February 13, 2014 marked the 100th anniversary of the founding of the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers, known colloquially as ASCAP, the nation’s first, and largest performance rights organization. As a Performance Rights Organization, ASCAP’s primary role has been protecting the copyrighted compositions of their members by monitoring public performances of their works and compensating them accordingly. ASCAP, however, has not limited itself to this role and has become one of the most influential forces in the music industry.
The Early Days
The story of ASCAP’s founding goes that in early 1914, the great Italian opera composer, Giacomo Puccini, was having lunch in New York with Victor Herbert, a prominent American composer. At some point during the meal, the restaurant’s band began playing one of Herbert’s compositions. According to Paul Williams, a songwriter and the current president of ASCAP, an enraged Puccini said to Herbert “Why are you not licensing this music? You should be paid for this music, because in Europe, we are.”1 Inspired by Puccini’s comments, Herbert assembled a group of the era’s most prolific composers, including Irving Berlin and John Philip Sousa, to found ASCAP.
Despite a strong conviction and the support of the Copyright Act of 1909, which affirmed the rights of songwriters to be paid for the exploitation of their work, ASCAP had a difficult time convincing venues to pay them for something they had previously gotten for free. According to Bruce Pollock, author of A Friend in the Music Business: The ASCAP Story, the ASCAP representative charged with the task “of being [the] guy who has to go into a place that isn’t licensed and tell the owner, ‘Uh, now you have to be licensed’…[had] the most dangerous job. People would wind up in jail, they would get beat up, they would be threatened.”2
It wasn’t until 1917 that ASCAP received the backing they needed to collect money from venues. This backing came in the form of a landmark decision in the case of Herbert v. Shanley Co., in which Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Oliver Wendell Holmes upheld a composer’s right to be compensated for the public performance of their composition, even when the venue does not charge directly for admission. The Herbert v. Shanley decision gave rise to one of ASCAP’s most prominent regulatory mechanisms, known as the blanket license. Under a blanket license, businesses pay ASCAP an annual fee in exchange for the right to play any composition by an ASCAP member.
The Growth of ASCAP
With their new legal backing, ASCAP was able to turn their attention to promoting the interests of their members. Among their early victories was a 1919 deal made with Great Britain’s Performing Rights Society establishing reciprocal representation for each other’s members in their respective territories. Today, ASCAP has made similar deals with PROs in over 100 countries.
The 1920s and 30s were a period of great growth for ASCAP. Many great composers, including George Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Duke Ellington joined ASCAP’s ranks. Additionally, ASCAP embraced the new medium for music discovery that radio presented by licensing radio stations, thereby creating a substantial, new revenue stream for composers.
By the late 1930’s ASCAP had become one of the most dominant forces in the music business. ASCAP’s control over music was so great that they were considered to be in violation of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, and were sued twice by the Justice Department. The first suit was brought in 1937, but was quickly abandoned; the second suit, brought in 1941, resulted in a consent decree, which forced ASCAP to set rates fairly and not discriminate between licensees who are in similar standing.
The Anti-Trust suits were not the only challenges ASCAP faced during this era. In 1940, in response to ASCAP’s attempt to double license fees, radio broadcasters began a boycott of ASCAP. During the ten-month boycott, none of ASCAP’s songs were broadcast on NBC or CBS radio stations. Ultimately, ASCAP settled the issue by agreeing to lower rates, but not before broadcasters founded Broadcast Music Incorporated, or BMI, a competing PRO.
Continued Growth and the Digital Age
Despite the setbacks of the early 1940s, the next four decades were by and large a period of great success and growth for ASCAP and its members. The 1950s brought another major revenue stream for composers, the television. The 1960s, 70s, and 80s saw major increases in ASCAP’s diversity and star power, with members ranging from rock stars like Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, to country legend Johnny Cash, to pop stars like Madonna.
The late 1990s and 2000s saw an end to this unchecked growth. The growth of digital technologies and the rise of peer-to-peer file sharing caused radical changes to the music industry. Though ASCAP was not immune to the effects of file sharing, they refused to allow digital technologies to get the best of them. In 1995, ASCAP issued its first performance license to a website, RadioHK.com, and later became the first PRO to pay royalties for digital performances. More recently, ASCAP has faced challenges from online music streaming services, most notably Pandora, who are fighting to lower licensing rates.
ASCAP Today and Beyond
Despite past setbacks and current conflicts, ASCAP has remained a fixture of the music industry. At 100 years old it is the nation’s oldest PRO, and remains the only composer-run PRO in the country. ASCAP is also the world’s largest PRO; its nearly half a million members will receive an estimated $851.2 million for their roughly 250 billion performances in 2013.3
By identifying the need for collections from venues of all sorts and, eventually, from the public airways of radio and TV, ASCAP has served the industry well. It definitely changed the value of music in the U.S.—and in so doing, the net worth of composers and songwriters alike. How ironic, though, that it took a classical music star, Giacomo Puccini, to pave the way for a better livelihood for generations of popular tunesmiths.
By Griffin Davis
1. Lunden, Jeff. “Collecting Money For Songwriters, A 100-Year Tug Of War” NPR http://www.npr.org/2014/02/13/275920416/collecting-money-for-songwriters-a-100-year-tug-of-war
2. Lunden, Jeff. “Collecting Money For Songwriters, A 100-Year Tug Of War” NPR http://www.npr.org/2014/02/13/275920416/collecting-money-for-songwriters-a-100-year-tug-of-war
3. Rosen, Craig. “Happy 100th Birthday, ASCAP: Looking Back, Looking Ahead” Billboard http://www.billboard.com/biz/articles/news/legal-and-management/5908230/happy-100th-birthday-ascap-looking-back-looking-ahead