Why is it good for you to report performances of my music?

In short, because reported performances of my music generate extra income for me, typically at no cost to the performer.

Allow me to explain. Most composers are a member of a performance rights organization which monitors performances of their members’ music and pays royalties to the composers when their music is performed. I am a member of American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), and every year I get a (small) royalty check from ASCAP. The poets I work with are typically also ASCAP members, and they too receive royalties when music that uses their text is performed.

ASCAP can only send me royalties for performances of my music if they are informed of my music’s performances.

A few more details of ASCAP, as I understand them (and I might be wrong!), will help clarify much of this:

  • For what types of performances should composers receive royalties?
    Usually, any public performance of live or recorded music legally requires payment of a licensing fee to a performance rights organization. The most common exceptions include performances of works for purposes of worship (as in a church) or teaching in a school.

  • Who is responsible for paying the licensing fee to ASCAP or another performance rights organization?
    It is the responsibility of the presenter or the venue to pay these fees - not the performer!

  • Are these fees expensive?
    No! I help put on a music festival every year. Our ASCAP fees for a Concert License range from $30 - $50 a year. And ASCAP might then pay out hundreds of dollars in royalty fees to composers participating in that festival. I consider that a great bang for the investment!

  • If I am performing your works in a church or a school, why do I need to worry about reporting performances of your works?
    ASCAP is kind enough to offer something of a cash “consolation prize” to active composers who do not generate a lot of royalties from their music. Documented performances of my works in churches or schools help justify my eligibility for this “consolation prize.”

  • What is the difference between an ASCAP Concert License and other types of ASCAP Licenses?
    For me this is the most confusing part of the whole licensing business. Since my music is considered concert music, my music is only covered under Concert Licenses. Popular music, though, would be covered under a General License. Royalties for Concert Music are generated only by specifically reporting a performance. Royalties for Popular Music are generated by sampling who has played what on the radio, in the clubs, in the stadiums, etc., and then extrapolating. One of the reasons our music festival pays for an ASCAP concert license is that we use venues which only have an ASCAP General License, and therefore are not covered for the type of concert music we are presenting.

  • Our church has a chamber music series we open to the general public. Should we have a Concert License?
    Yes, if you play any music written within the last 90 years or so. Some churches will claim that their concert series are “worship services” in order to avoid paying licensing fees, but let’s be honest. These chamber series concerts are really about presenting music in a nice space. Not paying licensing fees unfairly cheats composers of making a living, and if we can’t trust our churches to be honest, who can we trust?

  • I can see why this is beneficial to the composer, but do I really need to do all of this?
    Legally, you need permission from a composer to perform his/her work, and licensing the work from a performance rights organization is the easiest way to get this permission. If you personally know the composer, you could directly ask for permission ... but wouldn't you want to enable royalties for someone you know? If so, then go ahead and license the work from the performance rights organization. Your composer friend will thank you.

  • I’m a composer, and I’m wondering which performance rights organization should I join?
    I can’t really help you there. I’ve asked many folks the same question, and it seems that both ASCAP and BMI are secretive about so many things it is difficult to objectively decide. However, I have been an ASCAP member since 1999, and as a presenter I have licensed with them since 2007. I generally am happy with ASCAP. Other composers have told me that they joined BMI because they heard bad things about ASCAP, but I joined ASCAP in 1999 because I’d hear bad things about BMI! From a licensing point of view, ASCAP has certainly been easier to work with than BMI. ASCAP has clear provisions for working with small presenters and not charging exorbitant fees for a single concert or a series of small concerts. BMI has yet to work with us in such a manner. They want to charge us the same fees they would charge a symphony hall. So, I am always sad when the composers who submit their music to our festival turn out to be BMI.