New Jersey Stage

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Something's Twisted In Asbury Park

by Scott Wolman

Let's all take a breath.  Ok.  Feel better?

There has been a bee's nest's swarm of angry and bitter dialogue around the Asbury Park area of late over license fees and support of the local music scene.  Three Performance Rights Organizations, or PROs, have been putting an increasing amount of pressure on small venues like coffeehouses to pay annual fees under the guise of copyright protection.  These PROs, ASCAP, SESAC and BMI, vigorously go after live-music venues to pay these fees.  In the case of small coffeehouses, a number throughout the nation have been forced out of business, or at least to stop playing music.  Further, the evolving nature of the residents and businesses within Asbury Park further shapes the music scene.

Copyright protection is important and a valid concern.  However, coffeehouses that do not charge covers, generally cater to crowds of under 25 to 30 people and who do not pay performers are being unfairly harassed.  Performers who cover a Tom Waits, Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen song do nothing to infringe on these artists' copyrighted material (Artists who cover Miley Cryus deserve serious punishment.).  In fact, they help those "name" artists.  If a local performer plays a Damien Rice song, and someone likes it, they might go out and buy one of his CDs.

Conclusions as to the first portion of my thoughts here are pretty simple:  ASCAP, SESAC and BMI are immoral leeches, bleeding small venues dry for no reason other than greed.

However, my main focus is on the local reaction to one venue's decision to discontinue live music.  The Twisted Tree has shut down their music calendar, and it may or may not be due to license fees.

The Twisted Tree has been a beloved home to music for several years now.  The "rich musical heritage" of Asbury Park, once solidly the domain of bars, had shifted, in part, to The Tree.  Some of the best performers around have graced The Twisted Tree's small stage, and were far more likely to play there than at The Stone Pony, The Saint or other bars in the city.

Then the current owners of The Twisted Tree pulled the plug.  Music is gone now from a place many of us considered a home.  The Tree has been pummeled as a result for either not standing up to the PROs or being cheap and not paying the fees or for selling out the music or in not better managing their neighbors' complaints over the "noise."  The owners deserve some criticism, and they are going to get some below.  But, much of the vitriol has been unfair and over-the-top.

First, the premise of not paying the license fees once the PROs find a venue is unsustainable.  They can probably be held at bay for a short time, but another venue owner describes the pressure of these companies as, at times, "severe."  The PROs have the resources to beat any place in court, and will use those tools without hesitation.  Once PROs pressure a venue, that venue will have to pay eventually.  Fighting is not an indefinite option.

Are the license fees too expensive to pay?  From what I have discovered, venues the size of the local coffeehouses pay about $400 to $500 per PRO per year.  Obviously, this was too much for some venues, as there are examples of closings around the country.  A place like The Twisted Tree appears to do a solid enough business to bear this expense, though no one except the owners and their accountant is privy to their books, so it is impossible to be absolutely certain as to what the coffeehouse can afford.  Plus, not paying this expense would be penny-wise and pound-foolish.  Judging by The Twisted Tree's clientele, I would be hard-pressed to be convinced that their sales will not decrease by 10 – 25% due to the decision to discontinue live music.  Many people will not visit The Twisted Tree any longer; not out of animus, but because music was their main reason for being there in the first place.

The last two possibilities for The Tree's decision are where I find fault with the owners' position.  Neighbor complaints over noise are likely true, though why someone would move next to or above a music venue while not supporting the arts is beyond my comprehension.  However, I would ask whether every possible remedy was sought – music with no amplification and enforcement of rights related to actual city noise statutes being two that come to mind.  This can be tied to commitment.  Some people have questioned The Twisted Tree's devotion to music over the last year.  Scheduling was significantly reduced and increasingly haphazard.  Maybe it was simply easier to turn off the mics and put away the guitars.

Having said all this, one is forced to admit that there's a lot of conjecture involved in this debate.  None of us knows what The Twisted Tree's finances are or just how difficult the neighbors have become.    Also, The Twisted Tree is ultimately a business owned by individuals who have the right to do with it as they wish.  We may disagree with their decision, which I do.  Or we can believe that they were never truly committed to the music, as can be reasonably questioned.  What the owners have decided might also truly lead to serious sales declines that will cause irreparable harm to their business.  But that is their choice, and they have every right to make it without being castigated as some sort of evil.

I will miss what The Twisted Tree was.  I might still stop in for a smoothie now and then, but I will go where the music is most of the time.  I bestow a fair amount of blame for what has happened on the owners.  However, most of the blame falls upon the heads of ASCAP, SESAC, BMI, and the people who have begun to move into Asbury Park, not for what it is, but to make it something less; something far less than the cultural laboratory it was starting to become.  Sadly, the arts will be pushed aside in the name of "progress," but that is an argument for another time.

Now that we've taken that breath, anyone have any ideas to keep good, year ‘round, regularly performed acoustic music alive in Asbury Park?

Scott Wolman is a Monmouth County resident, poet and music lover.  He writes on topics social, political, musical, and anything else that strikes him.