ROYALTY CHECKS AND REALITY CHECKS
© by Mark Holden
ASCAP and BMI Usage Weightings--
Out-of-Step with the World?
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
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, lets 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,
lets add a zero. If the high category usage pays $1,000, the low category may pay as low as 30 bucks. Whether
its $100 vs. $3, or $1,000 vs. $30, its the ratio of these numbers thats 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. Needless to say, decreased PRO revenues are not in the best interests of composers,
songwriters and publishers.
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, Im 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,
well 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,
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."
Email Mark Holden at firstname.lastname@example.org