Last month the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) filed nine separate copyright infringement lawsuits against nightclubs, restaurants, and bars around the country. One of those lawsuits takes aim at Minneapolis' Aqua Nightclub & Lounge, which ASCAP claims has profited from the "unauthorized public performance of its members’ copyrighted musical works."
ASCAP — a nonprofit membership organization representing more than 500,000 artists — charges that Aqua has repeatedly failed to acquire a blanket license, an annual fee paid by venues that ASCAP distributes as royalty payments to its members. Representing more than 10 million songs, the performance-rights organization collects royalties whenever those works are played on the radio, broadcast on TV, streamed online, or performed publicly.
“We don’t like to bring lawsuits. It’s a last resort for us," Jackson Wagener, ASCAP's VP of business and legal affairs, tells City Pages. "With respect to Aqua, we’ve been talking with the owners for at least five years. The vast majority of owners in Minneapolis do the right thing and have licenses."
The average blanket license costs venues around $2 per day, Wagener says, depending on factors like occupancy, music use (DJ, karaoke, cover band, etc.), and cover charges. In the case of Aqua, which has been contacted by ASCAP 35 times since 2010, the annual fee would amount to $5,298.84, Wagener reports.
"Lots of club owners recognize that if you use the intellectual propery of the songwriter to attract people to your venue, it’s right to pay them. [Not paying] is not only unfair to songwriters, it’s unfair to other venues in Minneapolis who are doing the right thing,” he says. “Our goal in bringing these litigations is really compliance [and retroactive license fees] — we’re not looking to put people out of business."
In the past, ASCAP has filed upward of 100 copyright infringement lawsuits per year, Wagener says, all directed at establishments with track records of refusing to obtain licenses. This year, the organization filed just 17 lawsuits, including the one against Aqua.
To contextualize the financial challenges of songwriters, Wagener uses Toby Gad as an example. Having (ironically) co-written Beyoncé's "If I Were a Boy" and (also ironically) Fergie's "Big Girls Don't Cry," the L.A. producer/songwriter maintains a sizeable pop-music footprint. Monetizing that impact? A little tougher, especially in an age when album sales and downloads are dwindling.
“People aren’t lining up to buy Toby Gad T-shirts, as you might imagine," says Wagener, adding that many ASCAP members are strictly songwriters. "[Collecting royalties] is extraordinarily important. It’s how [songwriters] make their living, it’s how they put their food on the table.”
The lawsuit against Aqua is currently pending in U.S. District Court in Minnesota.
Repeated calls and emails to Steve Hark, co-owner of Aqua and Fine Line Music Cafe, were not returned.
UPDATE (11:50 a.m. Aug. 3): Aqua co-owner Steve Hark called City Pages after the publication of this article. He claims to be unaware of the lawsuit. He disputes the number of times ASCAP claims to have reached out to the venue, but would not discuss specifics further without a lawyer present.