Collecting Money For Songwriters, A 100-Year Tug Of War ASCAP — the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers — was founded on Feb. 13, 1914, to protect its members' copyrights by monitoring public performances of their music. It hasn't been an easy century; in fact, just about every victory has come as the result of litigation.
NPR logo

Collecting Money For Songwriters, A 100-Year Tug Of War

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Collecting Money For Songwriters, A 100-Year Tug Of War

Collecting Money For Songwriters, A 100-Year Tug Of War

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Every time you hear a song in a restaurant or on the radio...


Hear music in a concert hall...

MONTAGNE: On TV or in a movie...

INSKEEP: Or listen to streaming audio on the Internet, everyone of those times a composer or songwriter gets paid.

MONTAGNE: That happens through what's called a performing rights organization. There are two major ones in this country: BMI, and the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers - or ASCAP.

Today marks ASCAP's centennial, and Jeff Lunden has the story of its founding and its evolution.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: A hundred years ago, the Italian operatic composer Giacomo Puccini was having lunch in New York with Victor Herbert, the leading composer of operettas in this country. Then the band in the restaurant began playing music from Herbert's hit "Sweethearts."


RICHARD TAUBER: (Singing) Sweethearts who need no crown or throne...

LUNDEN: Puccini became outraged, says songwriter Paul Williams, who's ASCAP's current president.

PAUL WILLIAMS: He said to Victor Herbert, Why are you not licensing this music? You should be paid for this music because in Europe, we are. And it seemed like a brilliant idea.

LUNDEN: Such a brilliant idea that Herbert assembled some of the era's major musical figures, including John Philip Sousa and Irving Berlin, to found ASCAP.


BESSIE SMITH: (Singing) Come on and hear. Come on and hear, Alexander's Ragtime Band. Come on and hear. Come on and hear, it's the best band in land...

LUNDEN: It was all very good to agree to try and collect royalties for performances of bands in restaurants and dance halls, but would the venues agree to pay for something they'd been getting for free? Bruce Pollock, who's written a history of ASCAP, says that for a century, the organization has had to fight - sometimes literally - for every penny it collects.

BRUCE POLLOCK: For years, and probably still to this day, anybody who has the job at ASCAP of being that guy who has to go into a place that isn't licensed and tell the owner, now you have to be licensed - that was the most dangerous job. People would wind up in jail, they would get beat up, they would be threatened.

LUNDEN: And President Paul Williams says ASCAP has had to sue virtually every entity that didn't want to pay.

WILLIAMS: Whether it was radio, television, cable, satellite; right down the line to now, to the world of streaming and the Cloud.

LUNDEN: Williams says ASCAP is a nonprofit run by its member songwriters, composers and publishers. And ASCAP came up with something called a blanket license, in an effort to make the process simpler. If the organization licenses a restaurant, they figure out how many hours its open, how many people come in, how much money it makes, to determine a blanket rate; or in the case of a network like NPR, how many listeners tune in, or listen to streaming audio, or download podcasts. Blanket license, meaning you can play as much ASCAP music as often as you want.

Until 1940, ASCAP had a monopoly on collecting royalties. Then the radio industry, which was fighting ASCAP over rates, took all of the performing rights organization's music off the air, says author Bruce Pollock. Radio stations replaced it with music that wasn't licensed to ASCAP.

POLLOCK: Which was, like, country music and rhythm and blues. And they started playing that. And apparently, the public either didn't know or didn't care or didn't complain, and it went on for eight months until ASCAP finally had to renegotiate. But during that period of time, BMI, which was an organization put together by the broadcasters, got some traction and started signing up people and began to get an audience, especially with the roots music.


LUNDEN: ASCAP, which had been the home of the Great American Songbook - the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers - almost missed rock 'n' roll entirely. Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, the Beatles all signed with BMI, which stands for Broadcast Music Incorporated.


CHUCK BERRY: (Singing) Deep down Louisiana close to New Orleans, way back up in the woods among the evergreens, there stood a log cabin made of earth and wood where lived a country boy named Johnny B. Goode...

LUNDEN: Bruce Pollock says it took ASCAP a long time to catch up.

POLLOCK: It really took them till the mid-'60s before they began to realize that, as they say, rock 'n' roll is here to stay.

LUNDEN: ASCAP now represents close to 500,000 members in all musical genres. As a working composer, I'm one of them, and even see a little bit of the almost a billion dollars a year in royalties ASCAP collects.


ASHFORD AND SIMPSON: (Singing) We build it up. We build it up. We build it up and now we're solid. Solid as a rock...

LUNDEN: One of those songwriter members is Valerie Simpson, who with her late husband, Nick Ashford, was one of the top writers at Motown before they went on to their own career as performers. They joined ASCAP in 1966, and she's now a member of the board.

VALERIE SIMPSON: I was part of a new era brought into ASCAP because the Motown catalog represented a wonderful R&B infusion, black music. And that's something that ASCAP, up to that point, I don't think really represented.

LUNDEN: She says one of the most important things ASCAP does for songwriters is give them a sense of stability.

SIMPSON: You know, we just didn't have to think about it. Some kind of check was going to come. You know, all we had to do was create.

LUNDEN: One of her fellow creators is Pulitzer Prize-winning classical composer David Lang.


LUNDEN: He's been in it for 30 years. While the majority of his income comes from commissions and teaching, he says he looks forward to receiving his quarterly ASCAP royalty check.

DAVID LANG: I get super, super excited when I open it up. And I go, oh, this piece is being played in Japan; or, this piece is being played in Poland. I love the idea that the music can go someplace without me and that I may not know about it but somehow, ASCAP finds out.

LUNDEN: Still, ASCAP has its challenges. It's currently in litigation with Pandora, the Internet radio company, over royalties.

For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.


Copyright © 2014 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.