What is BMI Music? (Is it Important?)

A Performance Rights Organization (PRO) such as BMI (Broadcast Music, Inc.) is an organization that targets the business side of music. It’s in charge of collecting revenue when a song is broadcast or performed publicly.

You’re a music artist, and your work is out there. That means businesses and radio stations can use your songs to their profit. So, how do you keep track of their activity and make sure you’re getting paid what you deserve? Well, that’s when performance rights organizations such as BMI Music come in!

What does BMI stand for and what it is exactly?

BMI Music stands for Broadcast Music, Inc. and it’s a performance rights organization based in the United States. It operates by collecting license fees from businesses that incorporate music in their activity and distributing their earnings by the artists and publishers that are entitled to them.

BMI Music is a not-for-profit organization that’s open to any artist willing to join. You don’t have to live in the United States to join BMI Music, but their royalty-collection process is limited to businesses operating in the country.

After joining BMI Music, artists get paid a quarterly fee according to their work’s influence: a song that plays constantly on the radio, for instance, will be worth more than a song that seldom plays on the radio.

BMI Music’s royalty-collection process is pretty exhaustive: it includes not only radio plays but also stage performances, soundtracks, online videos, or background sounds. If you’re registered on BMI Music and your song is part of the setlist of a clothing store, you’ll be paid for it. If a character in a TV show is listening to your song on his headphones, you will also be paid for it!

How can I register my work at BMI Music?

To register your work at BMI Music, visit their website at bmi.com and select ‘Work Registration.’ Next, click ‘Add New Work’ and fill out the necessary information. Please keep in mind that the registering process of BMI Music is made song-by-song, not album-by-album.

Does your work contain any samples? Do you have a publisher? Do you have full ownership of the song? These are some questions you will have to answer before registering a new work on BMI Music’s website. 

If you’re the author of both the music and the lyrics of a song, please don’t forget to register as ‘Composer/Author.’ In case you’re not signed to a record company (i.e., a publisher), you should register as an ‘Author/Publisher.’

What is a performance rights organization or PRO?

A performance rights organization (PRO) works as an intermediary service provider between the businesses that use music and the artists who create such music. Their main job is to collect royalties and distribute them to the corresponding artists, hence protecting their copyrights.

There are active PROs in virtually any country that’s enacted copyright laws, and they all work similarly. They collect annual fees from businesses that use music (everything from radio stations to local cafés), watch over which songs are being exploited, and distribute the fees they have received by the artists that are entitled to them.

Some PROs around the world are independent, while others are partially sponsored by the state. Their royalty-distribution process may vary, but they all exist to serve one fundamental purpose: to ensure that the artists get paid what they deserve anytime their work is publically or commercially used.

Other PROs and differences between them

BMI Music is the largest PRO operating in the United States, but it’s not the only one. Out of the multiple PROs active in the country, ASCAP and SESAC are the other two that music creators should keep in mind. But what is it that makes them different?

BMI Music

BMI Music stands out for being the largest PRO in the United States, with a reported 14 million compositions registered. Publishers must pay a $150 fee to sign-up, but joining BMI Music is free for composers. 

As stated by Billboard, BMI Music collects as much as $1.1 billion in licensing fees in a single year. This sum is later distributed, accordingly, to the artists and publishers registered in the PRO.

Additional benefits for BMI Music artists include songwriting camps and workshops, discounts on Billboard conferences, and discounts on multiple music-related apps and services.

ASCAP

Founded in 1914, ASCAP is the oldest PRO in the United States. Like BMI Music, they manage to collect over $1 billion in licensing fees in one single year. However, signing up to ASCAP isn’t free for composers: artists must pay a $50 fee to join, as do publishers.

With 11 million compositions registered, ASCAP’s catalog is tangentially smaller than BMI Music’s.

Additional benefits for ASCAP artists include a membership to the MusicPro Program, which offers discounts on health and life insurance, a membership to the U.S. Alliance Federal Credit Union, and discounts on hotels and rental cars.

SESAC

The third-largest PRO in the United States, SESAC is much smaller than BMI Music and ASCAP, with just 400,000 compositions registered. However, there’s a good reason for it: unlike the latter, SESAC isn’t open to all artists—before joining, composers and publishers must be invited by SESAC.

Additional benefits for SESAC artists include MusicPro insurance discount, airport parking discount, Avis Rental cars discount, and discounts on multiple music-related services, including SongTrust and American Songwriter Magazine’s subscriptions.

