Performance rights organizations (PRO) like ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers) and BMI (Broadcast Music, Inc.) issue performance rights licenses, collect fees from music users, and distribute royalties to music creators and publishers around the world. These rival organizations have a great deal in common as well as some notable differences.
ASCAP and BMI perform similar services for their members. Their first priorities are issuing licenses, tracking and monitoring performances for copyright compliance, and distributing royalties. They also lobby Congress on behalf of musicians and artists, offer educational programs, and highlight the music industry with awards programs. Both groups have built sophisticated systems to track performances and collect royalties, including automated music identification programs to monitor over-the-air and online broadcasters. Their admission policies are similar as well: typical admission requires just one commercially recorded, published, or performed work. Neither group publishes music or promotes particular artists or works.
ASCAP is the largest PRO in the United States, with BMI a close second (SESAC is a third, smaller group). Between them, they represent hundreds of thousands of artists and millions of works, in almost every genre of music. In 2009, ASCAP reported collecting $995 million in license fees, and distributing $863 million to its 380 million members. BMI reported collecting $905 million, and distributing $788 million to over 400 million members (known as affiliates)--that year. Neither group charges annual fees of its members, although BMI charges a $250 fee to publishers.
ASCAP is a non-profit organization governed by a president and elected board of directors composed of 12 writers and 12 publishers. BMI is also a non-profit led by an elected board, but whereas ASCAP's leadership includes creatives, BMI's president and executive team have largely been drawn from the broadcast industry, perhaps because the majority shareholders of BMI are broadcast organizations.
Finally, these groups differ in the contracts they ask members to sign. ASCAP members sign one-year contracts. BMI affiliates sign either two-year contracts (writers) or five-year contracts (publishers).
Debates swirl all the time within the music industry over the faults and virtues of these rival organizations. However, each exists to protect the interests of its artist members and takes that mission very seriously. It would be impossible to predict which PRO offers the best financial prospects for any individual artist without knowing the circumstances of that artist; royalty rates vary widely from artist to artist, genre to genre, and medium to medium. Young composers and writers should keep in mind, though, that it is difficult to switch one's PRO, so the decision whether to join ASCAP or BMI should not be taken lightly.
- Photo Credit music image by Mat Hayward from Fotolia.com