Performing rights organizations (PROs) exist to help musicians manage the licensing and rights to their work, so they get the royalties they are entitled to.
Two of the biggest in North America are the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) and Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI).
If you’re a musician and looking for a PRO to license your work, how do you know which one to choose? Let’s take a closer look at ASCAP and BMI to find out how they’re alike, how they’re different, and which is the right one for you.
What Exactly Does a PRO Do?
If you’re writing or creating music with the hopes of making money, a PRO is something to consider. Any time your music is played in public, you are entitled to royalties, however there is no way you can keep track of this on your own. That's where a PRO comes in.
A PRO represents catalogs of music, from hundreds of thousands of artists that businesses or other people can pay to use, whether it’s played over the sound system in a cafe, retail shop or performed publicly on TV, radio, or stage.
What a PRO does not do is collect money for songs streamed on Spotify or other streaming services from online music distribution. Those services typically issue their own payments. That being said, music played on television and radio reaches a much larger audience, which brings in a lot more royalties than one person listening on their smartphone.
If you’re hoping to be a commercial success, joining a PRO is a good first step.
What Are ASCAP & BMI?
Though there are others that are gaining ground, such as the Society of European Stage Authors and Composers (SESAC), ASCAP and BMI continue to be the reigning champions.
History of ASCAP
ASCAP was one of the first PROs. It was started back in 1914 as a non-profit that protected its members’ copyrighted music from being performed in public. This eventually included radio, television broadcasts, as well as live performances.
ASCAP is known for working with artists and composers from many genres, including famous names like Stevie Wonder and Leonard Bernstein. There are more than 735,000 artists in their catalog.
Businesses that want access to the catalog from ASCAP artists pay membership fees to access it. ASCAP then pays the money to its artists as royalties. ASCAP is owned by its members and artists sit on the Board of Directors. New board members are nominated every two years.
To join ASCAP, artists have to pay a one-time membership fee with no annual dues. Membership automatically renews unless it’s canceled, and members get a lot of information about how payments are calculated and distributed.
History of BMI
BMI works similarly to ASCAP. It collects license fees from businesses that want to use its artists’ recordings and distributes them as royalties.
Its catalog includes more than 15 million songs from more than one million artists across many genres. They work with a lot of big names, including Patti LaBelle, Rihanna, composer John Williams, and represent Michael Jackson’s catalog.
BMI was founded in 1939 as an alternative to ASCAP. That year, ASCAP announced that radio stations would have to pay for a blanket license, which gave them a fixed percentage of the station’s revenue, regardless of how many songs were played from ASCAPs catalog.
BMI was started as a more affordable alternative to ASCAP, instantly bringing competition and giving radio stations, and other businesses an alternative.
In 1941, most radio stations in the U.S. cut ties with ASCAP and went to BMI. BMI also looked for artists that ASCAP overlooked and purchased catalogs from independent music publishers and artists whose ASCAP contracts were nearing expiration dates.
To attract new talent, BMI offered to compensate artists using a fixed performance fee, instead of using a tiered system like ASCAP. Consequently, BMI drastically expanded their scope, representing artists from gospel, blues, jazz, county, folk, and rock and roll.
Currently, BMI works with television, radio stations, podcasts, ringtones, bars, nightclubs, symphonies, digital jukeboxes, and live concerts.
Today, ASCAP and BMI have a lot in common. They both split royalties 50/50 between the songwriter and publishers, allow you to register your performances online, and pay 88 percent of the money to the artists.
So, how are they different? Let’s take a look.
The Differences Between ASCAP & BMI
Today, BMI represents more artists and songs than ASCAP, though ASCAP numbers remain extremely impressive. BMI has a million members and about 15 million songs, while ASCAP has about 735,000 members and 11.5 million songs.
Payments from the two are pretty similar. They both take plenty of time before paying artists for songs played. ASCAP takes close to seven months after the quarter in which the song was played to distribute funds. BMI takes about six months.
