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Many independent artists don't understand the difference between BMI, ASCAP, SESAC, and SoundExchange.

Let's break it down for you. Feel free to comment for questions or corrections below.

What are BMI, ASCAP, and SESAC?

BMI (Broadcast Music, Inc.), ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers), and SESAC are the performance rights organizations (PROs) responsible for collecting and distributing royalties for the public performance of a musical work in the United States, as stipulated by the U.S. Copyright Act. These organizations act as the intermediary between songwriters and music users to protect intellectual property and make music licensing more convenient.

Organizations that pay the PROs include restaurants and bars, live music venues, radio stations, theme parks, and any other establishment that uses music in a public setting. The PROs give these organizations blanket licenses to use the music written by their songwriters. Often times, these organizations need to get blanket licenses from all three of the PROs since many songs have multiple songwriters, and the individual writers of the songs may belong to different PROs.

The licensing fees paid to BMI, ASCAP, and SESAC are passed down to the owners of the musical work, including publishers (50%) and songwriters (50%), as public performance royalties.

What is SoundExchange?

SoundExchange is a performance rights organization in the United States responsible for collecting and redistributing digital public performance royalties as stipulated by the Digital Performance Right in Sound Recording Act of 1995 and Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998.

This includes non-interactive (radio-like) music service providers like Pandora or SiriusXM, or cable providers who offer music channels via internet or satellite. The fees paid by these services to SoundExchange are for a digital statutory license, under sections 112 and 114 of the Copyright Act, to stream sound recordings.

The license fees paid to SoundExchange are passed on to the copyright owners of the sound recording (master) as follows:

  • The record label - 50%
  • The featured artist - 45%
  • Non-featured artists in the song (background vocalist, session musicians, etc.) - 5%

Which PRO to join - ASCAP vs. BMI vs. SESAC vs. SoundExchange

In order to maximize your royalty payouts, you should join SoundExchange to receive payouts for digital statutory royalties (for example, when your music is played on Pandora), and either BMI, ASCAP, or SESAC to receive payouts for public performance royalties (when your music is played on the radio, in a restaurant, etc.)

Here's a comparison table of BMI, ASCAP, and SESAC to help you determine which one is best for you to join.

ASCAP BMI SESAC
Invite Only No No Yes
Locations New York, London, Miami, Puerto Rico, Los Angeles, Nashville, Atlanta Nashville, New York, Los Angeles, London, Atlanta, Miami, Puerto Rico New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Miami, London, Nashville
Fees One time fee of $50 Free for songwriters, one time fee of $150 for publishers None (invite only)
Number of Members 500,000 650,000 30,000
Notable Members Justin Timberlake, Vampire Weekend, Duke Ellington, Dave Matthews, George Gershwin, Stevie Wonder, Beyonce, Marc Anthony, Henry Mancini Mariah Carey, Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, Eminem, Rihanna, Maroon 5, Sam Cooke, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton Bob Dylan, Neil Diamond, Cassandra Wilson, Rush, MGMT, Mumford and Sons (via PRS).
Pay Schedule ASCAP Payment Schedule BMI Payment Schedule SESAC Payment Schedule
Website Go to Website Go to Website Go to Website

While you don't need to copyright your music to be a part of a PRO, it's probably a good idea to do this as well to protect your work.


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