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ASCAP vs. BMI in 2021: Which is Better?

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Which PRO should you go with? Short answer: it depends. BMI because it’s free. ASCAP because of its culture. For the full story, read on.

If you’re a producer, artist, or musician – basically, if you would call yourself a songwriter of any kind – then you have probably heard that in order to make the most money from your music, you need to be registered with a Performance Rights Organization (usually called PROs, so from now on, that’s what we’ll call them). If you’re new to the industry, or haven’t kept up with the changes implemented during the past few decades, then it’s easy to get confused about what exactly PROs do these days and how they can help you get paid. Don’t worry; we’ve all been there.

The truth is that, for all songwriters and artists, revenue comes in from a bunch of different places, and it can be hard to keep track of it all. Not only that, but it can feel daunting and pointless to tap into revenue streams that only pay in small amounts. As a songwriter myself, I can say that few things feel lamer than depositing a check for two dollars and six cents. The industry is and has always been a game of penny-pinching, and it definitely isn’t as glamorous as it seems from the outside. But if songwriting is your thing, then you had better get good at finding every penny. And luckily, PROs are designed to help you with that. Let’s break it down, starting with royalties.

How Royalties Work

It never gets any more fun to talk about how royalties work, so let’s just get it over with.

Intellectual properties, like songs, are protected from theft by copyrights. If you write a song or create a recording, you own its copyright, which essentially gives you the sole permission to use, record, perform, distribute, and profit from it. If you choose to license your creation to somebody for them to use, then you, as the rights-owner, are owed a portion of the money it makes in the form of payments called royalties. So in short: royalties are payments owed to rights-owners because of the use of copyrighted material.

Now, every song that’s on a streaming service, on the radio, or in some physical form like CDs and vinyl – every song that’s been recorded into some listenable form – is earning two types of royalties, because it’s representing two different copyrights. These are categorized as composition royalties and recording royalties, and are paid to the rights-owner of each copyright.

Composition royalties are songwriting royalties, earned by the somewhat abstract notion of the composition. A composition is defined loosely by its lyrics and/or melody, and you can think of it as, essentially, the song itself, an entity separate from any specific performance or recording of it. As a copyrighted piece of property, it collects royalties for its use. These are owed to the copyright-owner (and any co-owners), which is usually the songwriter, co-writers, and/or publisher.

Recording royalties are earned by the tangible form the song takes, as the public hears it. When you record one of your songs (or if you give somebody else permission to record it), it takes on a fixed form which has its own copyright, separate from the melody and/or lyrics that you created. You can think of it as a specific version of a song, defined by its unique waveform. And because it has its own copyright, the royalties it earns are paid to the copyright-owner, which is usually a label, or, for you independent artists, some agreed-upon split between the producer and the artist. (Side note: it’s super important to agree to a royalty split before you start a recording project. Otherwise, things can get messy.)

So, when a song is played anywhere, it’s generating both composition and recording royalties, because it’s representing copyrights for the song itself and the specific form it takes in the recording.

Alright, that’s the gist. Glad that’s over. But, unfortunately, it gets messier.

Different Types of Composition Royalties

For the rest of this article, we’re going to be ignoring recording royalties, because PROs have nothing to do with them. Let’s instead dive into the different types of composition royalties.

Obviously, there are many different ways to distribute a composition; streaming, radio, live shows, TV and movies, and physical copies are just a few. Because it would be hard for one person or company to keep track of and pay royalties for every instance a composition is used, the industry’s solution is to distinguish between two different types of composition royalties. So, all composition royalties are either mechanical royalties or performance royalties (or both, in the unique case of streaming).

Mechanical royalties are generated anytime a copy of a song is made and sold, like a CD or vinyl pressing, or more recently, a stream or a download. They’re tracked, collected, and paid out by Mechanical Rights Organizations (MROs) like the Harry Fox Agency, and they’re an important source of revenue for artists, but we’ll ignore them in this article because PROs have nothing to do with them.

Performance royalties are generated anytime a song is performed live, broadcasted, or streamed. They’re tracked, collected, and paid out by PROs like ASCAP, BMI, SESAC, and GMR.

One last wrinkle: performance royalties are split in half, with one half being designated as the writer’s share, and the other half being designated as the publisher’s share. Unfortunately, unless you are signed to a publishing deal or have a publishing administrator like Songtrust (I wrote about them here), your PRO will withhold the publisher’s share of royalties.

If that still doesn’t make sense, here’s another explanation, but with graphics to help you vizualize.

Okay. I know that was a lot. I’m so proud of us. Now let’s get into what PROs do, and which PRO is right for you.

What Performance Rights Organizations Do

As I said earlier, a PROs role is to track, collect, and pay one specific kind of royalty to the owner(s) of a copyright: performance royalties, which are a type of composition royalty.

They do this by licensing compositions on behalf of their members, who have given them the right to license them. Basically, if you are a member of a PRO and somebody wants to perform your song (again, the term “perform” doesn’t necessarily mean a traditional live performance), they have to pay your PRO to acquire the right to do so.

This process is largely done through the use of blanket licenses, though individual licenses can be used. Pretty much all public venues that broadcast music or host performances – from restaurants, to stadiums, to amusement parks, to clubs, to theaters, to hospitals, and everything in between – pay for a blanket license from each PRO, which gives them the right to use each PRO’s entire catalog of songs for a single fee. The performances are tracked, and the royalties are compiled and paid to the rights-owners. In short: a PRO hunts down the places your music is performed, and makes sure you get paid for it.

