Should I join ASCAP? (not a simple question in my case)
July 18, 2006 1:53 PM   Subscribe

Should I finally join ASCAP, despite my misgivings about copyright, the music-licensing industry, and certain practices by ASCAP and similar orgs? Yes, the cash would make a real difference for me, given the way ASCAP handles my genre and given my low income overall.

(A many-sided question, one I've put a lot of thought into -- but I've made this as concise as I can while hitting the important points. Thanks for listening!)

I'm a young American composer of mostly classical/"concert" music. I come from a very low-income background, so as an adult I'm still learning the right ways to relate to money & finances. I've spent my post-conservatory life making a very simple living with a combo of about half music (small grants/prizes/commissions) and half other work. I'm not at a career point where prizes/etc. just fall in my lap; I spend a LOT of time researching & applying for all these opportunities.

I've missed out on a significant amount of cash over the years because I haven't joined a performance rights organization (ASCAP would be better for me personally, so that's why we're forgetting about BMI here). ASCAP's Concert Music division, unlike most other divisions, makes direct royalty payments for significant performances of your music, plus annual cash awards based on your music's overall "prestige value" (prizes/performances/etc.) -- and the award amounts I hear about from friends with "prestige" activity comparable to mine would definitely make some difference for me each year.

--- So why have I not joined ASCAP?
• I'm still (though decreasingly) attached to my ideal of offering work freely or under alternative licenses rather than perpetuating our current copyright system. (Yeah, I do realize that many anti-copyright activists are financially secure tech-industry types who have a different kind of luxury to hold these beliefs than I have.)
• While ASCAP's Concert Music division itself is clearly a postive/beneficial force in the music world, the popular music division has a practice that disturbs me: their aggressive insistence on getting even very small venues & clubs to pay their licensing fees, typically using threats of lawsuits, which can hold back struggling venues and struggling musicians alike. U.S. law says they can do this, but I don't agree with the law in this case.
• I would benefit from and implicitly approve the business practices of ASCAP if I were a member.
• If I did eventually become high-profile enough without any money or help from ASCAP, I could be a great example for other musicians who don't want to be part of the intellectual-property industry (an Ani DiFranco-like advocate for anti-copyright ideals, as Ani has been for anti-major-label ideals).

--- And what are some arguments that I should join ASCAP now?
• How logical is it for me to refuse to join in the name of supporting struggling musicians, if I'm a struggling musician myself (who's living without health care, etc.)? I'm basically the walking definition of why music licensing and royalties were created. If I'm dedicated to contributing to our culture, I need to generally take care of myself so I can be healthy/productive and live a long life.
• It's not just ASCAP and BMI: in virtually any industry, if we really trace the roots of where our pay comes from, we would likely classify it as coming from business practices that hold someone else back, or as being "dirty money" in some other sense.
• My friends unanimously agree that ASCAP's Concert Music administrators actually care about nurturing and promoting composers and connecting them with opportunities -- in other words, the cash might be the least of ASCAP's practical benefits for me.
• As far as I understand (and I would ENORMOUSLY appreciate any comment/clarification you may have on this point), ASCAP only controls the performance rights of the works you specifically register with them (i.e., you can hold back individual works, so I could do that for any particular piece that felt important to release outside copyright -- or for any particular piece if I planned to have only that piece performed at a venue not already licensed by ASCAP [to make sure the venue would be safe in the event ASCAP noticed the venue because of me]).

So... Currently I don't see any other in-depth discussion of these issues on the web, so I hope this can turn into a great thread with many different viewpoints. (And if you want to email me privately, you can use the anonymous account I set up for this: metaq @ bluebottle . com [remove the spaces].) Thank you!
posted by anonymous to Media & Arts (4 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
You have the same problem that little-known authors do. Your problem is not that "people are stealing your work", it's that nobody knows who the hell you are.

