ASCAP and BMI Usage Weightings: Out of Step With the World?

By • January 11, 2001

Usage weightings are employed by performing rights organizations (PROs) as a means to assign greater or lesser monetary value to music performances in broadcast media. These weightings are allocated by usage categories, including feature performances, themes, background (a rather derogatory, inaccurate and unsophisticated term) and music used in commercials, promos and logos — renamed CPA music at ASCAP in place of the old “incidental” music label — another pejorative term happily purged from the lingo.

A feature performance is by far the highest paying category in both ASCAP and BMI distributions. It generally requires a musical subject on the screen such as a visible singer, instrumentalist or dancer. However, the entire concept of feature performances begins to fall apart in recognition of the fact that both ASCAP and BMI may pay songs in television programs at feature rates regardless of the context of their usage. This fact is not widely known, especially among score composers. Nonetheless, the practice is enabled by language in the governing documents of both ASCAP and BMI. The ability to pay any song within a program or movie as a feature, in and of itself, enables a fundamental diversion of distributable wealth from one member group to another.

Music usages other than feature performances — such as themes, so-called ‘background’ instrumental and CPA categories pay at progressively lower rates. To illustrate these differentials for ASCAP writers, let’s say you have a 60 second feature performance and that it pays a $100 royalty. The very next piece of music on the air, also 60 seconds in length (but falling in the lowest usage category) may pay as little as $3. To further illustrate, let’s add a zero. If the high category usage pays $1,000, the low category may pay as low as 30 bucks. Whether it’s $100 vs. $3, or $1,000 vs. $30, it’s the ratio of these numbers that’s crucial. At ASCAP, that ratio starts at 33.3-to-1. Beyond the obvious deviation from world standards, paying music at such drastically different rates only invites demands from broadcasters for decreased PRO license payments if they do not broadcast many feature performances. Needles to say, decreased PRO revenues are not in the best interests of composers, songwriters and publishers.

PERFORMING RIGHTS ORGANIZATION USAGE WEIGHTINGS

These scales illustrate the ratios of the high and the low end values of what a minute of music may be paid, broadcast on the same television network and time of day.

Understanding the policies and obtaining reliable statistics in performing rights is fundamental to forming any responsible opinions about reform to the systems. Therefore, I’m not going to advocate much of anything for a while – EXCEPT towards prying the lid off the closed container of reliable data and placing information where it belongs — in the light of day. As other composer and songwriter groups continue to obtain and publish data, we’ll all embellish our educations.

Towards that, the issue of usage weightings deserves your scrutiny and mine. From all accounts, it is only in America that a performance royalty for a minute of music can be so vastly different from the next minute simply because of its category. The following is the text of an e-mail sent to ASCAP in an effort to further understand this disparaging usage policy. The brackets have been inserted for purposes of providing context to our readers.

To John LoFrumento, ASCAP Chief Executive Officer
From Mark Holden
Date: February 24, 1999
Subject Usage Weightings

cc Marilyn Bergman, Al Wallace, Seth Saltzman, Peter Boyle, Roger Greenaway, Vincent Candilora, Paula Perry, Todd Brabec, Nancy Knutsen, Ron Sobel, Marc Morgenstern, Bill McRae, Arthur Hamilton, David Raksin, Dean Kay.

Dear Mr. LoFrumento,

I was the member who asked the first question at the ASCAP west coast General Meeting [on February 10th, 1999]. It was with regard to ASCAP usage weightings. By the way, the meeting (with the preceding seminars) was a real step towards transparency of ASCAP operations and distribution. As a writer member of ASCAP, it was very much appreciated. Many thanks to you and your staff.

The only reason I brought my question up during General Session was because the query was not answered during the earlier seminar admittedly, a more seemly place to raise such a question.

GEMA [the performing rights society of Germany] advertises its usage weightings at about 4.5-to-1. This being the high and low-end of what a minute of music may pay from the next in the same time-slot and broadcast carrier. The “minute” criteria is an honest attempt to gain insight into the Big Picture of usage weightings, both domestically and throughout the world. This was chosen as the benchmark comparison for a simple reason more usage categories may reach 60 seconds of duration than any other criteria of measurement.

SACEM [the French performing rights society] reports the heart of their usage weightings to be about 3-to-1, even paying all music in a feature film at equal rates regardless of usage.

PRS [of Great Britain], having abolished their usage weighting schemes distributes at 1-to-1 to its membership. Incidentally, these usage weightings were obtained directly from the offices of Prof. Dr. Becker of GEMA, the staff of Jean Loup Tournier of SACEM and the offices of John Hutchinson of PRS.

Using this identical benchmark, ASCAP usage weightings begin at 33.3-to-1, and can go astronomically higher with additional weightings to Qualified Works and distribution under the “4 Funds” system. My question at the General Meeting was, “Why are these ASCAP usage weightings so seemingly out-of-step with the rest of the world?”

In your answer, you indicated these numbers might be wrong and that I should get with you at a later time. We did chat briefly at the reception, but it was neither the time nor the place for a substantive exchange. For that reason, I wanted to follow-up with you at this time.

My purpose is to establish good and positive relations with your office and keep them that way. Any assistance you may provide with regard to my understanding of ASCAP usage weightings will be most appreciated.

Finally, I would be remiss not to congratulate you and the whole of ASCAP for exceeding one-half billion dollars in licensing revenues. Indeed, a stunning achievement.

Most sincerely yours,

Mark Holden
ASCAP Writer Member

As of press time, I have not received a response from anyone at ASCAP per my query. We did, however, run across some interpolated quotes from the General Meeting on the ASCAP website (www.ascap.com). Mr. LoFrumento is quoted as saying, “The ratio is not 33 to 1 unless you want to figure it up just by arithmetic. You need to look at the value and use of music.”

It is our hope that Mr. LoFrumento will accept our invitation to substantively address these issues of music value and usage in the pages of this magazine. In the sagely words of a songwriter friend of mine, “Composers and songwriters can no longer afford to be ignorant.”

Comments

By Evan Evans on June 11th, 2008 at 12:00 am

Mark,

Can you tell me(us) what knowledge have you of BMI’s proportions?

Thanks,
Evan Evans
The Composer Collective

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