ASCAP has a minimum payment of $1 for a direct deposit or $100 for a paper check. BMI has a $2 direct deposit minimum and a $250 minimum for a paper check, though they do send you a check for what you’re owed at the end of the calendar year, if it’s more than $25.
ASCAP offers a standard one-year contract that renews automatically while BMI’s contract is for two years. Note that you cannot register the same songs with one PRO while under contract with another. BMI is free, while ASCAP charges a one-time fee of $50.
|Songs||11.5 million||15 million|
|Payment Time||7 months||6 months|
|Minimum Payment||$1 / $100||$2 / $250|
|Contract Length||1 year||2 years|
|Membership Dues||$50 one-time||Free|
Above is a convenient summary of the information presented in this section. We dig deeper into the perks and experiences below.
Are There Any Perks to Joining ASCAP or BMI?
Both ASCAP and BMI offer perks to their members to sweeten the deal.
Artists that join ASCAP gain access to the "I Create Music Expo" in LA and various award shows. They offer workshops to showcase their artists, as well as a membership to the US Alliance Federal Credit Union and a discounted membership to the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
ASCAP artists also get discounts on life, health, instrument, and dental insurance, as well as music-related services and products, hotels, and even car rentals.
BMI offers a lot of similar perks, including access to songwriting workshops, award shows, as well as discounts on music products and services, multiple conferences and a Songwriters Hall of Fame membership.
Artists also get the opportunity to perform on the BMI stage, at some of the biggest music festivals in the country.
As far as famous artists go, you’re in good company no matter which you choose. ASCAP is home to big names like Justin Timberlake, Katy Perry, and Ariana Grande while BMI represents Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, and Kendrick Lamar.
Which is Better: ASCAP or BMI?
It’s hard to say which, in a fight between ASCAP vs BMI, is best. It depends on what you’re looking for!
The argument can be made that ASCAP is better because they provide their artists with a little more information. For example, they let you see your cue sheets (which tell you who played your songs, so you know what to expect when it comes time for your payout).
You can also export your data, including graphs and charts that track your royalties and provide insights on what songs generated the most royalties. ASCAP also offers its artists more opportunities to perform live.
On the other hand, the argument can also be made that BMI is better. Some artists claim that BMI collects more comprehensive data, leading to bigger paychecks. It is also important to note that BMI can be more useful to newer artists, especially if they are their own publishers.
Something that a lot of artists want to know is which PRO pays better and, unfortunately, that’s a tough question to answer. Rest assured that both ASCAP and BMI are legitimate non-profits that pay artists according to the terms of their agreement.
But how much each artist makes varies drastically. The best thing to do is talk to fellow musicians who are members of either ASCAP or BMI and see what their experiences are. Then decide for yourself. It will be very comparable for two artists with the same number of song plays.
Of course, much of this depends on your own willingness to get out there with your music marketing plan and increase your fanbase, especially before you're signed to a major label. They'll expect you to have done that, too. Major labels don't want to nurture artists much any more. They want to sign the already successful and amplify that.
That's ASCAP vs. BMI in Summary
ASCAP and BMI are both legitimate PROs that help artists collect the royalties they’re due and work in the same way. These two nonprofits started as competitors and, in many ways, are still competing today.
In addition to tracking how many times artists’ songs are played and issuing royalty payments, both ASCAP and BMI offer a lot of perks that are super helpful to independent and working musicians.
Truth be told, there aren’t that many differences between the two.
BMI is free to join, represents more artists, and has a bigger content catalog.
ASCAP has a one-time $50 fee but offers artists more chances to play at live events.
Both represent a lot of big names so you’re in good company no matter which one you choose.
If you want to make sure you’re getting all the money you deserve from your music, joining a PRO is key. Ask around and see what other artists recommend between ASCAP vs. BMI before choosing the one that’s right for you.