Don't believe the hype: Top five facts about ASCAP, BMI, and live music


There’s been a fair amount of hype of late, regarding ASCAP, BMI and SESAC - Performing rights organizations, or PRO's.

First, we all know that PRO's are not perfect. The AFM (Musicians’ Union) has been battling them on some stuff for years!
Perhaps their most glaring shortcoming is that they are, on the whole, totally lousy at public relations, which makes them
even easier to demonize.

This shouldn't surprise anyone:  huge organizations + total lack of PR = precisely the kind of faceless organization musicians love to hate, even if those organizations are working on their behalf.  So, if a venue (that probably wants their music for free) complains of  “Strong-arm tactics” or blames PROs' for  “shutting down live music,” musicians buy it, the press generally follows, and the whole story is swallowed wholesale, no questions asked.

This is, of course, tragic, and it happens in Portland roughly every six months. 

Before jumping on the hater bandwagon, here are some important things to know about PRO's:

  1.   They’re not doing this to get rich themselves; They enforce the law on behalf of songwriters. In truth, they have very low overheads – 10 -15%, which is typical for the music biz. Almost all of the money they collect goes to the people that write the songs.   

  2. "Original music" can and should be registered under a PRO. That's how you get paid royalties. Hello... royalties are an extremely important income stream for musicians; see the information below about live performance royalties programs.

  3. In addition to royalties, the scenario wherein the club says "We're only going to have original/public domain music" is clearly and absurdly unenforceable. Remember when Imbibe (on Hawthorne, in Southeast Portland, OR) tried this? [more on that later. long story short, it DOESN’T WORK.] 

  4. ASCAP "On Stage" and BMI "Live" are  programs that pay artists to perform their original music in public. Member-artists submit their live, public performances and what registered songs they perform.   Membership is not expensive, and generally pays for itself many times over with the royalties. It's a no-brainer, especially if you perform in public a lot. 

  5. Finally, according to this article from the New York Times, the “Strong-arm” and “bullying” tactics are, in fact, something like this:

Collectively, Baker and her colleagues make about a million calls a year. Most of these are repeats, a fact that gets at the firm’s peculiar, slow-boil form of persuasion. Rather than initiating legal action, BMI and other P.R.O.’s prefer a kill-them-with-patience approach that can take dozens of phone calls, letters and as long as 10 years.

                                    The article, by the way, is a great PRO primer, and fascinating – a must-read.

So, don't believe the hype.  PRO’s are not preventing venues from paying musicians, and although any large organization has its share of jerks,  years of letters aren’t exactly “ruthlessly coercive.” Complaints about PRO’s typically come from those who don’t believe that music is worth anything, and are upset because there is an organization that has the legal teeth to get musicians what they're due.

If only US law would support getting musicians paid to perform live!  We’re working on that one, feel free to contact us at Fair Trade Music when you're ready to stop kvetching and fight the good fight. In the meantime, consider joining a PRO (it's not expensive,) registering your songs, and get paid by the PRO's -- it's what they're there for.



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