Benefits and drawbacks of joining BMI Music

Unlike publishers, composers can only join one PRO, which means it’s important to be well-informed before making a decision. Since SESAC’s registrations work by invitation only, artists in the United States are left with two reasonable options: either joining BMI Music or ASCAP.

Before exploring some differences between the two, it’s critical to answer a fundamental question:

Is joining a PRO even worth it? 

If you’re an active music creator with one or more songs released, it’s certainly beneficial for you! Even if your songs aren’t making it to the radio, you should always register your work with a PRO. Yes, you may have to pay a minor entry fee to sign up, but you’ll most likely get your money back in less than one year.

Joining a PRO is also worth it just for the status of it. Joining a PRO is no big deal, but it will make you look and feel more professional. The last thing you want is to be the only musician in the room that’s not licensed by a PRO.

Joining a PRO also makes sense in the long run: imagine, for instance, that one of your old songs got suddenly viral on TikTok and is playing everywhere now. If such a song’s registered on a PRO, you’ll be rightfully cashing in on its success. If not, you’ll potentially lose a fortune by registering the song too late—missing out on all the action.

Benefits of joining BMI Music

BMI Music and ASCAP are very similar in size and in the way they run their operations. But these are some benefits of choosing BMI Music over ASCAP:

  • BMI Music is considered to be more business-minded than ASCAP. This means that the organization centers all of its efforts into what matters most: collecting royalties from businesses and making sure artists get paid fairly.
  • BMI Music’s withdrawal process is buffer-free, meaning it’s smoother than ASCAP’s. Unlike ASCAP, BMI Music combines national and international royalties into one single check, which helps to make things a lot simpler.
  • You can sign up simultaneously as an ‘Author/Publisher’ to BMI Music, whereas you need to sign up as either an author or a publisher to ASCAP.
  • According to the experts, BMI Music pays more than ASCAP for songs featuring vocals (see this video to learn more).

Drawbacks of joining BMI Music

  • BMI Music’s said to be less approachable than ASCAP. While ASCAP representatives can be found in virtually every major music conference in the United States, BMI Music representatives tend to be less involved with the American music scene.
  • BMI Music keeps a slightly higher percentage of the collected royalties. While ASCAP gives 90% of all the collected royalties back to composers and publishers, BMI Music only gives back 88% of all collected royalties.
  • BMI Music pays less for instrumental songs than ASCAP does.

History and origin of BMI Music

The history of BMI Music goes hand-in-hand with the history of ASCAP. In the aftermath of the Great Depression, in the 1930s, the music industry was already struggling. But the difficulties only got worse when ASCAP required radio stations to adhere to blanket licenses, meaning radio stations were forced to pay a fixed amount of their revenue regardless of how many ASCAP-licensed compositions they chose to play.

This led to a big decrease in revenue and widespread dissatisfaction. It was then BMI Music was established: founded in 1939 by the National Association of Broadcasters, it was meant to be a low-cost alternative to ASCAP.

A mere two years following the establishment of BMI Music, the majority of the radio stations and networks in the United States decided to change from ASCAP licenses to BMI licenses. By the early 1940s, BMI Music and ASCAP were already considered to be fierce competitors.

BMI Music’s expansion was also fueled by its willingness to represent artists of all genres. Before the establishment of the organization, blues, gospel, or rock and roll artists had no representation in the United States, since ASCAP refused to license music that was considered to be “urban” and marginalized at the time.

Over the following decades—and until today—BMI Music and ASCAP remained close rivals, with BMI licensing most blues and rock artists and ASCAP licensing mostly major pop artists. In the meantime, BMI Music expanded into classical music and the clear stylistic distinctions between the two organizations were eventually diluted.

Summary

BMI Music is the largest PRO in the United States and a vital service for all musicians looking to make the most of their art. Joining a PRO—whether it’s BMI or any other—it’s extremely advisable, as it allows you to strengthen your copyrights and collect the money you deserve for your work as a music creator.

Artists are free-spirited individuals, and they tend to run away from all things that sound even slightly bureaucratic or official. But ignoring the profitable world of PROs would be a mistake. 

Rather than being an institutionalization of one’s artistic output, PROs provide creators with the means necessary for collecting the money they’re due and continuing to do what they love most: creating quality artworks and making a difference in the world.

Brian Clark is a multi-instrumentalist and music producer. He is passionate about practically all areas of music and he particularly enjoys writing about the music industry.

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