The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) celebrated strong returns in 2018 at the performance rights organization’s 14th annual “I Create Music” EXPO membership meeting Thursday morning (May 2), kicking off the three day conference.
The event featured presentations by ASCAP president and chairman Paul Williams, CEO Elizabeth Matthews and executive vp membership John Titta, as well as performances by MILCK and Portugal. The Man. And as much as it touted $1.227 billion in collections and its second straight year of payouts topping $1 billion, some of the past year’s biggest accomplishments were made in Washington.
The first subject Williams touched on during his speech was the Oct. 11, 2018, signing of the The Orrin G. Hatch–Bob Goodlatte Music Modernization Actor Music Modernization Act, which received a loud applause at its first mention. “There was so much work going into this,” Williams said, noticeably moved as he spoke about the unanimous bi-partisan support the bill received and the industry-wide coalition that came together to get it passed. “The MMA is the first significant piece of copyright legislation for music creators in decades. It doesn’t solve all of our problems, but it takes us closer to fair compensation from digital services.” And he repeated the end of that last line again great applause.
Williams broke down the consequences of the MMA into digestible terms for his audience — much of which consisted of songwriters. The mandated Mechanical Licensing Collective, he said, “will replace an old system that allowed streaming companies to hold onto millions of dollars in mechanical royalties meant for songwriters and publishers.”
“That money is going to make it into your bank accounts,” he added.
Also of note are the reforms on the recording side, like the CLASSICS Act and AMP Act, respectively ensuring artists’ payments for pre-1972. recordings and making it easier for producers to receive royalties through SoundExchange. As well, he emphasized the importance of rate court reforms to members’ public performance royalties that will allow rate court judges to consider what recording rights holders make from streaming services when determining what songwriters should be paid on their streams.
Williams continued, lauding ASCAP’s work with the International Confederation of Societies of Authors and Composers to support the European Union’s new Copyright Directive, saying it will make online platforms “more accountable” and will help close the “value gap” for music creators. “The progress we made in the United States and in Europe is pretty monumental,” he said. “It shows that when we speak with one voice as a music community, we are more successful in moving policy in the right direction.”
As Williams discussed these legislative gains, he also frequently noted that the music business is over regulated and licensees are benefiting from legal “loopholes” and “sweetheart deals at the expense of songwriters.”
“They like it when there are governmental rules and regulations that make it impossible for us to be paid what our music would be worth in a free market,” he said. “As we’ve always said, we believe that music should thrive in a free market, with less government regulation, where music creators can be rewarded fairly for our creative work. A free market would create a more level playing field.” But, Williams continued, there are corporate interests — along with smaller bars, clubs, fitness franchises and even wineries — that are trying to pressure lawmakers into putting up even more roadblocks to give ASCAP and other performance rights organizations leeway to negotiate their own deals.
“These multi-billion dollar global corporations fear that more flexibility for you means smaller profits for them,” he said. “So they are lobbying Congress yet again to preserve the status quo, because they have a vested interest in making sure songwriters continue to be paid less than our work is worth.”
With this, he encouraged members to participating in ASCAP’s advocacy efforts. “It’s a labor of love but it’s a labor and you’ve got to pay us what we’re worth,” he added. “This is how we put food on the table, this is how we send our kids to school.”
Onto the finances, Williams noted that almost 90% of collections were paid back to ASCAP members as royalties. He credited that to the “efficiency of the staff” under the leadership of Matthews. (“I’ve always said I’m a pretty good hood ornament, but let me introduce you to the motor that keeps us running,” he said.)
ASCAP is currently in its fourth year of a strategic six-year plan, Matthews noted, over which it has annual collected more than $1 billion and in 2018 its royalty payouts topped $1 billion for the second straight year. The 1.227 billion ASCAP earned in 2018 was a 7% gain from the pervious year, which — notably — was matched internationally after 0% growth overseas in 2016 and 2017. Payouts internationally were up 4% after previously falling by 1% in 2017 and 2% in 2016, and would have been better if not for poor exchange rates.
Income wasn’t the only thing to grow, as Matthews pointed out, membership is booming too. Last year, she said, it grew 45,000 up to about 700,000 — a considerable gain, considering a decade ago there were just 300,000 members.
Without giving specifics, Matthews said the ASCAP has been working more efficiently while making more, bringing down expenses in terms of overhead ratio and registering over 3 trillion performances compared to 250 million three years ago. But this news also came with a warning.
“That’s great news the money is going up,” said Matthews. “Bad news is the money is not growing as quickly as the trajectory of the growing number of performances.”
This is because consumers are listening to all different types of music, she continued, and the past licensing systems do not work for songwriters in the digital streaming era.
“That means it’s harder today to be a professional songwriter than it was 20 years ago,” she said. “That’s why we spend so much time and money in Washington.”
Matthews then honed in on issues with consent decrees, which she said made a lot of sense during World War II but don’t in 2019. These should be ripped up and started over, she said, noting a proposal ASCAP has made, which includes automatic licenses, non-exclusivity to rights holders, continuing to operate in the rate court system and alternate forms of licenses for companies that don’t need blanket licenses.
As much as ASCAP advocates for its songwriters in Washington, the subject then moved to efforts encouraging diversity with its She is the Music all-female writing camp and participating in the Women’s March earlier this year. Following MILCK’s performance of her viral hit “Quiet,” Titta announced plans for a new member wellness program, which focuses on the mind, body and soul with partnerships with companies Aaptiv, BetterHelp and Shine.
“We applaud you when you succeed,” he said, “but we’re also committed to helping you through every stage of your career.”
Portugal. The Man closed out the event with a performance and brief Q&A session. Titta praised the band’s hit “Feel It Still,” as the group discussed the importance of throwing away songs that don’t feel right and holding onto those bits that feel special. The line “rebel just for kicks,” singer John Gourley said, they had held onto for years.
“We’ve written over a hundred songs, one of them had to get it right,” said bassist Zach Carothers, offering some self-deprecating swords of encouragement. “Even a broken clock gets it right twice a day…. It’s just math.”