Published on January 2nd, 2010 | by Hugh Hession46
Performing rights organizations 1 – ASCAP and BMI
What is BMI and ASCAP? This is a popular question that I get asked frequently. It’s bit detailed, so to give a quality answer, it’s going to take more than one post. Hopefully after this series is done, you will have a clear understanding on the function of performing rights organizations, or more commonly called PRO’s.
Like most kids growing up in the middle to late 70’s, I made it point to collect anything related to KISS. I mean, KISS was the Taylor Swift of music back in those days (Ironic that Hard Luck Woman would be covered by Garth Brooks years later). Of course the genre was rock, but comparable in popularity.
I was a fanatic when it came to KISS and every piece of information linked to them, was relevant. I remember reading the vinyl record labels and wondering what those funny acronyms were after the songs. BMI? ASCAP? I thought they were a special club that KISS was a part of. I was eight. What did I know?
ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) and BMI (Broadcast Music, Inc) are the two largest performing rights organizations in the United States. They are not related to each other (both are separate organizations) but they do perform the same services for the composer, songwriter, author and publisher.
So what do they do? Well, in simple terms PRO’s collect money for your songs, on your behalf. That’s cool. But for what?
Let’s go back to the word perform. Both ASCAP and BMI use this word in a broader sense than is typical. A performance could be radio or internet airplay, a live concert (including night clubs performances by a local act), a song on television or a song you hear in a restaurant. To enhance this point, here is ASCAP’s definition of a performance:
A public performance is one that occurs “in a place open to the public or at any place where a substantial number of persons outside of a normal circle of a family and its social acquaintances is gathered.” A public performance also occurs when the performance is transmitted by means of any device or process (for example, via broadcast, telephone wire, or other means) to the public. In order to perform a copyrighted work publicly, the user must obtain performance rights from the copyright owner or his representative.
Note that PRO’s do not deal with motion pictures. This a different subject which I won’t get into now.
On your behalf, ASCAP or BMI negotiates the license (often referred to as a blanket license) for your songs (think of this as a permit) to various performance mediums, including radio stations, concert venues, television, you name it. Then, they track the performance (remember that word?) based upon their nifty formula (more on this later) and cut you a check for your share.
Just look at it as having your own personal agent (don’t confuse this with a booking agent) looking after the performing rights of your songs and giving you money. Not a bad deal.
“Umm…Hugh – I have a question. When do I join, who do I join, how do I join and (drum roll…) does it cost money?”
All good questions. Here it goes.
- WHEN? You should join a PRO when you have recorded songs ready to be released to the public. PRO’s like to refer to it as being “commercially released.” This can be in a digital format or in a fixed format, such as a CD.
- WHO? Which PRO you join is up to you. There are minimal differences, but they all perform the same function. Which one has a better ring to it? You can only register with either ASCAP or BMI. You can’t be a member of both. BTW, A BMI member is called an Affiliate. ASCAP members are referred to just that, a member.
- HOW? By going to their website and registering. It’s straight forward.
- COST? To register with BMI as a songwriter is free. There is a $35 processing fee with ASCAP. Your call.
“Hugh…one more thing. Aren’t there other PRO’s?”
Oh yeah. I purposely kept this post specific to BMI and ASCAP as those area the two major PRO’s in America. There is another in Nashville known as SESAC and still others that represent artists in their specific geographical territories, which are for the most part, government owned. Examples include PRS (The UK) and BUMA/STEMRA (Netherlands). There are also PRO’s that represent specific genre’s, such as CCLI (Christian Copyright Licensing, Inc.); which represents the Christian music genre.
- Performance right’s organizations are commonly known as PRO’s.
- Growing up in the 70’s, I thought KISS was pretty cool.
- ASCAP and BMI are the largest PRO’s in America.
- A performance is broadly interpreted. It could be radio or Internet airplay, a live concert (including night clubs) a song being played on television, or perhaps your wife freaking out on you after she found out you bought a 1959 Sunburst Les Paul. Well, not sure ASCAP or BMI would cover that one.
- PRO’s act as agents for your songs (Not booking agents – this is a different function). They give permission to perform the song by negotiating/issuing a license (often called a blanket license) to the various venues, radio stations, television networks etc.
- PRO’s track the performance of a song through a nifty little formula that decides who get’s what.
- When do you join? When you have a commercial release, such as CD or in digital download format available for the public. Also, if you are performing in registered venues.
- There is not much difference between ASCAP and BMI. It’s your preference who you want to join. They perform the same duties.
- You either join ASCAP or BMI. You can’t be a member of both.
- To join, you go to ASCAP’s or BMI’s website and register.
- Cost to join. BMI is free to songwriters (Publishers are different). ASCAP charges a $35 fee.
- There are PRO’s other than ASCAP and BMI. SESAC is the other US PRO but is considerably smaller in comparison. PRO’s can be found all over the world and represent those in their specific regions. There are also genre-specific PRO’s such as CCLI.