ASCAP (American Society of Composers and Performers) and BMI (Broadcast Musicians Incorporated) are performing rights organizations. When you own a copyright you have certain rights, one of which is the right to perform your music publicly. In essence, it allows you to forbid anyone else from playing your songs in public. Any time you hear a song, it is being performed publicly; whether on the radio, on television, in a bar or restaurant or even on an elevator. As a copyright owner, you can forbid them from playing your songs.

However, if you want to sell your music, you will want these places to play your music. Therefore, you would grant a license (for a fee) to all these places allowing them to play your song. Needless to say, it would be impossible for you to negotiate a license with every radio station, every nightclub, etc.. In addition, it would be difficult for you to enforce your rights by suing those places who played your music without paying a license fee.

This is where BMI and ASCAP fit in. When you join (technically you do not join BMI or ASCAP, you "affiliate") with one of these organizations, you grant them the right to negotiate licenses for your songs with all the places music is performed publicly. By affiliating with ASCAP or BMI, you grant them the right to negotiate a license on your behalf, to collect and distribute revenue and to sue and enforce your performance copyright. 95% of all commercially released music is covered by one of these two organizations.

Just as you could not negotiate a fee for each song you own, neither does BMI or ASCAP negotiate an individual fee for each song. Instead, they grant a blanket license. BMI and ASCAP go to each radio station and make a proposition: "We have the rights to millions of songs that you want to play. For a flat fee of $X, you can play all of our songs." In this way, by buying a license from BMI and ASCAP, radio stations can play 95% of all the music ever written.

Each of these performing rights organizations negotiate a separate fee for each place where music will be performed publicly. The fees vary depending on the number of songs that will be played, i.e. a bar which plays lounge music from 8 P.M. to midnight would pay less than an elevator which plays music 24 hours per day. The size of the audience also effects the amount of the fee, i.e. a large commercial radio station would pay more than a college station.

BMI and ASCAP collect enormous amounts of money through license fees. Over $638 million dollars in performance royalties were collected in 1992. First, the two groups take all the revenue and pay their expenses. Both are not-for-profit companies. Next, they divide the money up between all their members. Both ASCAP and BMI keep track of what music is played and how frequently. Radio stations must keep log books reporting every song they play. BMI and ASCAP then compile all these reports and apportion the revenue they collect among the songs which were performed publicly. In this way, a Top 40 song which is played every 2 hours will get more performance royalties than a song which is only played once a week.

In order to join BMI, call (212) 586-2000 and to join ASCAP, call (212) 621-6000. Ask for a writer application packet. Both organizations represent music publishers as well, but that is beyond the scope of this column. The fee for a writer to affiliate with ASCAP is $10 while there is no fee for writer affiliation with BMI. Finally, you can only join one organization since they both require an exclusive agreement with a songwriter.

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