Pianos, Sued by BMI, to Close

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.

From the Pianos Facebook page

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.”

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28 COMMENTS

  1. Wow. Does this mean if my kid sets up a garage band and someday plays at Egan’s, the kids have to send a payment to BMI (or whomever) for all the songs they cover??

  2. Sad news. Even sadder to see the factors behind the “key factor” that have helped kill one of the last jewels of Bloomfield Center. Piano’s was to be a major atrtraction in bringing back nightlife to the area. Nice journalism, Gwen. Check out the links below to see why it has been one step forward, 3 steps back for the downtown redevelopment process.

  3. Well that’s good to know, at least from the standpoint of the amateur musician! It’s a shame though, for all the acts who have been playing there, and the patrons who have been enjoying the place…

    Do what you’re supposed to, and no one gets hurt!

  4. Reminds me of the drug commercials disclaimers:

    “People who drink water containing trihalomethanes in excess of the MCL over many years may experience problems with their liver, kidneys, or central nervous system, and may have an increased risk of getting cancer”
    Other than that, there’s no problem.

  5. Oops! Meant to post this in Bloomfield water contamination thread, although I’m sure there is an excess of trihalomethanes in Bloomfield Center, these days.

  6. And McCarthy and his cronies are re-elected – 4 terms now and counting. The indifferent/ignorant voters in this town get what they deserve. The rest of us are forced to deal with it.

  7. What a shame. I always enjoyed going to Pianos; it was the one real bar in the area and the entertainment was good. It will be missed.

  8. Ah, the old “the manager ate the notices…” argument.

    I think much of Piano’s “defense” of itself is merely just so much hot air, and dumb-sounding and even wildly ingenuous to boot. Performing rights organizations are always one of the very first things a club owner has to know about (and I doubt very much that SESAC ever told this venue to just forget about the monies it owes)and pay regularly. I knew someone who was an enforcement agent for ASCAP, and as he always maintained, his employer and its counterparts never ever lose in court.

    A little more skepticism might thus be in order when doing “journalism” about an issue like this, too.

  9. “It’s difficult for Montclair moms bringing kids in to the piano bar to go through the bar with the locals”
    Dear Mrs Hathaway, as one of the “locals” it’s very hard to resist the urge to tell you where you can put your piano. My initial disappointment at reading the headline has just evaporated. Insulting your patrons is bad for business. If, perchance, your business ever returns to Bloomfield I will make it my mission to broadcast your feelings about the “locals” as often and as loudly as possible.

    “We needed to be on the other end of Bloomfield.” – No, you should be somewhere else entirely. Please don’t come back to Bloomfield.

  10. Firstly, I am a semi-affluent local who is a big fan of jazz, and I am really ticked off about being condescended to by Mrs. Hathaway and others on this site.

    Secondly, have any of you ever even been to Piano’s? It was FAR FAR from being a real Jazz Club capable of attracting high end clientele. In fact, it says right there in the story that “Piano’s” was playing Judas Priest and Hooty and the Blowfish. They few times I tried to have a drink there, the piano player NEVER EVER played a single jazz song.

    Thirdly, among the musicians I know, Piano’s gained a reputation for screwing over “the local talent” by promising them one payment, and then denying them that payment. They wouldn’t even provide a meal.

    Fourthly, I don’t wish the Hathaways any explicit ill will, but they ran their own crappy fake jazz bar into the ground. It was better when it was Hathaway’s the dive bar…at least we all knew where it stood. Maybe now, a decent real live music venue can move in.

  11. relax people– The “other end” of Bloomfield is Brookdale or Oak View, I’m guessing. I’m sure its code for “closer to your betters in Glen Ridge and Montclair”

  12. Whoa whoa WHOA, hold on a minute there, jimmy!

    “It’s difficult for Montclair moms bringing kids in to the piano bar to go through the bar with the locals,” …

    WHY would a mom be bringing the kids to the Piano Bar — ? It does have the word “Bar” in the name, right?? Were the proprietors giving lessons or something??!?! If so, that was pretty poor planning. At least make a separate entrance. Sheesh!

  13. Kay, I wouldn’t bring the kids there on a Saturday night, but it was the kind of place, like Tierney’s, where you’d see kids with their parents enjoying live music in the early evening.

