American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers

ASCAP was the first American performance rights organization, tracking the performance of its members’ compositions and collecting licensing fees on their behalf. The organization made it feasible for individual composers to receive the fees they were due by eliminating the need for them to dedicate their own time and resources to administrative overhead. With the advent of radio during the 1920’s, followed later by other mass broadcast and computer technologies, ASCAP and other performance rights organizations assumed greater importance.

During the early and mid-nineteenth century, music publishers would often issue their own sheet music, with their own versions of popular tunes, generating huge profits for themselves without paying the original composers. Stricter Copyright lawscopyright laws in the latter part of the century led to the creation of musical houses. Each house was responsible for enforcing the copyrights of its member composers, songwriters, and publishers.American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers

A group of Tin Pan AlleyTin Pan Alley musicians determined to disentangle this convoluted system gathered in 1914 and, on February 13, formed the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP). The only way to join the society was through sponsorship by a member, and numerous copyright holders did join, so that the group represented most music creators in the United States by the end of the decade. Eventually, ASCAP membership was made open to all music composers, publishers, and songwriters.

The 1920’s brought a new challenge, as Radioradio grew in popularity. Initially, artists performed their music for free on the airwaves, but this novelty soon wore off, leaving a large group of creators in need of support from ASCAP. Radio stations were forced to pay copyright licensing fees for both live performances and prerecorded broadcasts.

In 1930, a much smaller performance rights organization, the Society of European Stage Authors and ComposersSociety of European Stage Authors and Composers (SESAC), was formed. Originally, SESAC promoted only European and gospel music. Although it later expanded to include a more diverse membership, SESAC screens its applicants and remains deliberately small in size.

Many radio stations considered ASCAP’s fees too high. In 1939, Broadcast Music IncorporatedBroadcast Music Incorporated (BMI) was founded to compete with ASCAP by offering lower fees. In 1941, radio stations nationwide organized a boycott of ASCAP musicians, attempting to demonstrate that ASCAP did its artists more harm than good by charging high copyright fees. However, the boycott failed utterly, and public demand for the ASCAP artists quickly brought a compromise in the dispute.

The three major performance rights organizations, ASCAP, SESAC, and BMI, serve the same function for their members, collecting copyright fees from broadcasting groups to distribute to the appropriate copyright holders. ASCAP and BMI both operate on a not-for-profit basis, keeping only administrative fees, while SESAC retains an undisclosed profit from the royalties it collects.

Further Reading

  • Choate, Pat. Hot Property: The Stealing of Ideas in the Age of Globalization. New York: Knopf, 2005.
  • Passman, Donald S. All You Need to Know About the Music Business. Rev. ed. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000.
  • Ryan, John. The Production of Culture in the Music Industry: The ASCAP-BMI Controversy. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1985.


Copyright law

Digital recording technology

Music industry

Radio broadcasting industry