Why Signing Up with ASCAP or BMI is Not Enough

April 19, 2013{ 39 Comments }

Collect Global Publishing RoyaltiesIf you’re an independent songwriter, composer, or lyricist, there are more opportunities than ever to earn significant income from music publishing.

Sadly though, many artists think they’ve covered all the bases in terms of royalty collection when they affiliate themselves with an organization like ASCAP, BMI, or SESAC.

ASCAP, BMI, SESAC, SOCAN, and other associations that collect performance royalties on behalf of songwriters and publishers are called “Performing Rights Organizations” — or P.R.O.s.

Performing Rights Organizations are not collecting all the publishing royalties you’re owed

While these services do perform a valuable and vital role in making sure artists get paid, they don’t do it all. In fact, they don’t even do half of it — and that means songwriters are leaving a lot of money on the table in the form of uncollected publishing royalties.

1. You’re not getting mechanical royalties.

What is a mechanical royalty? It’s a fee that is owed to the publisher/composer of a piece of music (that’s you! — unless you’ve signed your publishing rights away to a publishing company) any time that song is sold digitally or manufactured in physical form (CD, vinyl, etc.). This fee is owed to you whether you are selling a recording of your own music or if another artist is covering your songs.

In many countries, any time your song is downloaded, you (as the songwriter/publisher) are owed a mechanical royalty. Any time one of your songs is streamed on popular services like Spotify or Rdio, you are owed a mechanical royalty.

Despite the fact that your songs are generating income in the form of mechanical royalties, P.R.O.’s like ACSCAP and BMI do NOT collect them for artists. (They only collect performance royalties).

This means there is money out there waiting to be collected — money you’ve EARNED. But these mechanical royalties have traditionally been inaccessible to songwriters unless you’re represented by a major label, big publishing house, or had the muscle of an agency like Harry Fox on your side.

With CD Baby Pro, you’ll be set up to collect all the mechanical royalties you’re owed. No more getting shut out from collecting YOUR OWN money.

2. You’re not getting all your performance royalties from overseas.

What is a performance royalty? Well, any time your music is played on the radio (terrestrial, satellite, and internet), on TV shows, films, video games, and presentations, or performed in a live venue — you are owed a performance royalty.

ASCAP and BMI do NOT register your songs with foreign royalty collection societies. So unless you have a co-writer or an artist who has covered your song and sent that information to a foreign collection society, those international Performing Rights Organizations will probably never know about your songs, never know they should be on the lookout for tallying “performances,” and never know who to pay.

The only way ASCAP and BMI will collect international performance royalties is if a foreign society knows about it through happenstance and directs the payment to the appropriate US-based P.R.O. That likelihood is… unlikely. You don’t want to leave something like royalty collection up to chance.

CD Baby Pro ensures that foreign collection societies WILL know about every one of your songs, and we’ll collect all the royalties you’re owed.

3. You’re not getting the publisher’s share of your royalties.

Even if, by luck, a foreign collection society does pay a performance royalty to ASCAP or BMI for the usage of one of your songs, the chances are even less likely that you’ll be paid the publishing share of your performance royalty for that same usage.

Performance royalties are split into two shares, 50% going to the songwriter and 50% going to the publisher. Unless you’ve signed away your publishing rights to a publishing company — you are BOTH entities: the songwriter AND the publisher.

But even if you’ve set up a publishing company and affiliated with a P.R.O. as both the writer and the publisher — it’s really just a vanity publishing company. Sorry to say it, but it’s true.

You don’t have the money or the muscle to do all of the administrative work that a “real” publishing company can. And that means that P.R.O.s have less incentive to fight for you when it comes to collecting every cent you’re owed. So even if you DO get paid your songwriter’s share of performance royalties, the other 50% you’re owed is going to go uncollected.

Unless you use a service like CD Baby Pro!

With CD Baby Pro, you’ll be set up to collect all the publishing royalties you’re owed — worldwide.

Publishing Guide: Get Paid the Money You Are Owed

[Global money image from Shutterstock.]

