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You're browsing in your local music store, flipping through some classics on wax or scoping the latest CDs, and you find yourself tapping your foot to what's playing on the store stereo. The tune creeps into your consciousness. You ask the clerk what's playing. She raves about this hot new band from Boston or Mabou, and before you know it, you're slapping down cash for the album.

If that's ever happened to you, your local record store reckons SOCAN (the Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada) ought to know. And that they should give their collective composing and publishing heads a shake.

Last month, SOCAN's licensing manager, Gina Pollock, sent a letter to the owners of music stores across the country. Pollock wanted to let them know that the music they play in their stores is, like all other music in this country, licensed to SOCAN by its performers and composers, and that the stores should therefore pay a licensing fee for playing it.

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Music played in everything from airlines to elevators to restaurants is covered by the same licensing agreement. SOCAN represents both Canadian and international artists in this country, and airline operators and café proprietors and haberdashers are already paying the fees, it seems. But record stores had somehow escaped SOCAN's net -- until now.

Pollock said record stores were notified in June because it had come to SOCAN's attention that they, unlike other retail outlets, were not paying the fees. "We continually are approaching users to advise them of our service and to ensure that copyright music is protected," she said.

The licence fee is 10.96-cents per square foot of the store, annually, which covers any and all music the store owner might choose to play. "It's 30 cents a day [for the average store]to avail themselves of the world's amount of music," Pollock said.

The fee is unlikely to bankrupt anybody, but many store owners are nonetheless incensed at being asked to pay it. Music played in record stores isn't just for pleasant background, they say, but the sole means to show consumers the product.

"If it wasn't for record stores, there'd be no industry at all," said Laurence Marks, owner of Abba-Zappa in Toronto. "Here I am, struggling to make a buck. So they get 50 bucks from my store, who's it going to go to? Some guy on Queen Street with an independent CD out? No. It's going to go to Neil Young." The licence would cost Marks $50 a year for his small, used-CD store.

SOCAN is a non-profit organization that distributes the fees it collects to its artist members. But those fees are distributed according to a formula determined by radio airplay, so that, as Marks noted, the most-played artists get a much larger return than independent, alternative or emerging performers.

The elder statesman of Canadian music sales doesn't think much of the licensing idea. "I'm all for Canadian artists getting as much money as possible," said Sam Sniderman, the genial 80-year-old owner of Sam the Record Man stores. "But we're doing the same thing, trying to sell the merchandise of these artists. We're in the same business as [SOCAN]"

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The fee will be about $3,500 annually for Sam's stores. Sniderman said he was surprised to see Pollock's letter, since the association had let this issue drop in the past when store owners protested. "It seems silly to license us," he said, but added that he did understand that the association is in a "predicament" if it treats record stores differently from other retail enterprises.

At Into the Music, which sells new and used music in Winnipeg, the announcement of the licence fee was greeted with disbelief. Leigh Driedger speculated that SOCAN was trying to wrest money out of stores, even tiny ones such as hers, "to grab control and exert it because they are losing it in other aspects of the industry" to the Internet.

Pollock said the response from store owners to her letter has been "varied"; when the reason for the license is explained, she said, most do not object to paying. However, the Canadian Retail Music Association is considering legal action, and plenty of its constituents are saying, off the record, that they just won't pay.

And if they won't?

"We do have the law on our side and we will pursue it in that direction," said SOCAN spokesperson Cathy Paolucci, noting that the tariffs are set by the Copyright Board of Canada, and that SOCAN has resorted to legal intervention over other issues in the past.

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