ASCAP vs BMI: What’s the Difference and What Can They Do for You?
Many Songwriters and artists don’t know if they’re getting all the performance royalties they’re owed.
But when it comes to Publishing Rights Organizations, the companies that collect those royalties, how do you know which one to work with? Well, in this guide, we’ll pit ASCAP vs. BMI (the two biggest PROs) to see which is better and what each can do for you.
Here’s what we’ll cover as we consider ASCAP vs. BMI:
- What’s a Publishing Rights Organization (PRO)?
- What a PRO is not
- Who can join ASCAP and BMI
- The difference between ASCAP and BMI
- How you can benefit from signing up with ASCAP or BMI
- Which PRO is the best
- Signing up with ASCAP or BMI is not enough
- PRO FAQs
What’s a Publishing Rights Organization (PRO)?
A performing rights organization (PRO) is a company that collects performance royalties and pays them to the Songwriter and Publisher. Any Publisher or Songwriter can register with a PRO and start collecting royalties owed to them (after the PRO takes their fee).
These companies collect royalties for “public performances,” which includes songs that are:
- Played live (including your own performances)
- Streamed in a public place (in a brewery, a retail store, a restaurant, etc.)
- Used in a TV show or commercial
- Used in a video game or film
- Played on the radio
There are millions of musicians and artists in the United States, so how do they collect all those royalties?
Cue sheets, that’s how.
A cue sheet is a document that outlines the songs used, how much of the song was played, when it was used, by whom, and other info needed to credit the artist. The place using your song (i.e. the TV or film company, restaurant, music venue) must complete these cue sheets and send them to the PRO.
The two biggest PROs in the U.S. are ASCAP and BMI.
What a PRO Is NOT
PROs are not Publishers, record labels, sync licensing companies, and they can’t copyright your work for you.
They collect performance royalties.
Here’s what PROs do NOT collect for you:
- Mechanical royalties:1 every time your song is sold digitally or physically (CDs/vinyl) or streamed online, you’re owed a royalty. So the payer could be Spotify, Apple Music, YouTube, or a radio station or TV channel. Your music distributor and a publishing admin company collect these royalties.
- Sync licensing fees: this fee is paid by the creator of video content either directly to you or through a music library or licensing agent/company.
- Digital performance royalties:2 this is when places like Pandora, SiriusXM, and other webcasters stream your music. They’re required by law to pay a fee, and SoundExchange will collect those for you.
Who Can Join ASCAP and BMI?
Any Songwriter, Publisher, or publishing company can join a PRO and start earning royalties (you can be a member of only one PRO at a time). Many indie musicians (like me) are self-published, so I’m both the Songwriter and Publisher, meaning I earn 100% of every royalty my PRO pays me.
If you have your own publishing company, it’s a more involved process and will require a fee, depending on the PRO you choose.
What’s the Difference Between ASCAP and BMI?
So how do the two giants of performance royalties compare to each other?
First, let’s look at how these two are the same. Both ASCAP and BMI:3
- Have a 50/50 split between Publisher and Songwriter (if you’re a DIY musician, you’re probably both)
- Pay 88% of their collections to their members
- Pay you for playing your own songs live
- Allow you to register your performances online
- Don’t have a recurring membership fee
- Offer perks and special deals (more on that below)
Okay, so that’s all good news for you. The big question here is: how are ASCAP and BMI different?
Membership and Songs Represented
While ASCAP, which was formed in 1914, has been around longer than BMI (founded in 1939), the latter has more members.
- ASCAP members: 715,000
- BMI members: 900,000
So it’s not surprising that BMI represents more songs overall.
Payment Timeframe and Minimum Payment
As with both PROs, it takes a while to get paid after your song is played.
Songwriter payments from ASCAP take about six and a half months after the quarter in which the song was played. Songwriter payments from BMI take about five and a half months after the quarter in which the song was played.
The payment minimum for ASCAP is $1 if you enroll in direct deposit, $100 if you want them to pay you by check. The payment minimum for BMI is $2 if by direct deposit and $250 by check (unless it’s the last quarter of the year, in which case the minimum is $25 by check).6
Standard Agreement Terms
When you register with a PRO, you enter into a term deal. So this means you can’t register those same songs with another PRO while you’re under contract.
The contract with ASCAP is a standard one-year deal that renews automatically. The contract with BMI is a two-year standard deal.
As a DIY musician, “free” is a friendly word, and that’s how BMI won me over. There’s also the idea that if you pay for something (like ASCAP), it offers more. Both sides are valid.
For Songwriters, ASCAP charges a one-time $50 application fee and BMI has no application or signup fees.
Perks and Member Events
This is the category that most people are interested in. What’s in it for me?
So here are the perks of joining ASCAP:
- Access to the I Create Music Expo in Los Angeles
- Access to award shows
- They offer song camps, showcases, workshops and other similar events
- Songwriters Hall of Fame membership discount
- US Alliance Federal Credit Union membership
- Discounts on health, dental, instrument, and life insurance
- Discounts on music-related products and services
- Discounts on hotels and rental cars
- Hotel and rental car discounts
And here are the perks of signing up with BMI:
- They offer songwriting camps, workshops, showcases, etc.