  • Some of the big P.R.O's still do things the primitive way, Even if they do collect your performance royalties it will still take them years before your get that check for a couple of bucks in the mail

  • The problem with the big three PROs is that they shake down small venues that support small time artists, often tilting the venues to avoid live music alltogether – even if everything they preent is by unaffilliated artists. If a songwriter "slips" and does a Dylan cover, bang – the venue owes a minimum of $1200 – to EACH PRO. (And really, would you trust these sharks NOT to pay a performer to do "accidentally" throw in a few covers?)

    Then comes the payment to the writer. How do they determine who gets paid? Commercial radio play. So by signing up to have BMI / ASCAP / SESAC represent you, you're giving them the fuel they need to extort money from the venues that support you as a performer of original material, and in the end, sending that money to Justin Bieber.

    The PROs have had 70 years of being in bed with the major labels – who often own the publishing half the PRO royalties – in a kind of circular back scratching game where only the megahits get significant money. Don't spend that $3.00 all in one place – and sorry to tell you but the room that used to host the songwriter's showcase just dropped music of any form entirely, to avoid a month's rent in licensing fees.

    • It's not just playing the Dylan cover that could get a non-paying venue in trouble. Tons of relatively unknown songwriters are affiliated with one P.R.O. or another — and when they perform their own material in a club, they're owed a performance royalty.

      And your concerns about the P.R.O.s fighting mostly for the major labels and big publishing houses is EXACTLY why there is a need for CD Baby Pro. We'll handle all the publishing administration work for you to make sure you're collecting EVERYTHING you're owed — not just the songwriter's 50% share of domestic performance royalties that a P.R.O. like ASCAP is likely to pay you. We'll register your songs worldwide and make sure you get the publisher's share of your royalties too — PLUS mechanical royalties which performing rights organizations don't collect.


  • You really want to help the small guy? Monitor the predatory digital download sites and enforce the DMCA laws – it's impossible for a little guy like me to keep on top of all of them!

    • ApathyNihilism

      Yes, yes, and yes. And press for serious legislation that can actually do something about piracy. The technology is there to do it, but the will is not, as long as others are able to illegitimately profit from the work of creators.

  • Well, I think some of the P.R.O.s would disagree with you. That's why they created ASCAP Live and BMI Live, so that affiliated artists could enter in their performance information (dates, venues, songs played, etc.) and get get paid performance royalties for those shows — not directly for the venue as part of their fee, but FROM the venue THROUGH the P.R.O.


  • Yes, it's true. The US has different laws, and we're pretty much barbarians. We also only get 2 weeks' vacation a year.


  • I understand your frustration and skepticism, as the PROs have a proud history of fighting for the big guy, often to the detriment of the little guy — but as they catch up technology-wise, it's possible that within a few years we'll have a system that pays evenly — per-play, per-performance, etc. — and not skew towards paying the known artists more than their fair share.

    Regarding live venues, they should be paying the live performance dues whether bands are performing famous covers or obscure original — because plenty of those indie bands performing originals are affiliated with ASCAP or BMI as well, so they're owed money too. And both PROs have created live music components to their sites where you can enter in your performance info (date, venue, songs played, etc.) and get paid the performance royalties you're owed.

    Yes, that probably means they're going to approach the venue for that money — which unfortunately can sometimes mean that you're pissing the venue off for "tipping off the man" — but, in the end, you ARE owed that money under the law. And the venue is supposed to pay it under the law. If they want to skirt paying those fees while also being a MUSIC VENUE, then they're operating under a very creative business model.

    I know the system is very flawed now, but as BMI Live and ASCAP Live become more popular, and as digital reporting of performances becomes the norm, I think indie artists will come to see ASCAP and BMI as allies — because ASCAP and BMI will grow (out of necessity) into organizations that benefit everyone, not just the Coug.

    At least that is my sincerest wish. Fingers crossed!


  • All publishing royalties (including mechanicals, performance, and sync) get split into two shares, the 50% for the publisher, and the 50% for the composer/s.

    Publishers are paid mechanicals through administrators like Harry Fox, or through direct relationships with foreign collection societies — or directly from the label/artist selling their music.

