The Meadowlark is a long-running bar and music venue at 27th and Larimer streets. (Hyoung Chang, The Denver Post)

River North Art District mainstay the Meadowlark was hit with a lawsuit from ASCAP this week alleging that the bar, at 27th and Larimer streets, is profiting from the works of various musicians without permission.

The lawsuit is one of 19 that ASCAP — the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers — filed against businesses nationwide on Oct. 29, and Meadowlark is the only Colorado establishment on the list. ASCAP counts about 725,000 members with a repertory of 11.5 million songs.

“They’ve been sending us letters for years and have basically been bullies since the beginning,” said Erik Ludwig, general manager at the Meadowlark for the past eight years. “They have a ridiculous way of deciding how much money each place has to pay.”

ASCAP said Meadowlark owes the association about $27,000, a figure calculated to represent the amount of unlicensed music that has been played or performed at the Meadowlark since it lapsed out of compliance with ASCAP’s practices.

The average cost to license ASCAP music is about $2 per day, the association said. However, given the Meadowlark’s size, occupancy and entertainment schedule, its annual fee is closer to $13 per day, or $4,730 per year.

“They were actually licensed previously,” said Jackson Wagener, ASCAP’s vice president of business and legal affairs. “They first had a license in 2010 and ultimately stopped paying license fees, terminating their license in 2015.”

DJ Claw performing at the Meadowlark on July 28, 2006. (Hyoung Chang, The Denver Post)

Ever since then, ASCAP has been seeking to reimburse copyright holders of the songs that Meadowlark has played, whether over the loudspeakers on a playlist or covered by a live band. Since they can’t track every song played, they’ve estimated an amount based on the venue’s calendar, as well as anonymous visits to the bar to collect information.

ASCAP’s rationale is that the Meadowlark sees a financial benefit from the music, and it’s only right that the creators of those songs should, too.

“We always use litigation as a last resort,” Wagener said. “And one common characteristic among these 19 establishments is that these owners were contacted dozens of times over a year or more. It’s these owners’ responsibility and legal obligation under the copyright act to obtain permission from creators when using their intellectual property.”

Ludwig said he and Meadowlark owner Loy Merck have not decided how to respond to the lawsuit, but that it came at a bad time. Ludwig was out of the country for a month when ASCAP sent him its final letters, he said, and Merck recently had quadruple bypass heart surgery.

“If we gave that much ($27,000) away tomorrow, we’d have a hard time making payroll for our 17 or so employees,” Ludwig said. “And we always pay our musicians.”

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