By Darcie-Nicole Wicknick
Special to MusicBizAdvice.com
PERFORMANCE RIGHTS SOCIETIES: ASCAP, BMI, OR SESAC?
As a music business consultant, one of the hottest questions I get focuses around the role of performing rights organizations. Who are they? What do they do? And, when do I need one? A multitude of performance rights societies exists worldwide, but this article mainly focuses on major heavy hitters ASCAP and BMI.
When choosing a Performance Rights affiliation, many writers flock to one of the Big Two, ASCAP (American Society for Composers and Publishers) and BMI (Broadcast Music International).
There is also SESAC (originally this acronym stood for Society of European Stage Authors and Composers, now it is simply known as SESAC), which, however incorrect, until recent years has had the perception in the U.S. of representing mainly Gospel and European composers. (In MusicBizAdvice.com Editor in Chief Randi Reed’s 20 years of working with artists at the platinum level, she’s yet to work with a SESAC-affiliated writer.)
SESAC is trying to change this perception, however, and in recent years has expanded its membership. But although SESAC currently represents U.S. songwriters and composers including Bryan-Michael Cox, Nate “Danja” Hills, Swizz Beats, Bow Wow, Omarion, Rush, Neil Diamond, and even Bob Dylan, it’s still in the process of catching up to ASCAP and BMI.
DO I REGISTER AS WRITER OR PUBLISHER?
If you are a Writer, in most cases you register as such. Some writers establish their own publishing company and do all the legwork themselves to promote their own music to films, TV, commercials, sheet music, etc. . Others decide to hire another entity to take this on for them.
WHAT DOES MEMBERSHIP IN A PERFORMANCE RIGHTS SOCIETY TRACK?
BMI and ASCAP track any performance of your song in clubs, on radio, on TV, in film, at live concert venues, etc. (in publishing and licensing terms, this is called “public performance” whether the music is live or not). Anywhere your song is publicly performed, they track it.
HOW DO THEY KNOW IF MY SONG IS PLAYED ON THE RADIO OR AT A CLUB?
There are several methods. Typically, Writers and/or Publishers notify the performance rights organization about new placements so the organization can start tracking the film or TV airings. In addition, nightclubs and colleges and other venues pay blanket licenses, as do jukeboxes, Muzak (grocery store and “elevator” music), and other sources. Radio works a bit differently – more on that in a moment. The blanket license is important because many bands may perform different versions of the same song at a clubs, events, or colleges in one night – virtually impossible to track. So, venues pay a fee. The fee is divided as a small dividend each quarter among members of their organization. There is even a dividend from blanket licenses paid from the sales of blank recording media. And according to ASCAP’s website, there are even licenses for websites that host or issue downloadable music.
Radio is another animal. Airplay of songs is tracked through a system called BDS and each week, radio stations report on rotation of every song in their play list. This information is shared with performance rights societies and is used to calculate royalties.
HOW DO I REGISTER MY SONGS WITH A PERFORMANCE RIGHTS SOCIETY?
After you become a member, you will need to register your song titles. Both ASCAP and BMI offer this service online. You indicate with whom you wrote the song and the date of copyright (unless pending file number assignment, then you can select “copyright pending”) and the Copyright File Number with the Library of Congress.
This process has recently become easier now that the Library of Congress has an online record of your files. For your own convenience, make note of song titles that you file under a main title, and the date. This will help you allocate the appropriate PAU (Performance Arts) registration number to your title registration with your performance rights society of choice. (You can find this information at http://www.loc.gov/copyright and select Search Records and then select BOOKS, MUSIC, et al. on the far left tab in the center of the page.)
WHAT DOES ASCAP OFFER THEIR MEMBERS, AND OTHER FACTS YOU SHOULD KNOW BEFORE MAKING YOUR CHOICE
Following are some points about what each Society has to offer, and some things you should know about them before deciding which is right for you. This information was obtained from the ASCAP and BMI websites, as well as the personal opinions of several songwriters.
ASCAP – The American Society for Composers and Publishers
Founded in 1914 by a number of leading composers and publishers at the time, including Victor Herbert and John Phillip Sousa.
