The performing rights organization reportedly got its start when operetta composer Victor Herbert (“Babes in Toyland”) overheard a piece of his music being played in a hotel, knew he wasn’t being paid for it and began organizing fellow music creators to protect their rights and ensure proper compensation for the use of their work.
Today ASCAP boasts 480,000 members and, in 2012, distributed more than $827 million in royalties to composers, songwriters and music publishers. It has spent a century finding ways to ensure musicmakers can make a decent living, says president Paul Williams.
“What’s most exciting to me right now is the ASCAP of the future as when I go and talk to legislators about our current issues, trying to deal with the digital world, and make sure that we can collect a fair royalty in the world of streaming and the like. But beyond that, this is a membership organization,” he says, citing ASCAP’s annual I Create Music Expo, April 24-26 in Hollywood. “There’s something about walking the halls of that hotel amongst all these hopeful, talented, creative young writers, and watching what happens when you combine a little fellowship with the opportunity to acquire tools and relationships.”
Earlier this month, ASCAP kicked off the year-long celebration by unveiling “More than the Stars,” a song co-written by several A-list songwriters and composers including Ne-Yo, Lady Antebellum and Bear McCreary. It was an extension of a consciousness-raising film ASCAP commissioned called “Why We Create Music.”
Among the upcoming events:
*Release of a book, “A Friend in the Music Business: The ASCAP Story” by Bruce Pollock, Feb. 4;
*An exhibit at the Library of Congress, running Feb. 13-July 26, then moving to L.A. from Aug. 23-Feb. 14, 2015;
*An invitation-only birthday celebration at the Brooklyn Bowl, featuring ASCAP music and “special guests” on Feb. 13;
*A celebration of ASCAP film and TV music by the Pasadena Pops, conducted by Michael Feinstein on Aug. 16;
*An ASCAP Foundation fundraiser, at which five members will be honored with ASCAP Foundation Centennial awards, Nov. 19 in New York City;
*A series of discussions in February, April and October at the Paley Center in Beverly Hills focusing on ASCAP’s film, TV, musical-theater and pop members.
Behind the scenes, however, Williams and his ASCAP staff continue to deal with the challenges of a new century and a vastly different music business than the one Williams knew when he penned such ’70s hits as “We’ve Only Just Begun,” “Rainy Days and Mondays” and “The Rainbow Connection” — an era when people visited record stores, purchased vinyl 45s and LPs, and discovered new music by listening to AM and FM radio.
“We have moved from licensing music for bars and grills and restaurants, through radio and television, cable, satellite, through every new platform,” Williams says. “We have equally high hopes for the digital world that we’re moving into.”
That world is effectively a war zone, with such streaming services as Spotify, Rdio, Rhapsody, Pandora and iTunes Radio vying for listeners but paying, in the view of outspoken artists like Radiohead and Pink Floyd, woefully little for the use of their music. Pandora is fighting ASCAP in the courts.
Williams’ larger view is that the 72-year-old consent decree under which his org operates needs revision to accommodate new forms of music distribution. “We don’t want a fight; what we want is flexibility,” he says. “We have these amazing resources that we can bring into the future, and we have an organization that is not going to sit back and say, ‘this is the way it was done and we’re not going to change.’
“We are changing,” he adds. “We need to make the rest of the world realize — amongst our business relationships and legislators as well — that we have to make some adjustments. We are looking closely at ways to adjust, to make ASCAP the most efficient for the people that license our music.”