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

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It’s one of the top 10 questions I’m asked: ASCAP, BMI or SESAC? Which one should I Join? Here’s a rock ‘n’ roll answer: How about none of them. At least not right away.

All of these competing Performing Rights Organizations (PROs) spend a great deal of their members’ money selling “belonging” as if there is an immediate benefit to membership, like collecting money that they have been holding for you.  But experience indicates that you’d be better off waiting to sign with any of them. Wonder why? Here’s the truth about PRO’s in this three part series taken from Moses Avalon’s latest book, 100 Answers to 50 Questions on the Music Business.

Moses Avalon

ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) and BMI (Broadcast Music, Inc.) often called the “Coke and Pepsi” of performing rights organizations, will both tell you it is irrational not to join one of their organizations. They collect the bulk of all the performance royalties in the US, and will assure you that you cannot get your share unless you are a member.


Orig Photo By: Stuart Pilbrow

In their pitch they will make it sound as if your music is already out there earning money and the PRO is just holding it for you, like a bank, waiting for your application. But the truth is that unless you write a hit song, or a soundtrack for a TV show like The Simpsons you are unlikely to see any significant royalties, even if you are a member.

That said, the real question is not whether to join, or which one to join, but rather when is the right time to join either ASCAP or BMI (SESAC is by invitation and so the pros and cons outlined here are not really applicable.)

Many people who are new to the industry think they should sign with one or the other as soon as they can. The lavish events that both ASCAP and BMI host make one think that joining means there is an immediate chance to collect money. This is not true. Even if you are a member, you only get paid if:

1. There is money to collect for your musical works and, more importantly…

2. That you meet their requirements to receive money after you join.

Yes, signing a deal with a PRO, like so many other deals in the music business, is a guarantee of nothing.

In fact, it’s entirely possible that after you commit to a PRO, your song(s) could be earning money for them, but the PRO is paying you nothing in return. (See Part III about the pooling system for more on that.) Sounds crazy right? It is sad, but true. So, unless one of the PRO’s offers you a financial incentive to join, you should wait until you have written music that fills at least one of the following criteria:

  • It was recorded by a significant artist and the album or single is to be released in the next few months.
  • It was placed in a movie soundtrack that is about to be broadcast on a major TV network in the next few months.
  • It was used as a theme for a series that is about to be broadcast on a significant TV network– in the next few months.
  • It is currently getting a lot of play on a commercial radio station or podcast, or it has been tracked by a reliable service as being downloaded (legally) many thousands of times– now.

Notice that all four criteria listed above are either happening currently or scheduled to happen in the near future. Both ASCAP and BMI have payout systems that tend to respect events that are either happening in the immediate present, or around the corner. If you had a hit five years ago and are just thinking about joining now or you’ve just been signed to a major label but have yet to record even your first album, don’t expect to have any real negotiating leverage. Also notice which additional situations are NOT on my list above — writing the music for:

  • A TV commercial.
  • A soundtrack for a movie that has only seen theatrical or direct-to-video distribution in the US.
  • Independent films that show at festivals only.
  • A hot regional artist’s indie release.

For reasons that are too lengthy to go into here (but are discussed in detail in two of my books, Confessions of a Record Producer and 100 Answers to 50 Questions on the Music Business, these circumstances tend to not track on either ASCAP’s or BMI’s systems. However, any of these additional situations could someday metamorphose into one of the top four criteria if, for example, the festival film gets bought by a major studio and they air it on TV, or the local indie acts gets signed and marketed by a major label.

In those situations, which PRO you join could make a radical difference in your income. Since joining a particular PRO is the only bargaining chip you have for carving out better terms, like foreign rights, bigger advances, etc, it is in your best interest to wait till you have established leverage before you join.

Which direction your career takes prior to signing will also affect this decision. Are you a songwriter or have you become a soundtrack composer or are you both?

Each PRO has an accounting system that favors different types of public performances. (See Part III for which pays more for what.)

