When people want permission to use the copyright-protected work of a musical artist, they do not have to contact that artist directly. Instead they can negotiate through a music rights organization, also known as a performing rights organization (PRO), which represents the work of that artist. In turn, the PRO will collect the licensing fee and pass it along to the artist. In the United States, someone holding a Master of Music in Music Business and Entertainment Industries (MBEI) degree will likely become familiar with three principal PROs — Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI), SESAC, and the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP). BMI and ASCAP are non-profit organizations while SESAC is not.
BMI — The Rebel Is Born
Frustrated radio broadcasters created BMI in the late 1930s. At that time, the dominant licensing agency, ASCAP, dramatically increased the cost of playing the music created by ASCAP artists. In response, the National Association of Broadcasters created BMI as a lower-cost alternative to ASCAP. BMI established itself by signing artists ASCAP ignored or overlooked, which favored the creators of mainstream pop music of the era.
BMI signed both established and unknown artists working in every genre, including marginalized genres like rhythm and blues and country music. By the end of 1940, 660 of America’s roughly 800 radio stations had switched in protest from ASCAP to BMI. It took several more months before the radio industry and ASCAP reached an agreement and ASCAP artists returned to the airwaves. BMI’s major influence in the music industry and its competition with ASCAP continues today.
SESAC — Here Comes the Specialist
SESAC was originally known as the Society of European Stage Authors and Composers. It was created in the U.S. in 1930 to protect the music rights of European artists and collect their American royalties. In time, its focus broadened, and it dropped its original name in favor of its acronym. SESAC earned a reputation in the beginning for its catalog of classical music; it also represented impressive Gospel recordings. SESAC grew to include a wide range of musical genres, including hip-hop. SESAC is smaller than its major competitors, but its roster of talent includes some of the biggest names in music. Today it takes special pride in being at the forefront of technological advances in tracking royalties in the digital age.
ASCAP — It Started It All
ASCAP is probably the PRO most music fans are familiar with. Working composers founded it in 1914 to protect their music rights — charter members included Irving Berlin. ASCAP boasts that it is still the only American music rights organization created and run by artists. In 1924, the group proved its strength by lobbying Congress and winning greater copyright protection for its music on the radio. The ASCAP catalog is so extensive that it dominates the pop music of the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s that many refer to as the great American songbook. ASCAP’s talented roster during those years included legends like Harold Arlen, Hoagy Carmichael, Rogers and Hart, Cole Porter and George and Ira Gershwin. ASCAP expanded over time, beginning to license music in 1949 to a new medium called television. Its catalog includes all genres and lists everybody from Jimi Hendrix to avant-garde composer John Cage to Bob Marley to Johnny Cash. However, ASCAP has not remained in the past. It claims it became the first music rights organization to distribute royalties from internet-based performances.
Today’s musical artists have choices when it comes to protecting their music rights. Likewise, today’s industry executives have choices when it comes to which PRO they would prefer to work for. Both the artist and the executive may find that earning a master’s degree in music business offers deeper understanding of the complicated and nuanced world of music rights.
Learn about the Frost School of Music’s online MBEI program.
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