- Access to award shows
- Chance to perform on BMI-branded stages at big music festivals
- Songwriters Hall of Fame discount
- Discounts on Billboard Latin Conference, Video Games Live, and Billboard Touring Conference and Awards
- Discounts on music products and services (like FanBridge and ArtistShare)
Famous Songwriters Who Are Members
If you join a PRO, you’re joining the ranks of some of the most talented and well-known artists today. You know if these artists and their team of professionals find value in joining a PRO, you should too.
- Notable ASCAP members: Ariana Grande, Justin Timberlake, Katy Perry, Kelly Clarkson
- Notable BMI members: Kendrick Lamar7, Lady Gaga, Carrie Underwood, Taylor Swift, Sam Smith
How You Can Benefit from Signing Up with ASCAP or BMI
The biggest reason to sign up with a PRO is to get the royalties you deserve.
Any time you or someone else performs or streams your song in a public place, you can get paid. If your song is used in a TV show, commercial, or video game, you can get paid. When your music is played on the radio, you can get paid.
But only if you work with a PRO.
Not to mention all the extra goodies they offer, like discounts on services and music-related products, access to showcases and writing camps, and a whole batch of other resources.
And this is all free or very cheap. So really, why not sign up with a PRO?
Which PRO Is the Best?
It’s hard to say if one of these is better than the other, but I’m going to attempt it.
For indie Songwriters who are mostly focused on writing, recording, and being their own Publisher, BMI may be the better option. They offer discounts on songwriting tools and education, like MasterWriter and Berklee Online, and they also give you a Sweetwater discount.
And while BMI does offer opportunities for musicians who want to play live, ASCAP offers a bit more in that regard.
But Wait…Signing Up with ASCAP or BMI Is Not Enough
ASCAP and BMI are great, and you should definitely register your songs with one of them. But since we’re on the topic of royalties, I wanted to say a quick thing about mechanical royalties. As I mentioned earlier, PROs do not collect mechanical royalties, so how do you get them?
Streaming service like Spotify and Apple Music pay these mechanical royalties, but if they can’t find you, you won’t get that money. That’s why you need a Publisher, admin publishing company, or royalty collections company.
Yes, your music distributor will collect streaming royalties for any music you release through them. But to make sure you get all the mechanical royalties owed to you, you can sign up with one of the below publishing companies. They collect your mechanical royalties but do not take ownership of any part of your song (all for a small commission of 10-20%):8
- CD Baby Pro Publishing (distributor with a publishing admin deal)
- SongTrust (they will also register your catalog with ASCAP/BMI and 40+ other societies, if you’d like)
- Tunecore Publishing (publishing admin with sync licensing services)
- Sentric Music Publishing
I would say pick one of these companies and sign up. There could be royalties floating around that ASCAP and BMI cannot collect for you. So go connect with a Publisher, admin publishing company, or royalty collections company to ensure you get all of your mechanical royalties.
If I record a cover song and it is streamed in a public place (like a bar or baseball game), do I get performance royalties for that?
No. Because you aren’t the Songwriter, you won’t get paid performance royalties from your PRO.
How does my PRO know what songs I performed?
Basically, you have to tell them. Both ASCAP and BMI have an online feature that allows you to submit your setlists. So if you played 10 of your original songs, you log in to your PRO account, list the songs you played, and they will pay you.
Do I need permission to cover a song during a live performance?
You’re not required to get permission before performing a cover song live, but you should tell your PRO that you performed it. This will trigger a royalty payment to the Songwriter/Publisher of that song.
Do I actually need a PRO and SoundExchange and a Publisher/publishing admin?
To make sure you get all the royalties owed to you, you should (need to) be registered with a PRO (live performance royalties), SoundExchange (digital performance royalties), and a publishing admin company (mechanical royalties).
- 1CD Baby Artist Services. " “What are mechanical and performance royalties?”". CD Baby. published: July 6, 2019. retrieved on: July 10, 2019.
- 2. " “About Digital Royalties.”". SoundExchange. . published: . retrieved on: July 10, 2019
- 3. " “Performance rights organisation.” ". Wikipedia. published: . retrieved on: July 10, 2019
- 4. " “About ASCAP.”". ASCAP. published: . retrieved on: July 10, 2019
- 5. "“About.” ". BMI. published: . retrieved on: July 10, 2019
- 6Resnikoff, Paul. "“A Comprehensive Comparison of Performance Rights Organizations (PROs) In the US.” ". Digital Music News. published: February 20, 2018. retrieved on: July 10, 2019
- 7. "“Multiple GRAMMY and Pulitzer Prize Winner Kendrick Lamar Signs With BMI.”". BMI. published: April 29, 2019. retrieved on: July 10, 2019
- 8Herstand, Ari. "“Songwriters! Registering With ASCAP or BMI Is Not Enough To Get Paid.” ". Ari’s Take. published: April 25, 2018. retrieved on: July 10, 2019