Both ASCAP and BMI will tell you that they pay the same, because to admit otherwise would get them into a bit of trouble with the law. (Google: “consent decree ASCAP” for more on this.) But this “we pay the same” pitch is a very transparent lie to catch them in. If you ask a representative of ASCAP how much BMI pays, they will tell you that they don’t know. And vice versa. How can they tell you that they pay the same as the competing PRO if they don’t know how much each other pays?

In addition, There are many cases of songwriter teams who are on competing PROs who receive wildly varying royalty checks for the EXACT same song performed in the EXACT same way. It is clear that they do not pay the same. (in my books I give detailed analysis on how each of their formulas work.)

To my knowledge the only critical analysis of the difference between the Coke and Pepsi of PROs is in the latest edition of my first book, Confessions of a Record Producer. If this is still a burning question after the explanation above, then I urge you to read chapter 20 in that book. Unfortunately, You’ll not find this information about the differences in each of their payment formulas anywhere else.

Another great book on this is Music, Money and Success, by the Brabec twins.

In Part II of this series on the truth about PROs, we’ll dive into the “non-profit” stasis that PROs like ASCAP and BMI claim to have.  What if this turned out to be one of the biggest lies in he music space?  Sign up for the free mailing list above or follow me on Twitter to be kept in the loop.  @mosesavalon.

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133 Responses to “Why You Should Think Twice Before Joining ASCAP, BMI or SESAC Part I”

  1. J Dill says:

    I have 2 irons in the fire on this. As a songwriter I wasn’t getting what my partner was each quarter. I called SESEAC and was told and I also have it in a email, was told I should write better songs if i wanted more revenue. The Revenue IS for our same songs. I also run a non-commercial radio station. I was told by BMI that the revenues we send go to the top 3% on the charts at years end. IF that includes Pop and top 40 Billboard, we don’t play them, so is this how my royalties are figured too? Years ago we did playlistings 2 weeks every year. I don’t mind paying those artists we play but why does some artists get royalties from us that we don’t play. SESEAC is a for profit business while ASCAP and BMI are not for profit. But try and get a payout ledger from them and they will refuse, which is against the law concerning tax exempt not for profits.

    • Moses Avalon says:

      None of the PROS are “non-profit.” You are mistaken there. ASCAP/BMI have a model that is like a non-profit, but that is not even close to the same as a tax exempt charity.

      ASCAP and BMI will do check matching between songwriting team, because of the “Consent Decree”that they operate off of– by law. But SESEAC is not a party to that factor. So they are not obligated to match. However, unless it was a special case involving a large settlement/Advance or a huge discrepancy I have never heard of an instance where they refused to match– until now.

  2. Bigband says:

    For my Bigband website ASCAP contacted me that they wanted a royalty for my mp3 files. About $1,700! The song samples were of my band performing short samples (less tan 1 minute)of hudreds of songs. I tried to negotiate, they insisted and so I eliminated all my mp3’s now my clients cannot sample my music and my band is performing far fewer gigs. I do not wish this treatment on anyone.

    • Moses Avalon says:

      You should have contacted me immediately. For a co-pay of $250 we would have spoken to them and convinced them to back off.

    • Kat says:

      Your making money off other people’s music you should pay, or learn how to make your own and stop whining. Even if your not “rolling in the dough ” ,you can’t complain about living in a house that some one else built after they decide to tell you that you need to pay rent or get out.

      • Daniel says:

        Great article. By the way guys, remember to be aware of the difference in “you’re” and “your”.

  3. Bigband says:

    Very sincere thanks for your very prompt response. The band last year performed 2 gigs. I really am not “rolling in the dough”. Again thanks, Dan
    PS did you know ASCAP is going after Verizon for ring tones?

  4. Jerome Sherman says:

    I had a producer I worked with place my music in a movie a few years ago.. I received no compensation for it. I actually didn’t know until I was watching Showtime, and heard my song playing in the film. Is it possible thT I can collect royalties from that?

  5. Pontea says:

    Thank you, Moses, for this article. I really needed something like this because I was clueless about PRO’s and whether or not to join one, even though people are constantly telling me to do so.

    • Moses Avalon says:

      You’re welcome, however, I’m not saying you should not join one or both, just that you should have an understanding as to their differences and make an informed choice.