The Different Performance Rights Organizations

There are four major PROs in the US: ASCAP, BMI, SESAC, and GMR (which some people don’t consider major).

SESAC (Society of European Stage Authors and Composers) and GMR (Global Music Rights) operate by an invitation-only system; if you want to register your songs with either of them, you have to wait for them to reach out to you.

ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers) and BMI (Broadcast Music, Inc.) are both available for registration to all songwriters.

Now, to avoid conflicts of interest, and to avoid getting paid multiple times for the same performance, songwriters are only allowed to register their works with one PRO at a time (only publishers can register with multiple PROs, since they likely represent multiple songwriters). That means that it’s important to make sure that you choose the PRO that’s right for you. 

Of course, they all do pretty much the same thing when it comes to licensing songs and collecting royalties. The difference between them comes down to a few factors, and, unless you’ve been invited to join SESAC or GMR, your choice is binary: ASCAP or BMI.

So, what’s the difference between ASCAP and BMI?

The Deal with ASCAP

ASCAP is the oldest PRO in the US. It’s been around since 1914, and has since grown to represent over 800,000 members. Here are some key highlights of their model, and the added benefits of signing with ASCAP:

  • To join ASCAP, members pay a one-time application fee of $50, and after that, contracts are renewed annually at no cost.
  • Quarterly payments go out to writers each year. Royalties are usually sent for performances that took place about two quarters ago.
  • They pay 88% of collections to their members. Payouts are split evenly between publishers and writers (that unfortunate publisher’s share mentioned earlier, which writers are unable to collect on their own).
  • You can register all of your compositions online.
  • As its name suggests, ASCAP is made up entirely of Composers, Authors, and Publishers. This means that their leadership team is made up entirely of songwriters and publishers who understand what it’s like to be a lay-member. Their board of directors is filled democratically, with members directly voting for their leadership every two years.
  • New ASCAP writers have plenty of opportunities to expand their network and hone their craft: workshops, showcases, scholarships, grants, etc.
  • ASCAP is affiliated with a bunch of other companies and services that offer discounts on everything from instruments, to insurance, to therapy, to hotel stays, etc. (Seriously, there’s so much stuff that it’s not worth listing it all here. A phone call with a representative can give you more info, or you can look here for a start.

It’s also worth mentioning that their website is really easy to navigate, and they’re clearly extremely community-oriented. In my personal experience, people who are members of ASCAP are really proud to be part of the company’s family.

The Deal with BMI

BMI is the largest PRO in the US. It’s been around since 1939, and represents over 900,000 members. Here are some key highlights of their model, and the added benefits of signing with BMI:

  • It’s completely free to apply for membership at BMI. After you’re accepted, you are locked in for two years at a time.
  • Quarterly payments go out to writers each year. Royalties are usually sent for performances that took place about two quarters ago.
  • They pay 88% of collections to their members. Payouts are split evenly between publishers and writers (that unfortunate publisher’s share mentioned earlier, which writers are unable to collect on their own).
  • You can register all of your compositions online.
  • New BMI writers have plenty of opportunities to expand their network and hone their craft: workshops, showcases, scholarships, grants, etc.
  • BMI is affiliated with a few of the flashier organizations such as Billboard, and members are offered special access and discounts to awards shows, conferences, and festivals, as well as discounts on musical goods and services such as ArtistShare and FanBridge.

All in all, BMI is generally considered to be bigger and a little more extravagant than other PROs. In my personal experience, people are drawn to BMI for two major reasons: it’s the largest PRO, and it’s free to join.

Which PRO to Choose

In all likelihood, it depends who you are and what you value in a PRO.

If you’re registering with a PRO for the sole purpose of collecting royalty payments, then the truth is that ASCAP and BMI do the same thing in that regard. Most independent artists and songwriters in the US are likely to choose BMI, simply because it’s free to register.

The differences are chiefly in the organization model and the company culture. Because ASCAP is slightly smaller and is owned and operated by its members, they’re very democratic, communal, and transparent in everything they do. BMI is bigger, and it’s run and framed with more of a business environment, so it’s culture is slightly more large-and-lavish.

My conclusion, based on research and personal experience, is this:

If all you’re looking for out of your PRO is to collect and pay your royalties, then go with BMI. It’s free, easy to sign up and use, and it gets the job done as well as any other PRO. They have some super cool perks and benefits that appeal to those interested in the mainstream side of the business.

However, if you live in a city with a strong ASCAP presence, like Nashville, Atlanta, LA, or New York, then it may be worth signing with them. Their network and culture makes it easy to find opportunities to perform, and they’re incredibly intentional about putting on events that will connect you with other like-minded writers and artists. If community is something that’s valuable to you, and you’re willing to shell out $50, then go with ASCAP.

As a final note, here are some interesting additional readings on this, as well as ASCAP and BMI’s respective websites.

ASCAP vs. BMI vs. SESAC

ASCAP vs. BMI: What’s the Difference and What Can They Do for You?

Why You Should Think Twice Before Joining ASCAP, BMI, or SESAC

BMI’s Website

ASCAP’s Website

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1 comment

Vaughan May 12, 2021 - 2:36 pm

As an alternative to ASCAP or BMI, a creator could register with AllTrack (alltrack.com), which is a PRO specifically for indies. Registering as a creator is free, and a publisher can be setup for no cost up front.

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