Membership: From the ASCAP website: “ASCAP is a membership association of over 170,000 U.S. composers, songwriters, lyricists, and music publishers of every kind of music. Through agreements with affiliated international societies, ASCAP also represents hundreds of thousands of music creators worldwide. ASCAP is the only U.S. performing rights organization created and controlled by composers, songwriters and music publishers, with a Board of Directors elected by and from the membership.
“ASCAP protects the rights of its members by licensing and distributing royalties for the non-dramatic public performances of their copyrighted works. ASCAP’s licensees encompass all who want to perform copyrighted music publicly. ASCAP makes giving and obtaining permission to perform music simple for both creators and users of music.”
Cost to Join: It does not cost money to join ASCAP, and there are no annual dues.
Requirements to Join ASCAP As a Writer
- At least one of your Works must meet at least one of the following requirements: Commercially recorded (CD, record, tape, etc.) or
- Performed publicly in any venue licensable by ASCAP (club, live concert, symphonic concert or recital venue, college or university, etc.) or
- Performed in any audio visual or electronic medium (film, television, radio, Internet, cable, pay-per-view, etc.) or
- Published and available for sale or rental.
REQUIREMENTS TO JOIN ASCAP AS A PUBLISHER
To find out if joining as a Publisher is right for you, and for additional information about becoming a Publishing entity, contact ASCAP Member Services.
Application forms for both are available for download from the ASCAP website.
ASCAP MEMBER BENEFITS
- Access to Collaborator Corner to connect with other members who may need your talent for their project.
- Access to financial planning and estate planning.
- Access to group health, life, accident, long term care, and instrument insurance.
- Discounted courses and memberships to Berkleemusic.com
- Discounts on musical equipment, car rentals, hotel stays at Choice Hotels group, and at a myriad of additional retail and travel companies.
- Easy Title Registration online.
- Eligibility to apply for an ASCAP credit card (for personal or business).
- Eligibility to apply for grants and competition opportunities.
- Eligibility to apply to perform in showcases in your area.
- Email account by request.
- Free subscription to Playback Magazine.
- Letterhead logo by request.
- News on the main site in many genres including Urban, Pop, Jazz, and Country.
- Notification of workshops, seminars, career development opportunities.
- Membership card and Welcome kit.
- More information is available on the ASCAP Website.
WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT ASCAP FROM A MEMBERS’ STANDPOINT
- ASCAP pays dividends quarterly and semi-annually depending on the circumstances.
- You should call member services any time you know that your song is on the radio, in stores for sale, on TV, performed in venues, etc. to ensure more accurate tracking.
- ASCAP’s books are open and you can gain information about your account.
- ASCAP has offices in New York, Los Angeles, Miami, Chicago, Nashville, Atlanta, Puerto Rico, and London.
- ASCAP was founded by writers and publishers.
WHAT DOES BMI OFFER THEIR MEMBERS, AND OTHER FACTS YOU SHOULD KNOW BEFORE MAKING YOUR CHOICE
BMI – Broadcast Music International
Founded by: Radio Broadcasters in 1939.
Membership: Called “affiliates” rather than “members,” there are more than 300,000 songwriters, composers and music publishers who are BMI affiliates.
Cost to Join: It costs no money for Writers to join, and no dues are required. (See Publisher rates below.)
REQUIREMENTS TO JOIN BMI
If you have written musical compositions, alone or in collaboration with other writers, which, at the time of affiliating with BMI, are being performed or likely to be performed by broadcasting stations or in other public performances, and, in the opinion of BMI, you meet these basic qualifications, you are eligible to join BMI and a BMI contract will be offered.
REQUIREMENTS TO JOIN BMI AS A PUBLISHER
BMI must ascertain your viability and states the following:
“Over the years, experience has indicated that becoming a BMI publisher will be of practical benefit only to those who have the ability and resources to undertake exploitation of their works. At the time of affiliating with BMI, applicants should have some musical compositions being performed or likely to be performed by broadcasting stations or in other public performances. If, in the opinion of BMI, you meet these basic qualifications, a (BMI) contract will be offered. Under this contract, you, as the publisher, assign to BMI the public performing rights of the works in your catalog. These works are then included in the overall repertoire available to BMI licensees.
Although many performing rights organizations impose an annual charge or collect annual dues, BMI does not follow that practice; instead, there is an initial charge of $150 for solely-owned publishing companies and $250 for partnerships, corporations (including sole stockholder corporations) and limited liability companies, which partially defray administrative costs. This charge is made only at the time of affiliation and is neither refundable nor deductible from earnings. Once affiliation is completed, payment of a $75 administration fee is required if you wish to change the name of your publishing company or if there has been a change in ownership.”