      • Thank you, Moses, for this article. You have confirmed what I have been telling my music partners all along… Thanks for the verbiage! I must ask how would you recommend indie artist’s who have minor successes to protected their original songs recordings etc while they are building to meet the PROs before a join ?

  6. Martin says:

    Hey there,

    by hazard I found this interesting blog and got some questions concerning BMI.
    I´m (actually) just a hobby musician for electronic music and come from Germany. I just made a remix for an US artist and he likes that track very much and would like to publish it. Finally he recommended to set up my own account at BMI so that the remix can be published on his label and that both of us can finally earn some money. He told me that time is perfect, because his album will be released next month and he addtionally wanted to spread some remixes too.

    As I´m really not that experienced, but already took a deep look on the BMI homepage, I´d be happy to get some answers to erase my last uncertainties:
    1, When I set up my account there, do I have to pay any quarterly or annual fee as a member/songwriter? Or is it free? Just found in their FAQs that if you want to copyright a song, it´s connected with costs…
    2, How will the payment process be? Will the label/publisher keep in contact with BMI regarding the number of clicks/plays, and based on this I would get the royalty?
    3, How big is the royalty, BMI pays? From the latest comments it did not look so satifsying…
    4, Is it enough to start up online or do I need to sign a real contract and if yes, is it easy to withdraw from the contract?

    Would be really happy to get some input here.
    Thanks a lot in advance!

  7. Psyke P says:

    I’m registered with BMI and I have a song that’s taking off .. It’s gettin a lot of spins on the radio. What do I need to do to receive royalties?

  8. kindra says:

    Thanks for the article..hope its not to late….I just joined ascap 4 days ago…I have not title register my songs yet…new artist with no leverage yet..should I wait before I give them my songs or should I rejoin later under different name?

  9. P. Confused says:

    Hi. Useful info, thanks. I have a question.

    Some time ago some American musicians asked me permission to record a tune of mine, I gladly accepted. A few months ago they told me something about a movie-documentary being interested in that track, through the IMDb, or something like that. Supposedly they “might” use my song on that American movie, which will be released later this year, but it’s not yet confirmed that they will use it.

    The guys that recorded my tune are telling me to join a PRO as soon as possible if I want to get paid in case they do include the song in the movie.

    Now my question: Can I wait until it is confirmed that the song will be in that movie, and then join a PRO only if it does happen? Or should I be joining a PRO right now, before it’s confirmed?

    I don’t really feel like joing one, to be honest, especially because I’m from Spain and our PRO has a bad reputation, but of course I’m not a saint, if my song is going to be on cinema or TV I do want to get something out of it.

    What would you do in my position? Wait or not? Thanks a lot!

  10. Craig says:

    Hreat article you have written. I am considering very strongly on forming a publishing company, and I know I have to register the name. Is there any thing I need to know before doing this, what I mean between ASCAP and BMI, which is better for the beginner.

    Thank you very much.

  11. Canadian eh says:

    I am just about to sign up with SOCAN and they give no option, must choose which one is going to represent me as I am filling in, there is no option to not choose one. However, with limited to no knowledge of how these guys work, or why I am going to sign up with one versus the other, how do I decide? I am being asked to provide my own creative pieces for use in YouTube vids and some of my creations have piqued the interest of an emerging game app developer who is interested in using either the entire sequence or alternatively some slices of that piece I composed, for their new game app. HELP!

  12. Johnny Byng says:

    Is SOCAN different? I joined SOCAN back a few years ago and didn’t think much of it at the time. I played a talent showcase which did a cd and I started getting royalties from a local station playing my song. They played it a few times every couple months and it made me chuckle when I would get my couple bucks. I came upon this post cuz I was thinking of joining Coke or Pepsi. Maybe not now….

  13. Casey says:

    As a small business owner, I have to say I am very disappointed in the music industry for supporting these companies. I have a small diner and I can’t even play the radio for my customers who are eating.