  14. Pete, thanks for making your point. I felt the same way you do but didn’t complete my post. You put it perfectly. Agree 100%

  15. As a former employee of Pianos and a loyal customer before I worked there, I must come to Pianos Bar and Grill’s defense as well as the lovely owners who really tried their best to make it a popular Piano Bar/Tavern Theatre. As far as the lawsuits go, I think we can all say mistakes were made. But the insults about the owners as well as the bar are uninformed and misguided I must say. So many bands have thrived because of Pianos, these include Straight Nasty https://www.facebook.com/StraightNastyMusic, as well as The Lyriqs https://www.facebook.com/lyriqs. And I as a performer myself had the opportunity to network with up and coming professional artists, as well as making lifetime friends. It wasn’t only a venue for Jazz, but dinner theatre, comedy and rock/punk as well. If you only came to open mic nights or dueling pianos you really can’t get a true analysis of the place. As far as the “locals” comment goes I can say that there were people who frequently came into the venue and the police had to called for various reasons, including drugs and disorderly conduct. I myself as well as other young women who worked in the bar had to be careful around some of the men who came into the bar who would occasionally grope. Bloomfield is a wonderful town, and their are lovely people, but like any other town there are always people who make quite a bit of trouble. With that being said the majority of the customers were absolutely fantastic people But for all of you saying that Pianos isn’t a “Real” Piano Bar, I ask you to name Piano bars in NJ that meet your standards? This is a terrible Tragedy, Pianos Bar and Grill was a wonderful venue, I was broken up about having to leave. It will be missed.-Margot

  16. A shame about Piano’s. I’m in the business, and they are certainly not alone in putting their heads in the sand when the PRO’s come knocking. For a struggling venue, paying ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC can mean not paying vendors. And, we can tut-tut all we want about Melissa’s comment on “the locals,” but if you’ve been to Pianos it’s clear what she meant: It was like two separate bars, with good old Hathaway’s neighborhood bar in front and Melissa and Rick’s theater friends trying to create a cabaret in the back. Anyway, with restaurants closing right and left in Baristaville, this well-meaning couple don’t need to be pilloried for giving up the good fight.

  17. I loved Pianos potential. Open Mic Nights and the comedy shows added a nice variety to your usually bar crowd. About the “locals”. I remember a few nights going there where the “locals” were ignoring the talent and having loud conversations and would be very confrontational when you asked them to quiet down. Now, with that said, I live in the neighborhood, and I don’t think her use of word “local” meant people who lived in the historic section of Bloomfield. She could as just as easily said “New St/Mission St crowd” and anyone tip toeing around racism would figure out what she meant. The location, for now, is in the wrong spot, I agree

  18. While it’s nice to see Margot above defending her former employer, really, mentioning visits by the police and groping incidents (which she makes sound rather frequent) is hardly the best way to make your case. And the bit in the story above about kids and “Montclair moms” going to Piano’s is just laughable. The place was never exactly where one would go to a ballet recital, after all. It was a local dive bar, that’s all, and that’s all it ever was, for all the seemingly post facto pretensions of its proprietors and a few posters.

    Also, as someone who lived in Bloomfield for a long, long time, I honestly recall no “nightlife” there. Oh, there was Murray’s Pub for a while (place always smelled of beer, more from the Budweiser yeast plant next door than because of spillage) where I saw both the CLancy Brothers and the Irish Rovers and also Chubby Checker in the days when he seemed to be channeling Jimi Hendrix, but that was about it.

    Nobody’s going to miss Piano’s. It was certainly not where local aesthetes gathered to hear some Debussy or Sondheim. And anyone who doesn’t mark paying performance rights fees as a top business expenses priority shouldn’t be running even a dive bar in the first place.

  19. “Thirdly, among the musicians I know, Piano’s gained a reputation for screwing over “the local talent” by promising them one payment, and then denying them that payment. They wouldn’t even provide a meal.”

    The last time I was there this exact same thing happened to some friends of mine – despite them bringing a large group of paying fans. That was reason enough for me to not return.

  20. Whew! Thanks for the info. For a moment, I was trying to think of the best way to break it to my family that ‘Tom Petty’ night was, pretty much, ‘kaput’. 😉

  21. I agree with you State Street Pete – the line about the locals I found in bad taste too. If some people are a problem stop letting them in your bar. But if you let them in night after night taking their money don’t get all snotty when a soccer mom finds A BAR not the best place to bring her kid.

    As far as trying to be new and upscale- the same graffiti that was there when I was drinking in 1989 is still there now. Maybe take it up a touch more then a new sign and a coat of paint if you want to get snooty. Mean while “Rob’n wuz there 89”

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