The music playing

I can’t let February go by without acknowledging that it’s the 100th birthday of ASCAP, the only organization in existence that considers me a member.  It has sent me checks annually for most of my life, and even though it’s actually a direct deposit into my bank account, there’s a psychological perk to holding that check in your hand, tangible proof you’re a professional songwriter.

The spelled-out name is American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers and it’s always struck me as cool that the word “author” is used to mean “lyricist,” somehow putting us on the same plane as Ernest Hemingway. It strikes ASCAP as cool that publishers are present on equal footing. We don’t work for them; they don’t work for us. The money collected by ASCAP from broadcasters and other “users” of music is split, 50-50, between songwriters and publishers. Many writers have figured out you can declare yourself the publisher of your own songs, so you can collect both halves.

The legitimate theatre, though, isn’t considered a user, and ASCAP doesn’t collect from them. It is assumed that musical theatre writers are being paid by producers out of ticket sales. Now, in the old days, show tunes were regularly heard on the radio, and each radio play meant paying ASCAP to pay the writers and publisher. When show tunes disappeared from radio and television, ASCAP and its rival, BMI, felt bad that we composers for the stage were getting the smallest piece of pie.  BMI, which is not yet 75 years old, had the “We’re Avis; we try harder” spirit and provided a home for Lehman Engel to lead his musical theatre writing workshop.  It didn’t cost a dime to be in it – BMI’s gift back.  Around 1980, ASCAP followed suit with a musical theatre workshop in a different format, run by the great Broadway composer, Charles Strouse.  I was in both workshops, and treasure them muchly.

The four years I was in college, the BMI workshop was the place where I learned the most. I loved Lehman Engel, warts and all.  It was far more valuable to my development than the ASCAP workshop was, so why did I join ASCAP?  Well, it all has to do with a wonderfully warm white-haired lady named Bernice Cohen.  I’d met her when I was in ASCAP’s workshop – she basically ran the thing, allowing Charles to just be Charles. When my first professional musical, On the Brink, booked its theatre, I realized it was about a block away from ASCAP’s building at Lincoln Center. Seemed possible Bernice would like to stop by after work and catch the show.  To my surprise and delight, she showed up.  We chatted before the show and she told me that she likes to see the work of young writers, when she can, but, after a long day of work, she had a strict policy of only staying for the first act; I should not be offended if I saw her dart out of there the moment intermission began. I told her I understood. Well, Bernice moved quickly once the house lights went up – in my direction. “Noel, this show is so wonderful, I’m staying for the second act. Truth is, I tell writers of my one-act-only policy because I almost never want to see more than one act. But now I’m dying to see what else you have in store in Act Two.”

There was also business to discuss. “Have you joined ASCAP, Noel?” I hadn’t. So far, there was no “use” of any of my music that would have entitled me to any royalties. Bernice explained that ASCAP, understanding that theatre is the one genre that goes uncompensated, had set up something called Popular Awards. If you demonstrate to ASCAP that a significant number of your songs have been heard in theatres, it pays you out of the huge reserve of royalties never claimed by publishers. (Remember the writers only get half the money collected, and many songs have no publishers to collect the other half.) Since BMI didn’t do the same, it made financial sense for me to become an ASCAP writer. And these were the days before Direct Deposit: I actually held that affirming check in my hand, then.

And when the day came when a song of mine was heard on national television, it was very exciting to call up ASCAP and tell them “Hey, that song on ABC, This Is a Workplace, is mine.  Pay me, please.” ASCAP literally counted the seconds my number was on air, and they figured the rate per second for the author (me) and the publisher (also me). This wasn’t the big old organization taking pity on musical theatre creators; it was the way it’s supposed to work.

In fact, I hope this little anecdote explains the main purpose of ASCAP. Music is heard on broadcast media, and ASCAP sees to it that funds are collected from the broadcaster and distributed to the creators and publishers.  Beyond that main purpose, there’s also what might be called political advocacy. When congress considers tweaking copyright laws in ways that are detrimental for us creators, ASCAP raises a hue and cry. New media, such as Pandora and Spotify, require a new bargain to be forged. Songwriters don’t have a union, per se, but we do have ASCAP looking out for us. And for a hundred years now. I’d suggest we all sing Happy Birthday To You to them but we couldn’t let it be broadcast without paying a hefty fee to the ladies who wrote Happy Birthday To You.

Thanks, ASCAP!

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