On May 25 the Copyright Board of Canada announced a new fee that will make it more expensive to get your wedding guests out on the dance floor or to groan through "My Way" at your favourite Karaoke bar. On the face of it, the new rules may seem both overly restrictive and unenforceable, but this new fee is designed to right a long-standing wrong in the music world, and is built on the same principles as the original music copyright laws that came into effect over a century ago.
Remember Rick Danko
If he were still around, Rick Danko would say "it's about time." Danko was a complete and versatile musician whose voice and soulfully funky playing were a huge part of what made the original roots-rock band, The Band, sound the way they did. But although he wrote a few songs that still get sung, in The Band he was mainly a performer and of the millions of dollars earned by songs like "The Weight," "Acadian Driftwood" or It Makes No Difference," he saw little.
That is about to change. Existing music copyright fees reward composers and publishers. The new fee is aimed at compensating musicians who perform music.
If you'd like a reminder, here is Rick Danko sounding his plaintive best in The Last Waltz.
No guests and no dancing = no charge
If your wedding reception includes up to 100 guests and if those guests are enjoying recorded music, the Copyright Board wants you to pay $9.25. If those guests are dancing, and let's hope they are, the fee rises to $18.51. The more people and the more dancing, the more you pay, up to a cap of 500 guests for $78.66.
If that lonely businessman staggers into your karaoke bar and wails his way through "You Give Love a Bad Name" five nights a week, you owe $124. If your parade float of a giant octopus has little speakers in the suction cups playing that faux calypso number from The Little Mermaid, you owe $32.55.
Bureaucrats with cash registers?
So, you might be asking, how is that money going to get to the performers? What if my parade float plays the Toronto Symphony's excellent new recording of Dimitri Shostakovich's Symphony No. 11 (okay, it's a slightly grim parade), do each of the TSO's 88 musicians get 37 cents?
Payment is expected to be voluntary at this point, which doesn't seem very likely. Further, the mechanics of getting a few cents to each player would appear to be so complicated as to cost far more than the income they generate, unless every wedding reception, parade, karaoke bar, assembly, fashion show and car wash that plays recorded music is going to be visited by one of an army of grey-faced bureaucrats, each with a cash register in their briefcase.
It is hard to imagine any of this will actually amount to anything for anyone, unless we look at what happened to Victor Herbert in 1913.
Who was paying and who was profiting?
Herbert was a celebrated composer who'd written concert music, songs and operettas. His operetta Sweethearts was the toast of the town in 1913, and the title song a genuine hit. He was having dinner one night in Shanley's Restaurant on Times Square, when the band started playing his tune, and he noticed people started laughing more, and singing along, and, particularly, buying more drinks. Mr. Shanley, Victor Herbert concluded, was making more money because of his song, and he was seeing none of it. He sued.
The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, where, in 1917, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes ruled Shanley was using Herbert's song so he could make more money, which he was, and that the composer should be getting some of it.
Here is a scene from the show in question, from the film version of Sweethearts, starring Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald.
Just as unlikely then
At the time the ruling must have seemed absurd. Live music was everywhere. Songs were being played in every club and restaurant, all day long. All of the same doubts and concerns, just as well-founded were voiced and acknowledged, and yet, 95 years later, composers do earn money when their music is played for profit. It isn't a perfect system, and there are likely countless abuses, but it does make it possible to consider a life in music as a composer, and now, or perhaps, 95 years from now, with these new rules, the rest of the band will be able to consider a life in music, too.
Rick Danko, and the millions of other great performers like him, no doubt enjoying a pint in the Shanley's of the afterlife, would be very happy, indeed.
CBC News: Copyright board to charge for music at weddings, parades
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on Jun 11, 2012