For more in-depth information about Publisher membership and what happens after your contract is approved, please visit The ABOUT BMI section of the BMI website and click on For Publishers.
BMI MEMBER BENEFITS
- Discounts on insurance, subscriptions, and computer hardware and software and more.
- Easy Title Registration online.
- Eligibility to apply to perform in showcases in your area.
- Listening Room.
- For further information, check out the BMI website.
WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT BMI FROM A MEMBERS’ STANDPOINT
WHAT ABOUT SESAC (fka SOCIETY OF EUROPEAN STAGE AUTHORS AND COMPOSERS), AND WHY ISN’T SESAC AS POPULAR AS ASCAP AND BMI?
WHAT DOES SESAC OFFER THEIR MEMBERS, AND OTHER FACTS YOU SHOULD KNOW BEFORE MAKING YOUR CHOICE
SESAC is primarily known for its roster of European and Gospel composers and recently began more aggressively marketing itself to mainstream songwriters. Therefore, ASCAP and BMI are more well-known.Also, SESAC’s application process is more selective. Some writers like this because they feel it brings a cache to their work, while others find the process exclusionary or even intimidating. SESAC’s relative lack of popularity (compared to BMI and ASCAP) makes it difficult get enough information from songwriters to provide a clear picture of the pros and cons of SESAC affiliation. But we’re working on it.
REQUIREMENTS TO JOIN SESAC
SESAC’s website provides only the following information about their membership selection process:
Unlike the other performing rights organizations, SESAC has a selective process by which to affiliate songwriters and publishers, resulting in affiliates who have personal relationships with the SESAC staff. The company’s creative staff works with songwriters to develop and perfect their talents. SESAC takes pride in a roster based on quality rather than quantity. Submissions are reviewed by SESAC’s Writer/Publisher Relations staff.
Diana Akin, Coordinator, Nashville – email@example.com
Yasmin de Soiza, Coordinator, Los Angeles – firstname.lastname@example.org
Peniece Le Gall, Coordinator, Atlanta – email@example.com
Tara McDermott, Coordinator, New York – firstname.lastname@example.org
MBADC is doing outreach to SESAC at this time so we can learn more from them directly about what would qualify a songwriter or publisher to become a SESAC affiliate. We will update this page as soon as we have received that information from the appropriate SESAC representative.
SESAC MEMBER BENEFITS
- Affiliated with SXSW and CMJ Festivals
- Country Music Association membership discount
- Direct Deposit
- Discounted subscriptions to Billboard, Hollywood Reporter, American Songwriter, Music Connection, and Performing Songwriter magazines
- Discounts on MasterWriter, MusicPro Insurance, Get it Guru merchandising, SongU.com, WhosLooking.com, and Discmakers
- Link/Profile (with photo) on the site
- Lists member tour dates and performances in SESAC on the Road section
- Offers formal recognition via SESAC awards
- Online access to earnings statements and live performances
- Online works registration
WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT SESAC FROM A MEMBERS’ STANDPOINT
From SESAC’s website: When a songwriter or publisher affiliates with SESAC, SESAC then represents the right for that music to be played in public. As the technological leader among the nation’s performing rights organizations, SESAC was the first P.R.O. to employ state-of-the-art Broadcast Data Systems (BDS) performance detection. SESAC utilizes BDS in conjunction with other cutting edge performance detection technology, providing SESAC’s writer and publisher affiliates with the fastest, most accurate royalty payment available anywhere. The system required to compute compensation is based on many factors, including music trade publication chart activity, computer database information, and state-of-the-art monitoring.
If you live in a country other than the United States, I recommend you call your federal copyright protection office (the one comparable to the Library of Congress in the U.S.) for information about organizations in your country that provide performance rights services. You may also obtain this information at a municipal office, or in the section on music business law in your local library. You may also ask a music attorney, copyright attorney, or intellectual property attorney in your country.
Darcie-Nicole Wicknick is a freelance music business consultant and the founder of AskDarcie Music Business Consulting. She is also Director of Boston Hip-Hop Alliance and lead vocalist for Velvet Stylus. She can be reached through her website at http://askdarcie.info.