    Performance royalties DO get paid to publishers through P.R.O.s such as ASCAP — after all, ASCAP stands for "American Society for Composers and Publishers."

    Regarding sync licensing, yes — that is a completely different thing from performance royalties. However, the sync placement (which requires the initial license/fee) can often generate performance royalties as the song is used on TV/film/commercials, etc.

    Regarding ASCAP's reciprocal agreement, with CD Baby Pro, we register songs directly, so, at minimum, you get paid much faster — and in some cases, you'll get paid more.

    I'm not sure which facts you're suggesting we got mixed, but please let me know if something is unclear about how we're communicating the benefits of CD Baby Pro.


  • Hey C — just going through the comments now for the first time since Friday, so I'm sure I'll get to your other comment in a sec. It wasn't being flagged or anything.

    And as for faith, yes. I think healthy skepticism is… healthy.


  • As a artist I don't see any way either help

  • Song Splits

    SongSplits welcomes #Songwriters and #Producers to manage their music copyrights and split sheets free online at http://www.songsplits.com.

  • There is no way to selectively collect performance royalties, unless of course you were acting as your own publishing administrator — which is NOT worth the man-hours and frustration it'd take to do effectively.

    As for the PROs relationship with live venues, that is certainly a concern many musicians have. All I can say is that I hope that some compromise can be made and that technology enables fairer payments for performance venues generated in live venues. On the one hand, venues DO owe performance royalties to the folks who play in their establishments. On the other hand, there's been a tradition of that money getting paid up the pyramid to the top 200-grossing tours of the years. Though both ASCAP and BMI have made huge strides in evening things out with the addition of their live programs. Even if you're only earning $1-$5 per show in performance royalties, that can really add up if you play a couple hundred shows a year — and it's a LOT better than the venue getting "shaken down" for a fee, and then watching that fee go to U2 or Cher.


  • Well, if the system were set up so that the venue would include performance royalties as part of its payment to the band — that'd make sense (if the band were performing all original material). But as it stands, they pay those to P.R.O.s. The performance royalty goes to the publisher/writer of the material being performed, and the band might not be performing originals.


  • You’ll get paid mechanical royalties for international downloads and global streams. PROs like ASCAP and BMI do NOT collect mechanical royalties — only performance royalties. But, the great thing about CD Baby Pro is that we’ll affiliate you with either ASCAP or BMI so you’ll be sure to collect all your performance royalties too. CD Baby Pro gives you a wider net to capture maximum publishing royalties, a net which includes affiliation and song registration with ASCAP or BMI — PLUS our working as a publishing rights administrator on your behalf to collect mechanical royalties!

    @ Chris Robley

  • Hi there, sorry for the confusion, but yes — at this time, CD Baby Pro is only for US-based artists. We’re working to expand that internationally, and we’ll definitely keep you posted when that happens.

    @ Chris Robley

  • ApathyNihilism

    The US has some rather thuggish laws that remain in place, in contrast to the rest of the world. Like the way radio pays (or rather doesn’t).

  • ApathyNihilism

    CDBaby Pro sounds like a great initiative. Can you compare these 2 scenarios, pros and cons?

    1. CDBaby (non-Pro) + direct relationship with SongTrust
    2. CDBaby Pro (which outsources to SongTrust)

    One seeming difference is that in the former case, SongTrust is the publishing administration, whereas in the latter, CDBaby is actually the publisher. Is that correct? Please clarify if possible.

    • CD Baby is technically acting as a publishing administrator as well. And both options would work well, since we’re essentially using the same infrastructure to collect royalties. One bonus to going with CD Baby Pro (if you’re already signing up for distribution) is you can manage it all from one place, one signup, one account, one accounting dashboard, etc.


    • CD Baby is technically acting as a publishing administrator as well. And both options would work well, since we’re essentially using the same infrastructure to collect royalties. One bonus to going with CD Baby Pro (if you’re already signing up for distribution) is you can manage it all from one place, one signup, one account, one accounting dashboard, etc.


    • CD Baby is technically acting as a publishing administrator as well. And both options would work well, since we’re essentially using the same infrastructure to collect royalties. One bonus to going with CD Baby Pro (if you’re already signing up for distribution) is you can manage it all from one place, one signup, one account, one accounting dashboard, etc.