    We used to have local bands come in and play, we would pay them and then they would get to promote their music and books other gigs. Now we don’t play any music at all. We forbid any music playing as we are scared of getting sued by one of these companies. They used to call us and write us letters saying we could be in violation and could be sued for tens of thousands of dollars. Now I feel like it’s 1943 in Germany. Sad, and Im afraid it’s going to get worse.

    As a small business owner, and I can’t see paying the $1500 a year to one of these companies, actually would be more if I pay all three of them. So we decided to not play any music. I’ve heard of other small business owners doing the same. America just isn’t what it used to be….Everyone is out to get someone.

    Thing I don’t understand is. If I decide to play the music that I bought. Im promoting that artist, Im not selling his music….It’s sort of backwards. Artist should be happy we are playing there music, and newcomers should pay business owners for promoting them….If we put the hat on the other head that is.

  14. MF says:

    “Artist should be happy we are playing there [sic] music…”

    The eternal cry of those that don’t understand how it all works. Artists can’t live off the “opportunity alone” – and by playing their music, you are (subjectively) improving the ambiance and marketability of YOUR business. That’s worthy of cold hard cash, not just some pat on the back. In fact, unless you’re actually offering to sell the merchandise of these musicians from whom your business benefits, it’s likely that your “promotion” is worthless – customer’s aren’t sitting around asking “who’s song is that?” and “where can i get it?”

    Bad enough these companies don’t REALLY pay the artists what they are worth… on top of it we have to constantly deal with people that don’t understand what fair use is. We’re supposed to do it just for the love of the art, right? Never mind if you can’t afford groceries.

    • Tim says:

      I couldn’t disagree more-If we aren’t out here listening then the “artist” doesn’t get to buy groceries either. It used to be that “artists” were going all over the country to independent radio stations and slipping the dj 10 bucks to play their record. Now that there are very very few independent radio stations in the country and most all of the stations are owned by a handful of companies this has all turned around.
      Reading the comments on this site it seems to me that (once again) it’s not the “artist” that is getting paid-it’s everyone else that hasn’t got a drop of talent that’s getting the money.
      To charge restaurant owners to play music is stupid. Now, the “artist” doesn’t get played in this persons restaurant,so, guess what? They aren’t getting paid either.Something tells me that even without Lady Gaga howling away in the background that this restaurant owners food still tastes good without her.

      • Moses Avalon says:

        The fee being discussed in this thread goes towards paying the songwriters, which typically are not the same as the performing artists. Are you saying the performing artist should get paid but not the songwriter?

        • Nancy says:

          Basically a small business owner pays a local band giving them an opportunity. It makes no sense for this business to also pay a PRO. It should be the musician that pays to have the rights to play someone else’s music if that’s what they choose to do. We are in a small town and barely make enough to keep the doors open .
          Many musicians that play here only play original tunes but we are still required to pay these PRO’s because they might one day play someone else’s song. These companies are not about musicians but all about profit!

          • Moses Avalon says:

            I am constantly amazed at why small bar/venue oweners do not try to negociate with the PROs if they are not using streamed or catalog music to entertain their customers. You can you know. You can also hier my company (or any music lawyer) to do it for you if you feel intimidated.

            However asking the band to pay the fees is not standard. In Europe the “promoter” pays the fees, not the venue. But in the US we do not ask starving musiciancs to pay the freight. They barely have money for gas.

  15. jjdoe says:

    In the music business, everyone makes money except the musician. These outfits are just racketeers, shaking down businesses. And true, artists should be paid, on some sliding scale, for others to use their work. But judging from the infinitesimal amount they get paid by spotify and such, I’m guessing the artists get hundredth’s of a penny on the dollar, for what the PRO’s are earning.
    And isn’t it nice, like the radio guy mentioned, that when a venue buys into the system, the big artists will see the most – whether they use their music or not!

  16. Jacob says:

    I am about to begin performing a lot of original songs, and the guys I’m working with have been telling me I need to copyright them. I thought that is what ASCAP did. Do I not need ASCAP’s copyright to play my songs?

  17. Chase says:

    Quick question. I co-wrote a song that was in Acid Jazz Vol. 77 and it was sold in Italy with a CD attached am I due any royalty? I signed a publishing agreement for it to be released, however I recieved no royalties to date.


