Coronavirus

ASCAP Revenue and Payouts Both Top $1 Billion (Again) as Focus Turns to Navigating Pandemic

Elizabeth Matthews
Annie Tritt

Elizabeth Matthews photographed on July 14, 2016 at ASCAP in New York.

ASCAP leaders tell members that they're "working day in and day out on your behalf" to collect and pay out funds during the COVID-19 crises.

ASCAP collected $1.274 billion in revenue, a 3.83% increase from the $1.227 billion reported in the prior year; while distributions to songwriters and publishers increased 6.76% to $1.184 billion from $1.109 billion in the prior year.

That represents the sixth year in a row where the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers topped the $1 billion mark in collections and the third year in a row where it passed that milestone in royalty distribution to its members.

Breakout out revenue by geography, domestic receipts totaled $945 million while foreign receipts came to $329 million for the year ended Dec. 31, 2019. The former volume represented a 4.3% increase over the $906 million collected in the prior year; while the latter volume represented a 2.49% increase over the $321 million in 2018.

Moving over to distributions by geography, ASCAP paid out $869 million in domestic royalties, a 6.76% increase over the $814 million paid out in the prior year; while foreign distributions totaled $315 million, a 6.78% increase over the $295 million paid out in 2018.

In statements about ASCAP financial results, the performance rights organization's leaders made observations about the record breaking year but also spoke of the challenges ahead, due to the global economic shutdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Fortunately, ASCAP closed a record number of multi-year licensing deals in 2019 and instituted immediate operational changes and expense cuts in early March 2020," ASCAP CEO Elizabeth Matthews said in a statement. "As a result of these efforts, while collection efforts are increasingly challenging, our first quarter 2020 royalty distributions have proven to be among our highest ever. Hopefully, this distribution will provide a cushion to members to help weather the storm of COVID-19."

The first quarter royalty distributions to songwriters that were re-scheduled for April 28, were almost a month late due to precautions implemented by ASCAP's board and management to monitor receipts inflow during the economic uncertainty caused by the pandemic. The delayed payment nevertheless was fully funded for the first quarter. However, at the time ASCAP cautioned that going forward, there likely would be an economic impact to royalties as licensees like radio, TV and cable channels' advertising revenues are falling. Meanwhile, mainly due to governmental mandates/ and/or safety precautions, many general licensing businesses like bars, restaurants and hotels have been shuttered, with no income coming in; and uncertainty on how many will be able to even open up again, which also could curtail revenue inflow.

Yet ASCAP chairman of the board and president Paul Williams remains optimistic. "Music remains essential to our culture and to humanity," Williams said in a statement. "We see it in good times as evidenced by the achievements of our members and ASCAP in 2019, and we see it now, when music creators show their generosity and compassion, even as they struggle with the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on their own lives and livelihoods."

Williams continued, "We are proud of ASCAP's strong 2019 financial results, but our focus now is on the future, and fighting for our members. The ASCAP team is working tirelessly on behalf of our members to navigate through this crisis and protect their livelihoods, even in these challenging times. I am grateful to stand together with so many talented and dedicated members of the ASCAP family, at a time when we need each other more than ever."

In the PRO's annual report, Matthews wrote to members that the "ASCAP team is doing everything possible to optimize our collection efforts even during this challenging time when so many of our licensees are closed or suffering revenue declines."

In that report ASCAP noted that its songwriters wrote or co-wrote hits that topped "29 separate Billboard year-end charts, plus nine of the top 10 spots on the year-end Hot 100."

Detailing some individual accomplishments in its annual report, ASCAP reported that Ariana Grande became the first artist since The Beatles to occupy the top 3 spots on the Hot 100; Garth Brooks was named CMA Entertainer of the Year;  Captain Marvel composer Pinar Toprak became the first woman to score a film grossing over $1 billion;  Latin rock artists Maná played a record seven sold-out shows at The Forum in Los Angeles; Ellen Reid was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for her opera p r i s m;  and Billie Eilish became the first woman to sweep the four major Grammy categories, less than a year after she became the first artist born in the 2000s with a #1 single and album."

Moving over to social issues like inclusion, the company reported that more than half of all employees are woman; and that ratio extends to top level executives. In other accomplishments, the organization noted that it had completed a project that moved ASCAP's survey and distribution systems into the cloud, which it said would make the PRO "more efficient and cost-effective in the distribution of over $1 billion annually to ASCAP rightsholders."

But in its move away from disclosing detailed financial results — due to what the board apparently sees as a need to keep some information proprietary because of increased competition in the U.S. marketplace for performance rights organizations — since 2016 ASCAP no longer details expenses and sources of licensing revenue, bringing it in line with the amount of financial information that BMI publicly discloses; and both publicly reveal more information than SESAC and Global Music Rights.

Speaking of competition, 2019 marks the first year where ASCAP didn't leapfrog ahead of  BMI in revenue which finished its last fiscal year at $1.283 billion. For the last few years,  the two largest U.S. PROs, which have different fiscal years with ASCAP ending Dec. 31while BMI's ends on June 30,  have been trading back and forth the claim of being the largest PRO — based on revenue. The ASCAP revenue results brings them into almost parity revenue wise.

In his note to members, Williams reminded songwriters that during the ongoing health and economic crises, "Music unites us. It has the power to heal, calm our fears and restore our faith. Right now, with the world facing life and death challenges, your music has never been needed more."

Both Williams and Matthews reminded members that ASCAP was helping its members navigate this trying time.

When the COVID-19 pandemic was unfolding, ASCAP launched musicunites.us, which continuously updated vital information to help our members cope with this crisis, including how to access financial relief through government and other programs and many more resources.

"In this unprecedented time, we know that many of our members are struggling with both the health and economic consequences of this pandemic,"  Williams said in his opening message to members. "I want you to know that the ASCAP staff is working day in and day out on your behalf to collect and pay out as much as possible during this challenging time so you can feed your families and pay your bills."

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