The German GEMA: Avenger of the Righteous or Outdated Monopoly?

Protesters outside GEMA’s office in Frankfurt. Photo: Juska Wendland on flickr. It was 23.55, on Saturday, June 30, when DJs in clubs throughout Germany turned off their music for five minutes. This gesture was supposed to symbolize the German saying “fünf vor zwölf“, which literally means “five minutes to twelve”, but is understood as “it is almost too late“. In this case, it is almost too late to start a thorough debate about the actions of the German performance right’s organization, GEMA. Since the 1950s, GEMA has been collecting money from people who use music for public events, and passing this money on to the composers, issuers and songwriters of the music.

New GEMA tariffs, which are to take effect on April 1, 2013, have both agitated the German club scene and led to several demonstrations and internet petitions. Until now, there exists eleven different tariff rates for playing music, making the GEMA system all the more complex. The planned tariff reform reduces this to only two tariff systems: one for live music events and one for DJ events. This planned restructuring is intended to ease the financial burden on smaller organizers, but will ask larger ones to pay significantly more. The only variables important for the new tariff are the size of the venue and its entrance fee. Generally it can be said that each club will be paying at least a lump sum of ten percent of their income generated by the entrance fee. But now the question is if German music lovers will revert to listening to music in their basements if clubs can no longer secure their economic existence. Probably not. However, the tariff debate has been the long-needed spark to light a heated discussion on the actions and structures of GEMA.

It is not the amount of money that GEMA plans to charge which upsets the club scene. Instead, it is the perceived hypocrisy behind GEMA’s reasoning for the new tariffs. GEMA likes to present itself as the Robin Hood of the music world, taking money from the supposedly rich club scene and distributing it among the poorer music creators. Clubs certainly think that the creators of music do deserve to be paid appropriately; yet, they also know that due to the design of the system, the money they pay will not end up with the artists which are featured at their events.

The tariff debate has been the long-needed spark to light a heated discussion on the actions and structures of GEMA. Photo: Martin Krolikowski on flickr.

GEMA has 65000 members, whose rights are represented by the organization. Only 3400 of those are full members (who have the right to take part in the general assembly and vote on resolutions) – the rest are associated members. Full members are those members which have generated the largest profit through GEMA in recent years. Thus, they are mostly the mainstream pop producers who are ahead in the airplay charts. This five percent receives the biggest chunk of money, thanks to a phenomenon which German law has established as “GEMA presumption”. The quasi-monopoly status of GEMA allows it to assume that every piece of music played at any public event is represented by GEMA. Hence, GEMA collects royalties virtually everywhere, and it is the organizer who has to prove that the music they played was not listed in GEMA’s archives. It is particularly hard – almost impossible – for DJs to reconstruct the single music works which were part of their set, since sets often develop spontaneously. Consequently, the music played at clubs cannot be traced back to specific artists, so the money payed to GEMA for this event goes into the sizeable GEMA pool of non-distributable income from royalties.

In the last year, GEMA collected 825 million Euros; 15% of this was used to pay for GEMA’s own administration, 65% went to the full members, and the remaining money was then distributed among the associated members. This shows that the money collected from the richer clubs is mostly distributed among the rich pop magnates, and certainly not among those running the club scene.

Thirty years after the start of DJ and club culture, GEMA has still not found a way to adequately deal with this kind of music. Sven Väth, DJ, producer and founder of Frankfurt’s famous Cocoon Club, also raises this issue in his statement on the 2013 tariff reform: “There is a difference between large, commercial discos playing mostly radio hits, venues hosting live concerts and our business, clubs offering techno- and housemusic DJ performances. GEMA does not recognize these differences, unfortunately. I myself play at least 80% non-GEMA music, and the remaining 20% is often only released as very small vinyl editions.”

What is needed is a democratisation of GEMA, which – and this is often forgotten – is not an official institution but a private organization which collects money like a governmental authority. It is high time for the creative heads of the club scene to make their voice heard and offer constructive suggestions on how to deal with the issue of copyright in a time of differing music subcultures.


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