  18. Cory says:

    I’m about to register my bands first song with ASCAP, but I have noticed they only allow me to claim 50% of writer credit.
    I would like to know before signing up for this…Who exactly is the other 50% going to?

  19. Kate says:

    Very informative article! I am a singer songwriter living in Japan, a member of ASCAP, and have just started working with a Japanese music publication business. I wrote lyrics for and sang on a commercial (for internet use only) and I’m worried that ASCAP will go after them if they find out that I wrote the lyrics. Since I am being paid by the company directly, I don’t want this to happen. I also don’t want to keep it a secret that I wrote the lyrics since I want to use it on my “musical resume.” The company would like to work with me in the future so is there a way I make them exempt from ASCAP royalty collection? I’m thinking about quitting ASCAP since I’ve only earned $20 in the 4 years I’ve been a member (which hasn’t been paid to me yet) Basically, I just want to cut out the middle man. Does anyone know how this works outside of the US?

  20. Lisa Dovey says:

    My sister in law is an ASCAP songwriter, she has NEVER gotten royalties. She and my brother perform live, perform their own music along with cover tunes. Wineries have been very popular for them and now with ASCAP becoming a huge bully- venues for people to perform can no longer have music. My brother and his wife have been working to make music writing and performing their living but they have never gotten a break despite the fact that the have quite a following. Now ASCAP is effectively taking money out of their hands-the jobs are going away. What can they and other talented people like them do to keep live music alive? How much of the money ASCAP collects goes to musicians or to pay office staff? Only the people who make it big will benefit and those who are working towards the prize have no hope now. You have to start somewhere and ASCAP has effectively shut the door.

    • BSCOTTWMS says:

      I for one see a consistent theme, and unless you’ve made it big, these “PROs” suck. Start merchandising. Sell your brand at your shows. Sure it takes money to make money and we all want more, but the more you merchandise and sell your brand the better the chances are you have of turning over a profit. DIY IMO CDs, shirts, stickers.

  21. Nory Fussell says:

    I get it that songwriters should be paid for others recording their songs, for play on radio, Pandora, etc. But my HUGE issue is with PRO’s going around threatening small bookstores, coffee shops, etc. who host weekly or less-frequent open mics. Such an open mic is a way-different critter than an open mic at a club or bar that hosts music 4-5 nights a week. Neither the amateur musician nor the venue makes a nickel when a song written by his or her “hero” is played. It is an act of adulation, respect and appreciation for that artist, and perhaps a way for some up-and-coming artist to hone their craft while honoring said hero.
    These BMI-ASCAP threats have led to the closure of many such open mics nationwide, limiting The People’s potential and the creative flavor of our local communities. When I talk about this, so many people are unaware and thoroughly shocked by this mafia-like activity. Plus, I’m 99% sure that Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell would not see a penny of these fines, nor would they WANT to be paid by admirers honoring their songs, non-commercially, at open mics.
    Utah Phillips spoke of his songs “going out into the world to do their work” and sometimes coming back to him in near-unrecognizable but exciting fashion; a tribute. I would ask that small, obviously non-commercial, community-building open mics be taken off the list of “visits” by the PRO heavies. Most small businesses just stop hosting rather than pay a fine that amounts to more than they would ever make via such open mics.

  22. Just had music and articles published (“Corrido Project”, a look at 150 years of the Latin history in the sate of Idaho)for the Boise State University so this article was very helpful.
    I have a recording studio for my own enjoyment and I am being contacted to produce CDs for other artists beside myself. So now I am researching all the BMI, ASCAP, SEASAC, and Harry fox Agency Pros & Cons.
    I am starting to receive royalties for air play on the radio, but they are very small; still it is good to see that someone is paying attention to my music and articles.
    Thank you for the article it was very helpful.

  23. Bob says:


    I was in the radio broadcast business for years, owned a couple of radio stations in the past and currently own a company that provides in-store background music.

