If you play music in public, sometimes even if you play it in relative privacy, music royalty societies want you to pay them money. It’s big business. The UK’s Performing Right Society (PRS) collects around £650 million every year and isn’t scared to flex its muscles when people aren’t paying. Got a business where staff listen to radio and a passing member of the public hears it? You owe them money. PRS have even taken the police to court for playing music in police stations.
This type of behavior recently caught the eye of Basta, an investigative and satirical TV show in Belgium. They had received complaints about SABAM, the Belgian association of authors, composers and publishers, so they decided to have a closer look. The results were both hilarious and extremely worrying.
The Basta show begins with the team driving along in a car. They had picked up a hitchhiker who was listening, along with the rest of the car’s occupants, to the radio. Worried that they might owe SABAM some money, Basta phones them and asks. SABAM explained that if there were less than 5 people present that could be counted as part of a family circle. No charge.
Next a pair from the Basta crew are sitting on a train and one their cellphones starts ringing – with pop music as the ringtone. Oh oh, this could mean trouble. With 9 people in the same carriage SABAM could be very interested in this. Another panicked call to SABAM reveals that in this instance, since the ringtone was already paid for, no royalties need to be paid. Another very lucky escape.
But these are just a couple of outrageous situations, even by SABAM standards. Other, more common situations had been raising concern among the public and Basta viewers. One email to the show described how SABAM showed up at a dorm party and demanded 30 euros. Another outlined a situation where a business owner was sued because a TV playing in his private kitchen could be heard by the public in his shop.
So Basta decided to have a little fun with SABAM, to see how far the rabbit hole went.
First they created a very nice flyer advertising a party called “Where is Everyone?” displaying a tagline of “DON’T BE THERE!” along with a date for this great event. After setting up a single disco light in their chosen location and hiding in the trunk of a car to monitor the venue, then came the wait. Would the SABAM music police turn up for money? Of course they would.
Disappointed at the apparent emptiness of the party, SABAM’s inspector got back in his car and drove away but he was clearly worried that some money might be getting away, so he returned a short while later and called the number on the flyer, which of course belongs to one of the Basta crew. The call was of no help so no wiser as to what is going on, he tore the event poster from the wall and left.
After dark he came back yet again, this time looking at an empty room with a single disco light strobing in silence. Confused and asking himself “Where is everyone?” he left for the final time.
But the Basta team hadn’t finished yet. On its website SABAM has a price list which shows how much it charges for venues of different sizes. The lowest price range is for rooms measuring from 1 to 100 square meters. So, after carefully measuring out an area of 0.99 square meters – conveniently underneath several balconies so more people could attend in the vertical space – they notified SABAM of the event.
The inspector turned up and after identifying the organizer of the party, started to discuss how much they would have to pay for their 0.99 square meter party. The answer, of course, should be nothing, but the SABAM inspector insisted that they know “very well” that 1-100 square meters actually means 0-100 square meters.
At this point the SABAM guy pulled out his invoice and charged a fee of 82 euros. “I’ve worked at SABAM for 26 years and i’ve never seen this before,” he said. But Basta still wanted to get to the bottom of another accusation – that SABAM take money from the public for artists that they don’t represent.
Making a telephone call to SABAM from a public toilet, a Basta team member looked at the manufacturer of a hand dryer and explained that Kimberly Clark would be performing at an upcoming event. That would cost 134 euros minimum said SABAM.
Next the playlist. What if Kimberly Clark sang songs not covered by SABAM? Titles such as ‘Hot Breeze’, ‘Show Me Your Hands’, ‘I Wanna Blow You Dry’, ‘I’m Not a Singer I Am a Machine’ and the ever-timeless, ‘We Fooled You’, for example.
Five days later the answer came from SABAM. All of the songs were “100% protected” and so Basta must pay 127.07 euros.
Concerned that this might be a one-off mistake, the Basta team tried again, this time taking brand names of products from the supermarket including Suzi Wan, the name of a Chinese food wok kit, Mister Cocktail and the Party Mix, which is a hybrid of a drink and some party food, and Ken Wood, the food mixer.
They got bills from SABAM for these ‘artists’ totalling more than 540 euros.
Clearly, since SABAM are collecting money for these ‘artists’, they should get the money they are entitled to. So with their wok kit, food mixer, drink and party food in a box, Basta headed off to SABAM headquarters to sign them up for payments. Of course, these products weren’t allowed to be artists.
So why on earth are SABAM taking money on their behalf? Answer: Because SABAM don’t check when they collect money from people, they just take it. SABAM repaid the 540 euros.
While the Basta team have deliberately portrayed SABAM’s business as a complete farce, which appears to have been particularly easy, by the end of the TV show (which is in Dutch by the way, but don’t let that put you off now you know the outline, it’s hilarious) one can’t help feeling pretty angry. While SABAM staff are simply doing their job, the system is ridiculously one-sided and is often backed up by legal action.
We often hear horror stories about these collection societies, now you can see one operating first hand. The TV show can be found here, enjoy.