    • CD Baby is technically acting as a publishing administrator as well. And both options would work well, since we’re essentially using the same infrastructure to collect royalties. One bonus to going with CD Baby Pro (if you’re already signing up for distribution) is you can manage it all from one place, one signup, one account, one accounting dashboard, etc.


  • Hi David,

    First, that sucks about the BMG liaison being cold to you after working well with Bug for so long.

    Now, lemme answer your questions one at a time below:

    — If I sign up with CD Baby Pro, it’s “by the record” only?

    Yes, per title/submission, which could either be a full album, EP, or single. (There’s a cheaper signup fee for singles).

    —-I pay a fee each time I connect a record to this service?


    —- The primary service is that you’re (CD Baby Pro) collecting the mechanical/publishing royalties on my behalf that ASCAP does not collect for me?

    Yes, though we also collect performance royalties too. We work with ASCAP/BMI/SESAC to streamline publishing royalties payments through once source (CD Baby Pro), and we also make sure songwriters who’ve not registered as a publisher with one of the PROs get the publisher’s share of their performance royalties too. Then we have direct agreements with foreign agencies so you get paid international performance royalties quicker than you otherwise might. Then, of course, the biggest benefit is that we collect your mechanicals — including mechanicals for international downloads and global streaming (those are royalties PROs do not collect).

    — And in addition to the upfront fee, you collect 15%?


    —- Say the song pitching agency goes out and gets my song on… whatever. Mad Men. And they pay me upfront licensing fees for master and publishing. Now, the pitching agency takes 35% of any upfront fee for licensing deals they procure. If I’ve signed that record up with CD Baby Pro, are you guys now expecting to participate at 15% of that upfront money on the publishing side?

    No. We don’t take any part of the licensing fees you negotiate either on your own or through another licensing firm. We would only take 15% of any royalties we collect for you that were generated by the usage of that music AFTER the sync arrangement (for instance, TV performance royalties, or mechanicals from streams/sales from that song, etc.)

    —–And lastly (again, sorry this is stupidly long), I randomly said ‘yes’ to everything when I signed up my newest record this year including Rumble Fish. I just saw a whole bunch of placements come through for the princely sum of less than $2. Other than grand-old “it’s great exposure” line, is there a better-paying silver lining to this?

    What kind of placements were they? Usually the Rumblefish placements are micro-sync, meaning your songs are licensed through their FriendlyMusic program for usage with YouTube/Vimeo videos. Like, someone wanted to sync your song with their crazy cat video, or their wedding slideshow, or something like that. The other source of income that Rumblefish helps us collect is YouTube ad revenue. So it could be that some of that money is actually being generated by people clicking on the ads that are served up on ANY video on YouTube that contains your music. If Rumblefish were to license your music for a television show or movie, they would want to get a high fee than what they charge for micro-sync uses (since they get paid too, so they have the incentive to charge more for bigger uses).

    — Am I going to get some much bigger publishing/songwriting/mechanical performance royalties that are going to compare to the ones I get from TV?

    Well, it really depends on sales/streaming. If you’re generating most of your performance royalties through TV and NOT radio, then the new royalties that would be opened up to you via CD Baby Pro are mostly going to be mechanical royalties. If you’re selling songs overseas, or if your tunes are getting streamed often, then you’re missing out on that money. Without more specific info, I can’t really say how it would compare to your TV-generated performance royalties.

    —- And if you can be really honest with me about this, I’d appreciate it (I get that this is your job and if you can’t be forthright, just ignore this question), won’t Rumble Fish utlimately cheapen my music with savvy music supervisors? Say my pitching agency comes to them and they love one of my songs for a network show. The pitching agency negotiates a reasonable, decent deal with solid upfront sync fees. They doublecheck libraries and Rumble Fish and the like to see if any of the songs they want for the episode are available much more cheaply and… viola. I just lost out on some good money because I allowed my sync fees to be super-cheapened (I had no clue they would be THAT low when I signed up for Rumble Fish).

