During the summer, the town of Manchester puts on free monthly concerts. Small audiences gather, some with lawn chairs and blankets, in front of the bandstand at the Fire Department's carnival grounds to hear country, bluegrass or golden oldies.
The Sunday evening shows are a pleasant feature of small-town life, but no one is saying that the Carroll County municipality is any kind of music hotbed. That is why letters demanding that the town make an annual payment to license the songs performed have left Manchester officials scratching their heads - and considering whether the season's last show should be canceled.
But the demands have the officials' attention, and for good reason. The town probably could not afford to lose a lawsuit stemming from the unauthorized performance of copyrighted material.
"One little-bitty action for singing `Happy Birthday' in the wrong place could wipe out a small town's budget for years," said Michelle M. Ostrander, an attorney for Manchester and two other Carroll County towns. "They don't budget for this kind of thing."
As the music industry fights to plug leaks that drain record company profits and erode performers' earnings - whether through counterfeit recordings or Internet file-swapping - the two big organizations representing songwriters and publishers are taking a new approach to collecting money due but, the groups say, often not paid.
To a government such as Manchester's, the dollar figures are hardly staggering. The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers has billed the town, population 3,329, $255 for an annual license.
But some officials are nonetheless upset.
At a meeting last month, Manchester's mayor and council members worried about their exposure to a lawsuit - and wondered why their town would be targeted by the organization. Councilman Dale Wilder called the letters from ASCAP a "scare tactic."
Hampstead Mayor Haven N. Shoemaker Jr., whose town has considered reviving its concert series, agreed, saying: "How much revenue would [a composer] lose from having someone sing a song at a small-town concert? I don't know anyone who charges for them. It's a public amenity. I think that's outrageous."
In New Windsor, which sponsored free bluegrass, barbershop and ballad music in its park this summer, Mayor Sam Pierce said: "It's a scam, I'll tell you, somebody trying to get something for nothing."
Ostrander, the attorney for Manchester, also represents Hampstead and New Windsor, and she said she has forwarded ASCAP's letters to those towns.
An ASCAP executive says the towns aren't being singled out. A nationwide campaign to collect annual licensing fees - begun in Las Vegas - appears to be just reaching the Carroll municipalities and others in Maryland.
Rival Broadcast Music Inc. began to offer municipalities a similar agreement this year for use of its 4.5 million songs, which include early rock 'n' roll, country, and rhythm and blues, said Jerry W. Bailey, director of media relations. Together, ASCAP and BMI control 98 percent of copyrighted music.
Collecting for members
The annual fee is an alternative to the existing system, which requires reports for each event. From the biggest international rock 'n' roll tour to the free town concert, a copyright clearance is required - and the music isn't free.
By contacting the towns, ASCAP is simply collecting what is owed to its members, said Laurie Hughes, the organization's director of business affairs.
"Songwriters are self-employed for the most part, and the public performance of music is their main source of income," Hughes said. But Hughes, Bailey and municipal attorneys and officials said no city or county has been sued for putting on a concert.
ASCAP, founded in 1914, is an organization of more than 150,000 composers, lyricists and publishers that protects licensing, collects royalties for public performance of copyrighted works and distributes these fees.
ASCAP and BMI, the Better Business Bureau and the International Municipal Lawyers Association warn that the promoter - not the performer - is liable for damages if music is played and licensing fees aren't paid. And it apparently doesn't matter whether the show is free.
The idea for an annual fee for governments arose about five years ago, when an attorney for the city of Las Vegas pondered the implications of continuing to ignore BMI and ASCAP's demands for payments. The lawyer, Thomas R. Green, feared that Las Vegas' sin city image might help make it a target for a lawsuit.
"I called ASCAP, and I said, `I surrender.' But I told them, `There's a problem on your end: You want us to get a license for every little dinky use of music we have,'" Green recalled. "There were all kinds of licenses for different things - so it was no wonder that cities were just trashing it."