Music & clubs

GEMA versus the little guys

You might only know GEMA as the bastards who block Youtube (still!) but for Berlin's indie musicians and small venue owners, the music royalty organisation is a real point of contention. Learn more at Music Pool Berlin's workshop on Oct 23.

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Photo by Anna Agliardi

Inflexible fees from Germany’s music royalty organisation are turning Berlin’s financially precarious small venues and cash-strapped independent musicians against each other. How much is a concert really worth?

To have more people on the stage than in the audience is not a rare occurrence at KussKuss, one of the myriad bar/café/venues that dot Neukölln. Today, a progish trio from Seattle is broadcasting improvisatory explorations to a near-empty back room. A curious passerby pokes her head in to ask whether they’re soundchecking or actually playing. “Yeah… this is it,” winces KussKuss owner Daniel Grabala.

That this event should be worthy of the attention of GEMA, the infamous performance rights organisation that regulates the use of all copyrighted music within Germany, seems ludicrous. Yet because of the “Vermutung”, the assumption that all publicly performed music is GEMA music, Grabala is required to pay a licensing fee unless he sends a playlist proving the show contained no GEMA repertoire within the next 14 days. While some venue owners in Berlin have managed to stay under GEMA’s radar, the organisation has had Grabala in their crosshairs for two years now. Currently, he says, he owes them “a couple grand”.

“And the fee is, what, seven or eight beers? GEMA could explain it a bit more sexily, perhaps.”

“A guy from there told me, ‘We’re like the Finanzamt. If you don’t deal with us, it’s gonna be bad for you.’” A laid-back German musician and recording engineer with a penchant for threadbare t-shirts, Grabala opened his cosy, ramshackle space at the end of 2011, booking mostly local folk, jazz and experimental acts on a spontaneous basis and figuring out the rules as he went along. Then the GEMA bills started flooding in.

“Honestly, I ignored them at first,” said Grabala. “They couldn’t be serious, right?” Already paying about €30 per month for the right to play music over the bar’s speakers, Grabala now found out that GEMA wanted €22.50 for every concert he’d hosted, the rate for a free or by-donation event at a venue 100sqm or smaller. (As of January 2014, it’s €21.80 for 150 attendees or fewer.) “We’re 25sqm, and they were charging us the same as, say, Privatclub.” Moreover, the fees were doubled because the concerts hadn’t been reported in advance: “Kontrollkosten”, monitoring expenses.

GEMA had found out about the concerts either from internet announcements – “They have people who check Facebook, Songkick, everything” – or because artists who belonged to GEMA had registered their performances themselves in the hopes of getting royalties. That’s what German singer-songwriter Olaf Maske did when he scrupulously listed three songs he’d played at KussKuss’ open stage in 2012 – for which Grabala was invoiced just this year.

“I didn’t know he wasn’t paying the fees,” says Maske, who has belonged to GEMA since 1981. “But if he’d been paying and I didn’t register, GEMA would just take the money away and that’d be it.

For the songwriters who do their paperwork, GEMA has unexpected benefits. Alisa Wessel provides administrative and consulting services for songwriters and leads workshops on “GEMA practical knowledge” at Music Pool, an organisation that provides information and help for Berlin’s independent musicians (the next one’s on October 23). According to this music industry veteran, since so many concerts go unregistered, the musicians who do send in their playlists get a larger share of money for their songs than they technically should. How much do they stand to make? “I have one client who made about €100 in GEMA royalties for one café show – certainly more than the owner paid her.”

The more songs are registered, says Wessel, the more fairly the royalties will be distributed. But “if you’re playing your own songs at places that pay the GEMA fee and you’re not a member, you just end up giving that money to the other bands playing there.”

The trouble is that struggling singer-songwriters in Berlin need bar and café gigs to survive – and by and large, the owners of those venues refuse to deal with GEMA. Some of them simply don’t know the procedure, especially expats, as English-language information about GEMA’s tariffs is nearly non-existent. “We’re such a small space and we don’t charge entry… I don’t think they’ll bother with us,” says a Spanish Berliner who recently started booking shows at a bar in Neukölln.

Others know but don’t care: “It’s a lot of unnecessary work to prove that an artist who plays a concert is not registered,” says the owner of a new venue in Wedding. “And if an artist plays only one cover song, we would have to pay the whole fee. I think it’s pretty unfair.” Still others cheat the system – one booker in Friedrichshain, for example, lists his open stage as an invite-only event on Facebook, the GEMA rule being that any gathering of people listening to music is subjected to tariffs “unless they’re all friends with each other”, hence private.

No matter what, the easiest way for Berlin venues to avoid GEMA is to book only artists who don’t copyright their music. Knowing this, many of Berlin’s independent musicians shy away from joining the society. “By registering you take away the freedom to play anywhere you want, basically,” says one singer-songwriter who has gotten radio play and some larger club shows, but forgoes the potential royalties in exchange for wider gig opportunities. Meanwhile, members of performance rights organisations don’t get booked – or find themselves forced to pay for their own shows.

Berlin-based Irish solo musician Enda Gallery, a member of IMRO (the Irish Music Rights Organisation), has experienced it first-hand. “Once I put a Berlin show down on my IMRO form, and the guy from the venue called me a few months later being like, ‘What the fuck? GEMA wants €100 from me for that gig’ – and he demanded that I pay it!” Since then, he says, “I wouldn’t register if a venue didn’t do things by the book. But it also made me want to play those kinds of gigs less. A lot of small venues want to have musicians to get business but pay nothing, just a few drinks, for the service.”

It’s true that GEMA at least claims to act in the interests of songwriters, while many of the city’s small venues simply expect musicians to be grateful for the chance to play. “I think it’s a Berlin thing. In Ireland a venue would almost always pay something to the musicians,” says Gallery. “Here, you bring everyone to a venue, transport everything, set up, rehearse, play a really good show – and in many cases there is still ‘no money’ for you.” Wessel concurs that more venues should open their pockets. “If the musician wasn’t there, would the bar have the same amount of business? And the fee is, what, seven or eight beers? GEMA could explain it a bit more sexily, perhaps. It seems painful, but it’s actually a good thing.”

On a slow night at a bar like KussKuss, however, that extra €21.80 could mean the difference between breaking even and dipping into the red. GEMA charges a specialised tariff for videos played in booths in sex shops or musical accompaniment to ballet classes, but treats near-empty Wohnzimmer bars the same as packed clubs; at the same time, it refuses to allow artists to play for free if they want to. It’s that inflexibility that has earned it the ire of venues and musicians alike, keeping songwriters from signing up and ensuring unequal distribution of revenues. Faced with his mountain of fees, Grabala says he’ll be taking a stricter approach to booking. “I’ll have to have people put it in writing that they’re only going to play non-GEMA songs. If they’re GEMA members, they’ll have to pay the fee themselves.” An unfair choice, but one he feels he has to make for now.

What exactly is GEMA? Read the nitty gritty here.