hours, but since they don't want to walk in on a dance class because the instructor would be busy, they try to pick a time when the instructor is not giving a class and often will ask first when is the best time.

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