    I’m going to check with our resident publishing expert to be sure, but the way I understand it is that Rumblefish’ low rates for pre-cleared licenses are for micro-sync and pro-sumer uses, NOT for big TV or film productions. So just because your music is available in the FriendlyMusic catalog doesn’t mean it can be licensed for the latest Tom Hanks movie for a couple bucks. Does that make sense?

    — And lastly, is there a way for me to just see where my songs are being used even just after the fact? I get that it’s already happened and the artist/writers don’t have any say in how the Rumble Fish usages occur, but if I could see them and discover– hey, this is a cool video with a million hits, maybe it is worth the exposure. But as it is, I can’t even see how my songs are being used after the fact and it would be really cool if I could.

    If you’re interested in getting that kind of info, send an email to cdbaby@cdbaby.com.

    Hope that answers everything. If not, lemme know.


    • Super thorough, informed and helpful. I really appreciate it, Chris. Thanks so much for taking so much time and care with my insane litany of questions. You’re the best.

      If you do happen to get word back from the ‘publishing pros’ you mention above, I’d love to find out what you learn.

      Thanks so much once again.

      • Thanks, David. Happy to help.

        Our real publishing expert is traveling right now from NYC to Oregon, so once he’s settled back into the office, I’ll try to get him to clarify that one remaining mystery (though I’m pretty sure my assumption is correct on that point).


  • Tommy Womack

    We are in talks with BMG/Chrysalis to administer publishing and collection rights for the record. Can we get iTunes service etc through CD Baby without signing the publishing agreement?

    • Are you asking if you can use CD Baby to distribute your music to iTunes, even if you’re not enrolled in CD Baby Pro (our publishing royalty collection service?) If so, the answer is absolutely yes (as long as you have the right to distribute the music, and it’s not in conflict with any other agreements you have with a label).


    • Are you asking if you can use CD Baby to distribute your music to iTunes, even if you’re not enrolled in CD Baby Pro (our publishing royalty collection service?) If so, the answer is absolutely yes (as long as you have the right to distribute the music, and it’s not in conflict with any other agreements you have with a label).


  • From the info you’ve provided here, I am assuming you’re a member of either BMI or ASCAP in the US and are relying on reciprocal agreements to collect your foreign royalties. If this is the case, you probably collect some foreign royalties from them but this is, even in ASCAP & BMI’s own words, a secondary strategy. With reciprocal agreements, the PRO’s do not register your songs with foreign societies; they “share information” with them. This information, by necessity, gets prioritized behind all of their locally affiliated publishers and writers and can lead to not only incomplete collections, but long wait times for foreign royalties. Being registered locally in foreign territories (something extremely difficult to do without a global publisher) is the only way to ensure you get everything and in a timely fashion. In many cases, CD Baby Pro members collect from foreign countries in the same 6-month timeframe (from performance to payment) that you’d enjoy domestically.

    Lots of writers who rely on reciprocals through BMI or ASCAP aren’t paid until 1, 2 or 3 years after the performance.


  • It’s not an either/or situation. BMI is a performing rights organization. CD Baby is a music distributor and publishing administrator. My feeling is that you need both. If you register with CD Baby Pro, you’d need to select between BMI and ASCAP anyway. We help you get affiliated with one of those P.R.O.s and then register your songs for you.


  • Matthew J. Griswold

    I had a song placed in a BBC TV teaser for their former top rated show Copper (season 2). The song is so prominent in the trailer and it got so much exposer that I estimate millions of streams based on royalties I’ve gotten from PRS and other counties. My admin publisher is Universal music because they are the parent company of the production music library my songs are contracted to. I’ve seen a very large of mount of royalties from BMI from many countries, I’ve had sizable payouts directly to my publishing account from Universal Music from many countries, but my CD baby royalties have only been for (what I’m guessing) is the sound exchange royalties for Internet radio plays (from 27 countries), and for over a year there’s been 10s of thousands of plays. However, I’ve yet to see a single mechanical royalty for any downloads. I’ve read posts on blogs of people talking about my song but many seem to be downloading it. I’d guess that the royalties for that are pretty sizable, but don’t know how to get to them. I’m also not able to verify my artist pages so that I can connect with these new global fans. Every post I’ve read these fans are talking about how hard it is to find anything about me. That kinda drives me nuts because in an Internet age, I thought something like that would be easy, but everything about me over seas is only linked to blank discography pages.

