Popular open mic bans cover songs

Photo by Samantha Moranville

Inquiring Mind bookstore owner Brian Donoghue thinks he might have found a way to keep his popular Tuesday night open mic night running without having to pay an annual licensing fee. From now on, performers will only play their own original compositions and songs in the public domain.

The story really began last year, when ASCAP, a group that protects the copyrights of songwriters and divvies out the proceeds from licensing payments among its members, sent Donoghue a letter demanding $1,800. The average annual licensing fee is around $600, though ASCAP’s tally was higher because the cafe was in violation. Supporters of Inquiring Mind felt that the demands were unfair because the event is extremely small in scale and charges no admission.

In response to that point, Vincent Candiloria, ASCAP’s executive vice-president of licensing, pointed out that if a business brings in potential customers with a free open mic using popular cover songs, that business benefits.

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Songs in the public domain – like old folk songs and standards – and original songs by the performer aren’t covered by ASCAP.

“That’s our way out of it,” Donoghue said. “I didn’t want to cancel it, and I feel like it’s a really good community event where people hang and meet each other. I didn’t want to be extorted, and this seems like a good compromise.”

But how is the compromise working? Some performers, like Woodstock resident Noah McGrath (who performs as Dark Moses), are still turning up just as frequently since the new rules went into effect a month ago. McGrath, who used to perform covers of artists like the Replacements and the Mountain Goats, will likely stick to his own original material. But he understands there are others who used to participate who might not be able to anymore.

“I think it already has affected it, because some folks just do cover songs,” said McGrath. “Now they can’t come out and play and I think that’s a shame. But the last two times I’ve played there the crowd was as into it as ever.”

Tim Amerman, a Saugerties resident who often performs as Pony Boy (“I don’t know why,” he said), hasn’t played the open mic since the new rule went into effect.

“When I played I would play my own songs, but would frequently cover songs by Pixies and Tom Waits and John Prine, and a slew of others,” Amerman said. “I never thought there was any problem with it due to the fact that none of us are making money on our cover songs of material that is not in the public domain. We never even had a tip jar or anything.”

McGrath added that he felt the ASCAP claim was disingenuous because, unlike the radio where playlists are catalogued, the same isn’t true of an open mic. (ASCAP is requesting a blanket license for the venue.)

The decision, based entirely on the threat of litigation, may turn out to have some positive artistic results.

“Already people are looking at some older music in a way they hadn’t before,” Donoghue said. “That might be a positive spin on the whole event.”

Amerman agreed.

“It’s nice to see friends and acquaintances doing their renditions of songs you may or may not know,” he said. “Everyone has different playing and singing styles, and it’s fun to see how they see the songs that they play.”

Donoghue was struck by the public’s response to the battle with ASCAP.

“For the most part, the community has been pretty positive,” he said. “People thought it was kind of ridiculous and have been asking how they can help. I’ve told them to write ASCAP and support the bookstore.”

The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) was founded nearly 100 years ago to protect the publishing rights of Tin Pan Alley composers like Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern and John Philip Sousa. It has over 350,000 members and its catalog includes 8.5 million songs. ASCAP’s function is to monitor public performances of copyrighted music to ensure artists are compensated.

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