(Editor's Note: This feature contains excerpts from Bruce Pollock's book, A Friend In The Music Business: The ASCAP Story, published in 2014.)
You don't get to be around for 100 years in the entertainment industry by living in the past. John LoFrumento, CEO of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, which joined that rarefied rank earlier this year, certainly agrees.
"The question really is: 'How should ASCAP be positioned as we go forward?'" says LoFrumento. "If all we can say about ourselves is, 'We are 100 years old,' then we're in deep trouble. What we should say about ourselves is: 'We are in the first year of another 100-year run.'"
With an ongoing mission that includes protecting "the rights of ASCAP members by licensing and distributing royalties for the nondramatic public performances of their copyrighted works," ASCAP has remained relevant by expanding into the realms of talent discovery and development, augmenting its original mission with a mix of conferences, workshops, showcases, networking events, and annual awards.
The ASCAP Foundation's Musical Theater and Television & Film Scoring Workshops have emerged as highly regarded proving grounds for young talent. Launched in 2006, the annual "I Create Music" Expo has become ASCAP's signature event. Taking place in April, the 2014 expo featured keynotes, panels on a variety of topics, performances, networking receptions and exhibits, with participants including GRAMMY winners Shane McAnally, Amy Grant, Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, and Jermaine Dupri, among others.
"The performance panels are always really popular," says Lauren Iossa, ASCAP senior vice president of marketing, who helped conceive the expo. "But the business panels are the key to a new writer's success."
ASCAP is doing plenty of celebrating in 2014 to mark the first 100-year run. Most notably, ASCAP: One Hundred Years And Beyond, a Library of Congress exhibit that debuted in Washington, D.C., in February. The exhibit, which will close July 26 and subsequently reopen at Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in August, features a treasure trove of artifacts, including sheet music, photographs, lyrics, and original manuscripts representing ASCAP members such as Irving Berlin, Garth Brooks, Carolina Chocolate Drops, Hal David, Marvin Hamlisch, Barbra Streisand, Duke Ellington, and Alan and Marilyn Bergman, among others.
Representing more than 500,000 U.S.-based composers, ASCAP recognizes its own members with a multitude of awards, including genre-based honors for pop, jazz, Latin music, and R&B/soul. In November ASCAP will host its first-ever fundraiser to benefit the ASCAP Foundation, during which esteemed members will be honored with one-time ASCAP Foundation Centennial Awards.
Of course, winning an award named after famed ASCAP members such as Berlin, Ellington and Sammy Cahn can be a heady experience for an unknown songwriter or composer. But winning the Sammy Cahn Award, an honor bestowed annually to elite lyricists, can also be quite impressive to a GRAMMY winner such as John Mayer.
"When I got the Sammy Cahn Award, it was amazing," says Mayer, who won the award in 2001. "I never really thought I was going to create a body of work. I just wanted to write one more song. It was ASCAP that put into motion the concept of looking forward to tomorrow because the phone is going to ring."
Advocacy is also a key component of ASCAP's mission. In the last five years, the organization claims to have distributed more than $5 billion in royalties to its songwriter, composer and music publisher members. But despite the lofty sum, the irony of the matter is that songwriters are in the same leaky boat today as they were before ASCAP was founded.
A right to collect on the public performance of their work had been granted to composers and lyricists as far back as the Copyright Act of 1897, but until the arrival of ASCAP in 1914 — taking its mandate from existing performance rights societies in France, Italy and Germany —songwriters and publishers had little awareness of this obscure clause and even less of a chance to collect on it. Even ASCAP's legal ability to do so was not ratified by the Supreme Court until 1917. And since then the company's survival has been threatened in every decade by those who seek to use music for next to nothing.
First there were speakeasies, where ASCAP collection agents were considered more dangerous to the club owners than the criminals who frequented them. They were followed by the barons of the radio industry, who claimed they should be exempt from paying public performance royalties to songwriters because what they were broadcasting was not music, but beams of electrical energy. The television industry took 20 years until they finally came to terms with ASCAP for music used in their medium.
Similar challenges continue today, especially in the realm of digital music services. The royalties these services currently offer songwriters, according to one ASCAP insider, "exchange analog dollars for digital dimes."
ASCAP maintains an active role in supporting legislation that benefits music creators, including providing support for the Songwriter Equity Act, recent proposed legislation that would change the rate standard for mechanical royalties to a sum more in line with a fair market value. The legislation is also supported by The Recording Academy, BMI, SESAC, and the National Music Publishers Association.
While survival has been burned into ASCAP's DNA after 100 years, the digital age has put it to the test as never before. When ASCAP's previous President and Chair of the Board Marilyn Bergman took over in 1994, it was just beginning.
"I was learning the whole time," she says. "The business was changing so fast, particularly in those first years, where the digital world was in revolution. Its effect on ASCAP is still being felt."
"The thing you learn about ASCAP is that we're not going away," adds Jimmy Webb, a GRAMMY-winning songwriter and current member of ASCAP's Board of Directors. "We believe in our hearts that songwriters deserve to be reimbursed for what they do. It's ironic to me that one of the things youngsters complain about is that music isn't as good as it used to be, and then on the other hand there is a recalcitrance for paying for music and I'm like, 'Don't you get it? You get what you pay for. '"
Like Webb, ASCAP's current President and Chairman of the Board Paul Williams began his career as a songwriter. But after more than 50 years of work as a songwriter and actor, the GRAMMY winner is arguably in the midst of the most important role of his career, ensuring songwriters get fair compensation for their creative efforts.
"[There was a] magical time when songs still got covered and if you had a hit all of a sudden you could have 600 licenses of a single song," says Williams, who recently won at the 56th GRAMMY Awards for Album Of The Year for his work on Daft Punk's Random Access Memories. "So it's something of a challenge for me to try to put that piece of the puzzle back in for the writer who's working so hard. That's the essence of my mission, to try to put at least part of that world back together again. I don't think it's a losing battle. I'm really optimistic about it."
(Bruce Pollock is the author of 11 books on music, including A Friend In The Music Business: The ASCAP Story. His column on songwriting, "They're Playing My Song," appears regularly at Songfacts.com. He teaches a course on the history of rock and roll at Connecticut's Fairfield University.)
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