It began with a mysterious phone call from a Nashville area code. "Hey, what kind of music are you guys playing on Friday night?" asked the caller.
Then the bills started pouring in.
Since January, North Portland restaurant Crêpe Soleil has been deluged with calls, letters and threats from this week's Rogue: Broadcast Music International, the music-biz titan that represents 300,000 songwriters, composers and publishers.
Last year, BMI's royalty revenues topped $573 million—in part by bullying establishments like Crepe Soleil, a fledgling eatery that seats 25 diners.
BMI says Crêpe Soleil is infringing on its copyrights by playing mood music and hosting open-mike nights. "I don't even know how they found us," says co-owner Andrew Hoeflein.
BMI bases its licensing fees on factors like maximum occupancy and floor space. If Crepe Soleil hosts a single song by, say, a ZZ Top cover band, theoretically it owes BMI royalties of $86.25.
Now BMI is demanding that the restaurant cough up $400 a year—or else.
"[BMI] will sue places like this," says Bill Perry, director of government relations for the Oregon Restaurant Association. "And they always win."
BMI wants its cut—no matter how small the venue. Ask Stefanie Fisher, the owner of the Abbey Cafe on North Killingsworth Street. Although the 12-seat coffee shop plays only independent local music, BMI demanded its $400 a year.
Fisher finally caved in so that her cafe could keep playing CDs and hosting small, live shows.
A month later, however, another tentacle of the music industry (and our other Rogue)—the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, or ASCAP—sent Fisher a $900 bill for its "service."
Fisher explained that the Abbey Cafe only plays music by local acts, but ASCAP still wants her to pay its fee because her musicians "might do covers."