Credit: Illustration by Robert Meganck

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Joe Lee, the owner of Joe’s Record Paradise in Rockville, isn’t the kind of guy who keeps his opinions to himself. Chat with him about London, and he’ll tell you he wishes he could send gun-toting rednecks there just to get them out of America. Mention the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), and he’ll say, “in my opinion, they’re gluttonous.” He believes the organization harasses defenseless establishments in the name of policing copyright infringement.

Lee’s beef with ASCAP doesn’t involve him personally, though. About four years ago, Milton A. Contreras, who owns neighboring business El Boqueron Restaurant/Nightclub II with his father, started receiving letters saying he owed ASCAP money for royalties from music played during the establishment’s DJ nights. Contreras says he received about six letters from ASCAP, billing him at an annual rate of $2,796. In March he received a bill for $7,689.33.

Contreras was confused by the letters. “I didn’t know anything about [ASCAP], exactly what those guys do,” he says. As he often does, he asked Lee for help. The two men struck up a friendship when El Boqueron moved in behind Lee’s store on East Gude Drive in 2002. Lee occasionally holds fundraisers for ailing or deceased musicians at the club, and the two men have an arrangement. Contreras hosts the fundraisers for free, Lee says, and picks up any proceeds from food and drinks. When Contreras needs a hand, Lee does what he can. “We’re neighbors. I always help him out,” Lee says.

Lee got incensed when he read ASCAP’s letters. “I said, ‘This is a family from El Salvador who has no idea who you are or what you do or why you’re billing them for $1,000.…It’s excessive as hell.’ ” He requested a meeting between ASCAP representatives and the Contreras family. To make sure everything was above-board, Lee also invited friends, acquaintances, record-store employees, and the media to attend. About a dozen people showed up for the meeting.
According to ASCAP senior vice president for licensing Vincent Candilora (who did not attend the meeting), ASCAP operates under the assumption that, if an establishment plays music, it will eventually play a song registered with ASCAP, which in turn pays royalties to songwriters and publishers. Part of ASCAP’s job, Candilora says, is to ensure that “hundreds of thousands” of establishments that play music are compliant with copyright law.

To that end, he says, ASCAP employs an army of representatives designated to deliver licensing agreements anywhere music is played for the public. Many ASCAP representatives scour liquor-license applications and newspaper ads as they search for new establishments that might require an ASCAP license. “That’s our job, to educate them of their obligation under the copyright law,” Candilora says.

For example, if an establishment bigger than 3,750 gross square feet has a TV, he says, it’s required to pay a licensing fee to ASCAP to cover any music played on that TV. That includes the songs sung on American Idol and those in commercials, he says. Same goes for radio, live performances, and DJs. If an establishment is caught playing ASCAP-registered music without a license, Candilora says, the courts can charge up to $30,000 in damages.

For that reason, says Candilora, most establishments opt for ASCAP’s blanket license, whose cost varies according to the establishment’s capacity, the frequency of live performances, and whether it charges a cover. A blanket license for a small establishment can be as low as $263 annually, he says, while a license for a larger establishment that features live entertainment seven nights a week and a cover charge might pay more than $2,500 per year.

On May 16, over platters of chips and salsa at El Boqueron (and in front of the people who Lee invited) an ASCAP representative offered Contreras a compromise. The organization would wipe away all past-due license fees as long as Contreras signed up for a blanket license costing about $1,800 per year. “Most likely, I’ll probably end up doing it,” Contreras says. “Even though I don’t like it, I think I’ll have to, just to get those guys off my back.”

Switching Stages
In the budget he submitted March 23, Mayor Adrian Fenty proposed $250,000 be set aside for the Lincoln Theatre in fiscal year 2008, a figure that was half of what the historic U Street venue requested. The mayor’s budget also proposed $500,000 for the Source Theatre, which is currently operating under the umbrella of the nonprofit Cultural Development Corporation.

