People heading to M&J Tavern this weekend expecting to see and hear local live music will be greeted with a rarely heard phenomenon at the long-running Bend bar: silence.

The 71-year-old bar, which earned a reputation as the music scene’s “living room” by giving up-and-coming Central Oregon musicians their first gigs, shut down live music Dec. 1 due to a lawsuit filed by performing-rights organization Broadcast Music Inc., known as BMI. The suit alleges copyright violations for BMI-represented songs performed live in the bar.

The music shutdown includes the venue’s weekly Tuesday and Saturday night shows, one-off shows on other days of the week and the long-running Wednesday open mic night, a breeding ground for local groups and performers such as Harley Bourbon, Jess Ryan, Kylan Johnson and Ben Watts.

BMI filed the lawsuit Nov. 26 in U.S. District Court in Eugene against M&J Tavern and its owners, Richard and Pamela Whittemore, alleging six claims of willful copyright infringement. BMI is seeking an unspecified amount of damages and costs, including attorney fees, according to court documents.

BMI made more than 25 attempts to contact M&J by phone, letter and in-person visits since January 2015, according to the lawsuit.

BMI is one of several performing rights organizations that collects licensing fees for songwriters and publishing companies. Venues that provide music in a public setting — including live bands, DJs, karaoke or recorded music — must pay a licensing fee to one or more of these organizations to comply with copyright law, rather than contacting and paying individual songwriters or publishers. Along with BMI, the bigger organizations include the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers and SESAC (formerly the Society of European Stage Authors and Composers).

A BMI agent visited the venue on Aug. 10, 2016, and logged six BMI songs performed without a license, said Jodie Thomas, executive director of corporate communications and media relations for BMI. Those songs, which are named in the lawsuit, included Michael Jackson’s “Dirty Diana,” Johnny Cash’s “I Walk the Line,” and “Me and Bobby McGee” by Kris Kristofferson and Fred Foster.

“Most of the time, these types of instances get settled out of court,” Thomas said. “Most business owners recognize the value that music brings to their establishment and the ambiance it creates for their customers, so most establishments do the right thing and obtain a music license.”

Bartender Mike Martin, who along with bartender CJ Hitchcock has run all live music at the bar since 2009, said the venue received a letter about a week and a half ago. Martin said bar owner Rick Whittemore hired lawyers and is looking into what the bar has to do to be in compliance with BMI. He would not say who the lawyer is. Whittemore declined to comment at the bar Monday.

“When we were notified, we decided to just shut it down until we find out exactly what it is going on, what the exact rules are,” Martin said. “Everybody’s real vague as far as, on the other side, as to what exactly is the copyrighted material. Basically, they’re coming back on us for an open mic three years ago where they had somebody come in, and they sat here, and they heard some songs that were sang (that are represented) by them.”

BMI’s license fee can run anywhere from $378 per year to thousands of dollars per year depending on the capacity of the establishment, the type of performance (live, recorded, DJ, karaoke) and the number of times the venue hosts live music per week, month or year, Thomas said. The BMI license covers “more than 14 million musical works by over 900,000 songwriters, composers and publishers in the BMI repertoire,” Thomas said, with roughly 90 cents of every dollar collected in licensing fees going to songwriters and publishers.

“It’s our job to make sure that songwriters get paid, regardless of whether they’re emerging songwriters or famous or somewhere in between,” Thomas said. “… We never want to see the music end. We want to make sure that music benefits everyone.”

Hitchcock said M&J still supports the local music scene “100 percent,” and hopes to once again host live music.

“This is just a growing pain and a learning curve,” Hitchcock said.

—  Reporter: 541-617-7814, bmcelhiney@bendbulletin.com

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