There are now a number of empirical tests that have been conducted, testing the theory that getting more widely known is more beneficial, financially, than getting better enforcement of copyright against the two people who know you. These have been linked in previous copyright discussions. (Baen Free Library, etc.)

You say that you've missed out by not signing up with ASCAP - I don't see how. If people are performing your works, they're doing so illegally if they didn't get clearance, either through ASCAP or directly through you. So if you weren't signed up with ASCAP, people must have come directly to you, right? No? If they weren't, then why not? Either your works aren't being performed (in which case ASCAP won't give you diddly) or the people are performing them and not paying (in which case ASCAP wouldn't give you diddly either).

Let's say (making numbers up), that if you were signed up with ASCAP, they'd charge the concert hall $500 to perform your work, of which ASCAP would pass on $250 to you (and keep $250 for themselves, as a sort of "music tax"). What you need to do then is put up a webpage (cost: minimal) with all your sheet music on it available for download. You also put this on your webpage:

"To perform this music in a commercial venue, please send me $200. Non-commercial venues $100. Schools free."

You win. Anyone who likes your stuff gets to share it and pass it around and show it to his friends. If you're any good, your work gets passed around a lot. Eventually, a lot of people have heard your name and are familiar with your work, and they want to perform it. Many of them will pay you when they perform it. Some will not. Overall, this will be a better deal than no one having heard of you, and no one performing your work.

The concert hall also wins - they only pay $200 instead of $500. They're more likely to choose your work to perform, because it's cheaper than ASCAP works.

Your choice is basically:

--medium part of a small pie (sign up with ASCAP - they enforce for you, but also charge for the privilege - those lawyers don't come cheap)
--small part of a large pie (don't)

The second one has been empirically proven to work better for unknown authors and unknown musicians. I do not know that it has been proven to work for unknown composers, but I have my suspicions.
posted by jellicle at 2:31 PM on July 18, 2006

To respond to a very small portion of the question: ASCAP only collects public performance income for works registered with ASCAP. ASCAP and BMI operate under consent decrees with the federal goverment due to anti-trust issues. One result of this is that the performing rights organizations (PROs) may only issue non-exclusive licenses for musical works, meaning that the copyright owner/administrator of the musical work may always grant an "at source" license to a third party. ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC only deal with musical works, not master recordings. Generally, the owner of a sound recording does not control the exclusive right of performace of the sound recording. The main exceptions to this are certain digital performances. More information about the digital performance right in sound recordings can be found at Sound Exchange. The above information is not legal advice.
posted by anathema at 3:45 PM on July 18, 2006

If I'm reading anathema correctly, when you register a work with ASCAP or BMI you also retain the right to license your work independently. Sounds like the best of both worlds.

I think you need to think of yourself first, the good you can do for the rest of the world second. If you can give performance licenses on your own as well as reap the benefits of performance licenses granted by ASCAP, you win both ways and gain the other benefits of ASCAP membership.

I hesitate to throw out the baby with the bathwater when it comes to copyright issues. I don't see as many problems with copyright (though there are problems) as I do with abuses of copyright by big corporations and the organizations they run. Changes need to be made, if the corporations can be forced to allow them. Initiatives such as Creative Commons show that there can be flexibility in copyright -- ownership of need not mean complete retention of rights, if the owner prefers not to retain them.

Finally, one needn't agree with all aspects of an organization to work with it. Working for change from within the system is a time-honored tradition, and sometimes it even works.
posted by lhauser at 11:27 PM on July 18, 2006

I just saw this question. I would really recommend joining ASCAP. You are not collecting royalties at the moment and God knows how difficult it is to make money in the 'classical concert music' world. I have no particular loyalty to either ASCAP or BMI as I'm originally from the UK and I'm a member of the PRS (we only have the one -so much easier) but I'd really recommend you joining one of these organizations. If you want to email me feel free, my address/website is in my profile.
posted by ob at 8:25 AM on July 20, 2006

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