    Will CD Baby pro be able to connect that last dot in this issue? It’s kind of a big one for me…


    • First, if Universal is your publishing admin, you might not be able to sign up for CD Baby Pro. (But they should be doing much of the same work: collecting your worldwide mechanicals, working in conjunction with BMI or PRS or whoever, to get you all your performance royalties, etc.). Are you in the US, or UK? In the US, mechanicals for downloads are paid directly through the distributor/aggregator to the label/artist. So your mechanical royalty for a download on iTunes USA, for instance, would be wrapped up in the same payment you receive from CD Baby for the download. If you weren’t also the songwriter, you’d then need to set aside that 9.1 cents per song to pay out, but it sounds like you don’t need to worry about that since you’re basically just paying yourself. However, downloads in many other countries do generate a mechanical royalty that is kept separate from the download payment $$ (and collected by mechanical societies). This is where your publishing admin comes in. So, for US download sales, CD Baby has already paid you the mechanical as part of the per-download payout. For download sales outside the US, your publishing admin is responsible for collecting (even though the fee for the download itself is still paid to you by CD Baby). Now, SoundExchange royalties should NOT be paid to you via CD Baby unless you have failed to register with SoundExchange directly. We only collect those royalties (for you) if you don’t set up a direct relationship (which is preferable), because we don’t want artists to miss out on $$ they’re owed (SoundExchange royalties expire if they go uncollected for more than… 3 years, I think? Lastly, any time your music is streamed (worldwide) on an interactive service like Spotify, you are owed a mechanical royalty. It’s also the responsibility of the publishing admin to collect this for you. I’d suggest you get in touch with Universal and see exactly what they’re providing for you. Hope that helps.


  • I probably worded that poorly.

    When you sell an download internationally, the retailer pays the sales revenue to CD Baby (which we pass on to you), but they set the mechanical royalty aside, to be collected by a mechanical society. You would then need a publishing administrator to get that money on your behalf. If your current admin deal does not allow for the collection of mechanicals, I’d definitely recommend CD Baby Pro.

    In the US, the mechanical royalty and the revenue from the download sale are lumped together, paid to your distributor (CD Baby), and then passed on to you.

    As for SoundExchange, yes, definitely, register, now, today, don’t delay ; ) — but remember, SoundExchange does not collect publishing royalties. They collect a digital performance royalty that is owed to the owner of the master recording (you, or your label), the primary artist (also you?), and session players for non-interactive streams/online radio plays.


  • Ha. No worries. Glad you got some helpful answers from Universal, even if the answer leads you to more thrilling online paperwork (signing up for PRS and SoundExchange).


  • Ryan

    Hey Chris,
    First of all, thanks for the insightful article. Maybe it’s too late to post a comment to this one, but It would be appreciated if you could answer my question. I was wondering about this sentence.

    “But even if you’ve set up a publishing company and affiliated with a P.R.O. as both the writer and the publisher — it’s really just a vanity publishing company. Sorry to say it, but it’s true.”

    Could you elaborate how you can say this situation a “vanity”? I understand a self-publisher by a composer would have some limitation (such as eligibility for HFA) or lack some credibility, but it should be much, much better than not having any publisher at all (or delegating his 50% to those who may not be fully motivated to develop his work). He could even have sub-publishing agreements wirh foregin publishers himself.

    What’s actually wrong with the vanity, e.g. having a self-publisher, in terms of running music publishing business on a daily basis?

    • Nothing wrong with it at all (in fact, I have set up my own publisher name for ASCAP), as long as people realize that being a publisher in name doesn’t make you cover all the responsibilities of a publisher. That’s where a publishing administrator can be so helpful.


      • Ryan

        Understood. Thanks for answering my late question, Chris!

  • Not yet. Right now it’s in the US, UK, Canada, and Republic of Ireland, but we have plans to expand significantly within the next year.