Thanks partly to a pending lawsuit with BMI (Broadcast Music, Inc) and partly to unrealized redevelopment plans for the surrounding area, Pianos Bar & Grill in Bloomfield will shut its doors at the end of this month. Melissa Hathaway, wife of owner Rick Hathaway, told Baristanet that the club is looking for a buyer. A “for lease” notice is posted here.
The club began its life as Hathaway’s Pub, shifting to the name Pianos in the summer of 2007. It has hosted dueling piano acts, open mic nights with live accompaniment, local theater and improv shows, including Lunatic Fringe, which will hold its last show there tomorrow night.
BMI, based in Nashville, is a not-for-profit Performing Rights Organization (PRO) that collects license fees and distributes royalties to individual songwriters and composers. According to its website, the company represents more than 500,000 songwriters, composers and music publishers, and issues licenses to television, radio stations and networks and new media– including XM and Sirius– and, of course, clubs, restuarants and concert venues.
The two other music publishing companies that license to businesses are ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) and SESAC (Society of European Stage Authors & Composers). A spokesperson for BMI told Baristanet that the company became aware of Piano’s Bar & Grill in 2008. Over time, they made 56 phone calls and sent 26 letters to the club. Originally, the letters were not requests for payments, but introductions letting the bar know it needed a license. Hathaway explained that her husband was rarely on site, and trusted a manager to handle the mail. “The only license required before was a jukebox license,” which they had, she explained. “He trusted the manager to handle it.”
After months of silence, BMI sent “loggers” — music researchers– to the club on two occasions. They noted a total of 10 songs that were in infrignement, including songs by Judas Priest and Hootie & the Blowfish. Melissa Hathaway responded to BMI by email in June 2010, which delayed the suit, but BMI said there was no further correspondence. (Hathaway said the same; whatever happened, communications clearly broke down).
After waiting three months, BMI filed suit in September 2010. Up until that point, the total sum they had asked for was $7,160.01 — or $2,200 a year. The high usage fee, BMI explained, is because music is the primary purpose of the bar. “We would have been more than willing to work out any number of payment plans if only they would have responded to our communication offering to do so,” BMI told us. The total amount of the lawsuit has not been disclosed, although $750 to $3,000 per infringement is typical and BMI said that their lawsuits are generally between $20,000 and $30,000.
Hathaway said the bar had no issues with ASCAP, and that Rick had talked to SESAC, explained the situation, and SESAC told them to forget about it.
But the BMI suit is not the only reason Pianos is shutting down. Hathaway says that the delay in the redevelopment of Bloomfield Center was also a factor. “It was my original belief that reviatlization of downtown would bring people in that wanted that kind of entertainment,” Hathaway said. “But there is one empty storefront after another. It is difficult to draw an affluent crowd for a piano bar — Broadway kind of entertainment — to a place that is not vital. The redevelopment of Bloomfield Center was slated to begin six years ago. We thought the legal issues plaguing the town would go away, but they didn’t.” Rick Hathaway is listed as vice president of the Bloomfield Center Alliance.
“It’s difficult for Montclair moms bringing kids in to the piano bar to go through the bar with the locals,” she added. “We needed to be on the other end of Bloomfield. We just couldn’t overcome everything. We spent three years on the edge. If redevelopment had kicked in a year ago, it would have been different.”
In addition to the redevelopment delay, Hathaway cited the 2008 recession. The BMI suit was a final straw. “BMI wasn’t looking to put us out of business,” Hathaway said, “We’re just done.”
For Hathaway and for many patrons, seeing the bar close will be a sad day. “My father was a professional pianist. I was a musician and vocalist. I wanted this to be a place where local talent could perform. I wanted it to be my legacy.” Hathaway said, choking up. “The people working here were so talented, and they all have to find somewhere else to be. It breaks my heart.”