Now those numbers have been reversed. In a May 4 markup, the Committee on Economic Development included $500,000 for Lincoln and $250,000 for Source. The full Council is scheduled for a final vote on the revised budget June 5.
Lincoln Theatre executive director Janice Hill says she is pleased with the switch. “I think the $500,000 is a great step in the right direction, and it should help us stabilize the institution and enable forward movement.”

That’s high praise from Hill, who, back in April, called the $250,000 sum insufficient and said it might endanger Lincoln Theatre programs like high school graduations, dance performances, and Holocaust commemoration events—happenings that are free to the public or produced by nonprofit organizations. She said the Fenty administration “may not be educated or sensitized to the value, the passion, the energy the community feels,” about the theater, which has been struggling to survive.

Not so, says Jim Graham, councilmember for Ward 1, home to both the Lincoln and Source. He says the $250,000 amount allocated for the Lincoln was “a mistake,” and that $500,000 reflects the mayor’s original intention. “That is what I had lobbied the mayor for,” he says. “We agreed that the Lincoln needed a significant increase.”

Graham says he hopes the money proposed in the committee’s version of the budget will “take some of the pressure off the [Lincoln] theater,” particularly when paired with the $1.5 million for structural improvements that was approved by the council in 2006. But, says Graham, the $500,000 does not mean the Lincoln Theatre’s struggles are over. “A theater of this size with all its challenges needs public support.…It’s not the end of the story.” Derrick Woody, a project manager for the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, says the city has hired a consultant to work with the theater.

And as for Source, says Cultural Development Corporation spokesperson Rebecca Lowery, the organization will “certainly be disappointed” if the Council chooses not to fund her venue at the full $500,000. The 14th Street theater nearly folded last year, but the corporation intends to breathe new life into the space. “It’s our hope, obviously, that the cut will be overturned,” she says, “but as for our plans for Source, we’re committed to the revitalization of the building.” Those plans, she says, include overhauling the theater’s interior, updating its sound and technical equipment, and creating new office spaces for performing arts organizations. “We’ll have to be more creative about how these plans are carried out,” she says.

They might have some help. Dee Hunter, chairman of Cardozo-Shaw advisory neighborhood commission calls the proposed reduction in funds “outrageous and absurd.” He says the same coalition that fought the Source building’s sale to Bedrock Management last year will mobilize once again to get the funding restored. “It’s a real lack of commitment to the arts community to cut that down to $250,000,” he says.

What the Helvetica?

For many neighborhood groups, filing a liquor-license protest with the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board is routine: submit a letter including a string of signatures and addresses. Simple, right?

Not always. On May 16, the ABC Board dismissed a letter from a group of Ward 5 residents protesting Jimmy Valentine’s Lonely Hearts Club, a new tavern proposed for 1103 Bladensburg Road NE. The reason? The letter’s signatures weren’t signatures at all. They were simply “names spelled in different typefaces,” chair Charles Burger says.

Mark Thorp, a bartender at the Rock & Roll Hotel, is applying for a tavern license for a new joint he says would provide an atmosphere akin to the small bars on H Street NE. Thorp has already worked out a voluntary agreement with the area’s advisory neighborhood commission, which he hopes will bolster his case before the alcohol board.
But some residents oppose the tavern. Twenty-three names were listed on the April 27 letter, which cited “the negative impact on public safety that such establishments foster.”

After leafing through the protest materials last week, Burger appeared ready to enter them into the public record. Then Thorp asked him to inspect the signatures. They were different shapes and sizes. Some were printed, others were cursive, but none were written by hand. Burger dismissed the protest. The problem isn’t who made the signatures, he says, “but the signature itself.”

According to Cynthia Woodruff-Simms, the alcohol administration’s community resource officer, all protest letters must be signed by hand. They can be e-mailed into the alcohol administration’s offices, but only if the signatures have been scanned.
Still, India A. Henderson, the advisory neighborhood commissioner who represents the area where Thorp’s new tavern would open, says she thinks the ABC Board’s signature rules are bogus. “We will be appealing, and the community will win,” she says.

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