The ASCAP building in Nashville, Tennessee

You may have seen the letters ASCAP, BMI, or SESAC in the liner notes of one of your CDs, or on many other documents or web pages that are related to music. What are they? Why are they there? And, what do they do?

ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC are the U.S. Performing Rights Organizations (PROs). ASCAP is the American Society for Composers, Authors and Publishers. BMI is Broadcast Music, Inc., and SESAC originally stood for Society of European Stage Authors & Composers, but today the name is simply SESAC. Their primary role is to collect performance royalties for songwriters and publishers. Beyond that, though, they also perform other roles such as education, advocating for songwriters and publishers, and other services of interest to musicians.

You may have heard that every time a song plays on the radio, the songwriter gets paid. That is generally a true statement, but how does that happen? That is where ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC come in. Their role is to collect money whenever and wherever music is performed, and distribute that money to songwriters and publishers. Note that the PROs are NOT the mechanism by which money is collected for what are called "mechanical royalties". Mechanical royalties are the money that is collected for the right to include a song on something mechanical, like a CD. Mechanical royalties are collected by a different system than the PROs. PROs, on the other hand, collect money each time a song is performed. That performance can be a radio play, or a live concert, or any number of other venues.

A music publisher is a company who works on behalf of a songwriter to get their music performed and placed on recordings, as well as a number of other functions. Another thing they do is collect money for the songwriter, and pay it to them. In exchange for that service, they get to keep part of the money they collect. What does that have to do with ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC? Well, a songwriter affiliates with ONE of the PROs. They affiliate by filling out a contract and agreeing that they are authorizing that PRO to collect their performance monies that they are due. Music publishers also affiliate with a PRO. However, since the publisher can only work with songwriters who are affiliated with the same PRO that they are, most U.S. publishers set up three publishing companies. One that is affiliated with ASCAP, one with BMI, and one with SESAC. That way they can work with any songwriter regardless of which PRO they are with. It also helps for when songwriters from different PROs co-write together.

So – Now that we know what songwriters, publishers, and PROs do, where does the money come from? In order for a radio station to play a song on the radio, they need to have permission to do that. Obviously it would be totally intractable to try to reach agreements with every songwriter for every song. So, instead, radio stations (and other performance venues) enter an agreement with each PRO that allows them to use any song that they represent. That fee is determined by a lot of different factors, including how large their listenership is, which market they are in, and other traits. This means that the PROs are collecting money from the radio stations, television networks, and so on. Their next task is to distribute that money to the correct songwriters and publishers.

Each PRO has its own method of determining how much money to pay to each songwriter and publisher. Some rely on statistical methods where they listen to certain venues for a certain amount of time and then extrapolate from that. Some take reports from venues of exactly which songs were performed. They also have more techniques, and, in fact, they use a combination of factors to determine the splits. The PRO then pays the money out to the songwriters and publishers.

But, what about performances that are outside the U.S.? There are PROs in other countries as well. For example, there is the Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada (SOCAN), and APRA for Australia. The PROs have agreements among themselves to distribute the money due songwriters and publishers to their home PRO for them to distribute.

Each of the PROs also offer a means by which you can report performances of your songs in venues that aren't normally monitored, or for performances that have special prestige value.

In order for a PRO to even know about your song, it is important that the song is correctly registered with the organization. Registering the songs with the PROs is generally a task of the publisher, but it is good for the songwriter to verify that their songs are accurately registered.

It is an interesting distinction that songwriters and publishers own ASCAP, whereas broadcasters own BMI. Both ASCAP and BMI have open memberships, whereas SESAC membership is by invitation.

Each of the PROs provides a database of the songs they represent. It can be very interesting to browse them to learn more about your favorite songs. The ASCAP "ACE Title Search" is at: . The BMI "Search the Repertoire" is at: . The SESAC "Repertory Search" is at: .

It is worthwhile for any songwriter to join one of the PROs. They provide a lot of information that is helpful to songwriters, offer educational programs, get discounts for members on items or services that are of interest to songwriters, they advocate for songwriters and publishers collectively, and they will sometimes help songwriters find publishers to work with. Remember, you can only affiliate with ONE of the PROs.

How do you choose which PRO is best for you? As an unknown songwriter, you are probably limited to choosing between ASCAP and BMI. Visit each of their websites to see what services they offer. If possible, arrange a meeting with one of their member representatives and see if you seem to feel more comfortable with one or the other, and which one you seem to "fit in" with best. All three organizations are high quality, so you probably can't go wrong with any choice. You can only join one, but you can resign from one and join a different one later if you ever feel like you need to.

Next time you look at the credits on one of your CDs, you will know what those letters mean. You will probably see more than one of them represented on a CD. The listing you see that has those letters lists the publishing company for the song, and which PRO they are affiliated with.