    The primary reason to join a PRO is:

    1. to help increase exposure of your music. Radio stations will not play music under it is covered under their blanket ASCAP/BMI/SESAC license. Why? Because the legal risk of rights infringement is too great. I recall numerous bands that dropped of their recording hoping to get airplay and were shocked when I told them that we could not, nor would we, play music that was not covered under our blanket license agreements.

    2. I have a list of about 250 instrumental songs that were ear selected for our background music service and purchased from Amazon. Unfortunately, we were unable to identify a work ID# under ASCAP, BMI or SESAC. We are unable to play those songs on our subscription service and it is not worth the effort and expense contacting and negotiating clearance with each artist. We have to report all plays to the PROs and that is used in royalty calculations.

    Exposure fuels more exposure. It is hard to get enough exposure if radio, TV and subscription services have to pass on your music.

  24. Rob says:

    You say join one or both I belive in the BMI contract it states you cannot join another company for the 2 years you have a contract with them. Is this not true?

  25. Eric L. Moore (Big- E) says:

    It is really a shame the word talent and music does not matter anymore. This is definitely a viOlation of Producers,songwriters and musicians who has the winning combination to make it in this business but not really getting paid for it. I say cut out the middle man and do your own thing. I wrote over a 100 songs while in college and some even made it the on the radio offer a few productions and publishing deals but turn it down because of bad advice. Think you Mr.Moses Avalon for your book and insight of this Music Industry. I will be teaching this to my students if it is ok with you. Eric L. Moore aka (BIG-E)

  26. James says:

    Somewhere along to road the gift of song, inspiration and vision has turned into nothing more than making money for the middle man. I was looking into singing a cover song from an artist that died way back in the 1950’s. I wasn’t even born yet. The song awakened me. It was like a blue print of my life – written just for me. I heard it while eating at a restaurant. I asked, who was this? The manager told the clerk to turn off the music, because they could get sued. I thought It was something I did. They told me that they didn’t have permission from ASCAP or BMI. It’s really sad to see a gift to the world shut off and controlled by money hungry industries with no heart. When will this stop? I believe that a song is a gift to the world. People will buy it. Upcoming bands will play it. It helps everyone. New talent is discovered and the cycle repeats itself. The gift of song is from a higher (creative) source. It is meant to inspire, heal, tell the truth and create peace and love out of chaos. I think Michael Jackson was onto something. Anyway, I left the restaurant feeling like I didn’t want to go back there again. Who’s business does that help?

  27. CBMJJ says:

    Hi, I have an artist which I am managing and he performs rap songs. I currently have him signed up with BMI. He co-produced a song in 2013 and the song is registered as a work in BMI ,however he is yet to receive a single royalty payment. Also, if he were to record a hit song and the wanted to receive payment from radio spins, have we covered all possible bases? How do we sign up for both, is that required, or is it genre based?

  28. PRB PROD. says:

    years ago the battle cry for bmi ascap etc. was ‘we are looking out for the little guys’By extorting an extremely unfair bucks out of venue owners ,as i am one of them,they are salting the very grounds on wich the music,nay the best music germinates and flourishes.My area boasts some of the best musicians per capita world wide.MY place my bar ,business,stage.just got slammed by BMI for excess of 30k.As juke box music ,touchtunes,fully licensad,what was heard. Have had what ? 10 [origanal] bands over the last 3 years.Not much looking out for the little guy ,unless you hate music and are just a prick of a corrupt,morally bankrupt,waste of oxygen.fuck you very much..

  29. Tom W. says:

    Hey guys!

    What if I don’t want to join to these companies?
    I mean it is possible to certify that I own all the rights of my creations.

    I can simply certify the exact date & time when my music was created
    – post office = by sending the sheet music to myself OR
    – bank = by purchase my own music

    and so if someone else uses my music later, I can initiate a lawsuit against him/her based on the certification I have.
    So why do you need all these companies? I don’t understand it.

    Just an example:
    Let’s say I notice that someone else uses my song on TV or uploads to YouTube or anything… I have the certification when my music was created exactly. Since my certification has the earliest date&time on it, I own the music 100%, and they can’t use my music without my permission (legally).
    Please tell me if I was wrong!
    Thank you for your comments!


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