UPDATED 5/31 3:30 p.m.
Cox Media Group and BMI are teaming up to bring at least three dozen artists to St. Petersburg for the first-ever Downtown St. Petersburg Songwriters Festival (DTSP Songwriters Festival). The event — meant to give up-and-coming songwriters a place to tell stories and be heard — is set to take place at more than 10 venues and will be held November 1-3.
Reps for the fest made the announcement alongside St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman on Thursday at Mahaffey Theater. So far, Jeff Cohen — a singer-songwriter whose work has been recorded by The Band Perry, Big and Rich Macy Gray and more — is the only artist on the bill.
A press release says that more talent — including locals — will be announced and added to the event lineup each month leading into the Festival. The DTSP Songwriters Festival will also be largely free to the public to attend, with the exception of a few select shows that will feature headlining artists. A portion of the proceeds from headlining events will benefit the Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital Music Therapy Department.
Cox will also launch “Songwriter Radio” on its 107.3 HD-2 channel. Music from participating singer-songwriters will air along with interviews and segments highlighting festival venues and the contributions being made by the music therapy department at Johns Hopkins.
The announcement is interesting in that it comes three years after BMI — a major music-licensing company that collects annual fees from restaurants and bars that play music and then pays songwriters and producers — sued several Bay area businesses for playing copyrighted music without paying fees. According to the Tampa Bay Times, one particular bar, Tadpole’s in Brandon, couldn’t absorb a $30,000 settlement and closed. More than two dozen other bars were sued by BMI, and the reports said that 11 of the cases “disclosed settlements totaling $342,000, ranging from $10,200 to $62,501.”
In the release, Dan Spears, vice president of industry relations at BMI, said that the festival is about bringing people together through music while highlighting the great bars and restaurants that St. Petersburg has to offer.
“It also gives our talented songwriters a platform to perform and share the stories behind some of their biggest hits while stimulating the local economy and giving back to the BMI-licensed venues who support them,” Spears added.
In an email to CL, BMI spokespeople said that the organization only takes legal action as a last resort and that it might spend years trying to educate businesses on the value of music, copyright law and the importance of maintaining a music licence (which could be as low as $378 a year depending on a businesses size, type of music being played and frequency of the music being performed).
“We never want to see the music go away, and we try to work with business owners so that music benefits everyone,” Jodie Thomas, Executive Director, Corporate Communications and Media at BMI, wrote. She said most establishments recognize BMI’s talking points and many adopt the philosophy.
“BMI operates on a non-profit making basis,” Thomas added, “and 90 cents of every dollar collected from music licensing fees goes back to our songwriters, composers, and publishers in the form of music royalties."
The November calendar placement of the festival also means that the Bay area will now be home to an autumn and spring songwriter festival that focuses on the craft. Launched in 2012, the Listening Room Festival (set for March 25-29 in 2020) puts artists in hyper-intimate spaces like living rooms and stages a large showcase at the Palladium Theater. The Safety Harbor Songfest has also reinvented itself to be more of a listening room affair.
Listening Room Festival co-founder Fran Snyder told CL that he’s happy to see Cox and BMI shine a light on singer-songwriters while encouraging more people to experience music with strong lyrics and stories. He does think that it will be a challenge to turn typical bars into listening rooms, which is one reason his festival focuses on house concerts and spaces like the Hideaway Café and the Palladium, where artists can tell a story and actually have the full attention of the audience.
“I'd be excited to see this festival succeed,” Snyder said, adding that his festival will start selecting its lineup next week. “In these days of ‘going to concerts as a photo op,’ anything that gets people off their phones and fully present with music and art is going to be great for the culture.”