St. Paul's Amsterdam Bar settles copyright lawsuit with music licensing giant

The American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers accused Amsterdam of not paying the fees required to play its 11.5 million licensed songs.

The American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers accused Amsterdam of not paying the fees required to play its 11.5 million licensed songs. Renee Jones Schneider, Star Tribune

The gargantuan American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers represents more than 725,000 artists and their over 11.5 million songs. Its job is to make sure those creators are paid properly for their product, whether you’re enjoying it on the radio, during your favorite TV show, or (to the extreme chagrin of Prince’s estate) at a certain presidential campaign rally.

This week, the society decided to throw the book at one kind of user in particular: restaurants and bars. On Tuesday, it announced it was filing suit against 19 such establishments across the United States, from Columbia City Theater in Seattle to a gentlemen’s club in Milwaukee.

One of those venues happens to be downtown St. Paul’s very own Amsterdam Bar and Hall, where you’ve probably had some tasty broodjes and done some shuffling to live local music. The society claimed Amsterdam hadn’t paid the necessary premium to play its artists’ songs there—whether on speaker or by a live cover band.

Which begs the question: How does the society, which is based in New York, know what songs Amsterdam is playing? Veep of Business and Legal Affairs Jackson Wagener explains that in late May, they sent an independent investigator to the bar and instructed them to write down literally any song they heard.

Those were then cross-referenced with the society’s list of protected jams, and three or four were selected to name in the lawsuit. In Amsterdam’s case, they were “Whatta Man,” “Charlie Ain’t Home,” and “Put the Gun Down.”

Wagener says legal action was always a last resort with these venues, employed only after “numerous attempts” to offer a license and “educate” business owners about their obligations under federal copyright law. After “repeated refusals,” he says, they finally pulled the trigger this week.

At first, Amsterdam told several news outlets it was contesting the suit. Owners explained to the Star Tribune that there’d been an ongoing disagreement over fees—that its dues had nearly doubled to $10,000 annually in 2017. The average licensing fee, according to the society, is about $2 a day for all the music you want, but Amsterdam’s size and frequent live music performances jacked that up a bit.

“Although we haven’t heard back from them about this issue since July, we are looking forward to getting this resolved very soon,” co-owner Jarret Oulman told Bring Me the News.

But by the end of the day, a hasty settlement had been announced. The society says the amount they agreed to is strictly confidential, but Wagener says he had “a very nice conversation with the owners” and that they’re “glad to be back on the same page.”

Amsterdam didn’t respond to interview requests, so it’s hard to know what changed the owners’ minds. Earlier, Oulman told the Star Tribune he felt like his venue was being unfairly overcharged.

“Someone in New York who’s never been to Minnesota just came up with this amount one day, and we don’t think it’s fair or accurate,” he said.

Wagener says it’s the society’s goal to keep these fees affordable for businesses, but songwriters have to eat, too.

“We want to ensure members are properly compensated where their music is played,” he says.