A Day In The Life Of Legalized Extortion: How The BMI Shakedown Works
from the sickening dept
A bunch of you sent in this NY Times puff piece that basically follows around a BMI “enforcer,” for a day, watching as she tries to get restaurants, clubs, bars, skating rinks, etc. to pay up for playing music in their establishments. It’s all legal, but it has all the hallmarks of a pure shakedown — which is why operations like BMI and ASCAP are notorious for doing more harm than good, by making it much more difficult for up-and-coming musicians to find venues to play in. Many venues simply stop playing music, rather than deal with expensive BMI/ASCAP licenses. On top of that, because of the way these systems work, they tend to funnel money disproportionately to big name artists, again harming less well known songwriters. BMI, in fact, has been particularly obnoxious about this. Last year, when a songwriter who had not received any of the promised royalties was brought up, BMI responded that it wasn’t their problem, and “I would like to tell him is that he needs to write a hit song.” Nice, huh?
The NY Times piece highlights a few interesting points. I don’t know if it was on purpose or not, but a VP from BMI in the article refers to one of the large group of folks who call and visit these venues as “salespeople.” We’ve seen this before. The role that is supposed to be an auditor or an investigator is actually defined as a sales role, meaning that they often have a specific stake in squeezing as much money as possible out of the people they talk to. I don’t know if BMI’s compensation is structured that way, but certainly other Performance Rights Organizations (PROs) are set up that way.
As such, it’s no surprise that BMI uses cheesey motivational techniques found in sales training:
One afternoon, I sat with Baker at her cubicle. Besides pictures of her fiance, Mike, and her nieces, she also has a smiley-face chart. Her boss made it up for all the licensing executives, to remind them that their moods and their tones will determine their success. The chart is like a traffic light. There?s a green smiley face, a straight face in yellow, then a face in red, frowning. “You never wanna be on the red,” Baker said.
Then there’s the new tools that BMI is using to track down everyone who’s playing music. It’s spying on more and more areas where music is played, and the reporter discussed with a few people, and they all found it creepy. BMI’s response? They like that people refer to them as “Big Brother.”
Friends I talked to had a similar reaction. To a one, they said: “Jesus. Sounds like Big Brother.” When I mentioned this to DeBusk, he smiled ominously. “Yes. Well. We’re here to help.”
Finally, the closing vignette is really kinda sickening. The reporter follows the “salesperson” as she goes to talk to a struggling restaurant who has trouble paying the bills. After a bit of “negotiation” she gets them to pay up and then admits she knows she’s taking money that the owners really need:
Baker accepted Ross’s invitation and sat down in the booth with Ross and her pug, Frank. Out came the checkbook. “I could tell she was low on money,” Baker told me later. “I could tell it was hard for her to shell out the money.”
Sickening. This is legalized extortion. And, make no mistake. It’s all very legal. But we should be asking why.