To ASCAP’s Paul Williams: We’re Not All Songwriters

Film Music Institute > Film Music Magazine (Archives) > Final Note (Archive) > To ASCAP’s Paul Williams: We’re Not All Songwriters

I was interested to read this national editorial in The Huffington Post by the very talented and newly minted ASCAP President Paul Williams, especially when he claimed the following:

“More than 600 people per week are signing up with ASCAP. It’s not a tough process and certainly not expensive. But becoming an ASCAP member takes time, energy and commitment — all linked to a passionate dream.

Six hundred new members per week equals more than 30,000 self-declared, career-minded songwriters per year. And when hundreds of people — week in and week out — stand up and declare they want to make songwriting their life’s work, there’s something big happening in our culture.”

Incredibly, in the entire article, Paul used the word “songwriter” 8 times, but used the word “composer” only once – as an aside when he was spelling out what the letters ASCAP stand for.

While Paul makes some good points in the article about creators deserving better protection, his song-centric view of the world where apparently all ASCAP music writers are songwriters and composers don’t even get mentioned (other than in the name of the organization) takes on special meaning when you consider ASCAP’s huge financial penalties aimed at instrumental score music and the composers who write it. In short, at ASCAP a one minute custom score cue for film or TV is paid 80% less than a one minute song cue, even a background song buried in the mix. A whopping penalty incurred only because the custom score music doesn’t have lyrics, completely out of step with the fact that ASCAP’s license income from broadcasters includes no pay differences for song vs. score. And under ASCAP’s system, more royalties paid to songwriters leaves less royalties available for composers.

Paul, here’s a hint: not everybody is a songwriter. Words matter, and throwing all ASCAP writers into the “songwriter” category is a tremendous disservice to the craft of custom score composing not to mention the amazing score composers in our industry. It’s bad enough when ASCAP penalizes score composers when their only “crime” is not writing lyrics for their music, and it only adds insult to injury when the President of ASCAP, an organization that represents thousands of score composers, lumps everybody who writes music under the “songwriter” label. Score composers have a tremendously challenging time these days getting paid fairly for their work, and as an industry we need those who represent us like Paul Williams to recognize our craft and our music, not overlook it in favor of pop songwriters.

I might also point out to Paul that television (including network, local and cable) represents ASCAP’s largest income source, and the majority of music on television is instrumental score music written by composers.

I am hopeful that as ASCAP’s new President, Paul Williams will be proactive in helping end some of the financial penalties ASCAP aims at score composers and creating a level playing field for all ASCAP writers. Simply put, the days of custom instrumental score music being treated and paid as second-class music by ASCAP must come to an end. And I think we as an industry need to give Paul a chance to make this happen. But that effort begins with the recognition that composing and songwriting are very different skills, and the artistically rich art and craft of score composing and those who write this music are, at the very least, deserving of recognition by the President of ASCAP.


  • Ruckus Skye
    February 18, 2010 @ 7:11 am


    Question: Is this your conclusion or do you have a source you are siting? “the majority of music on television is instrumental score music written by composers.”

    I’d be very curious to know what the ratio of instrumental scored cues vs. songs is. Thanks!

  • admin
    February 18, 2010 @ 7:14 am

    While the performing rights organizations have steadfastly refused to release this data, I’m referencing a study by the advertising industry in the early-mid 1990s that found that on network television, 54% of the minutes of music aired were score contained in television shows. This study was highlighted in the newsletter of the Professional Composers Association (PCA), headed at that time by composer and library owner Doug Wood who has since been elected to the ASCAP Board. In the late 1990s, ASCAP’s Al Wallace promised, at an ASCAP member meeting, to provide “the pie charts” to interested members who asked about the proportion of different music types used on television. After the meeting, Wallace failed to respond to emails and calls from people at the meeting requesting “the pie charts”, and to this day, Wallace and ASCAP has refused to provide those charts. Frankly, I have to wonder what ASCAP has to hide by not releasing this data – data WE, as members, pay for them to put together about how OUR music is used. Yet another area that we can only hope that new ASCAP President Paul Williams sees fit to address for the benefit of ASCAP and its members.

  • Les Hurdle
    February 18, 2010 @ 8:19 am

    you said it ;-)

    Words matter,

  • February 18, 2010 @ 11:17 am

    Wow! I love the boldness with which you take Williams to task. Great leaders honor those who point out their blind spots, and they move quickly to find a remedy. Be interesting to see how he responds…

  • Les Hurdle
    February 18, 2010 @ 4:30 pm

    Great leaders honor those who point out their blind spots,

    What planet are you on? get real

    ASCAP kills such people

  • Chris
    February 18, 2010 @ 6:54 pm

    Does this same thing happen to BMI composers? Is BMI better for film and television composers?

  • Richard Bellis
    February 18, 2010 @ 7:52 pm

    “What planet are you on? get real

    ASCAP kills such people”

    Ah, Les – And yet you remain a member. Isn’t there another PRO just as worthy of your vitriole? Maybe ALL of them.


  • February 19, 2010 @ 9:16 am

    Great Article! ASCAP needs to stop the discrimination.

  • February 19, 2010 @ 2:18 pm

    Thanks for this post; as a songwriter I wasn’t aware of the penalties imposed on composers, which are unfair to say the least. Good job of being up front.

  • Zoe Keating
    February 19, 2010 @ 11:15 pm

    I look forward to Paul William’s response to this.

  • February 21, 2010 @ 1:09 pm

    Thanks again Mark for a well crafted article. ASCAP needs to be held accountable for this. I wonder if there is a way to bring legal action against them. It seems to me that they are falsely representing themselves to the broadcasters they are charging. I think we should be asking the broadcasters if they think this is a fair way to distribute their money.
    Mark, is there a way we can approach the broadcasters directly, and start putting some serious pressure on ASCAP?

  • Mark Northam
    February 21, 2010 @ 1:44 pm

    Sadly, the ASCAP membership agreement lets them do pretty much anything they want to, pay us any way they want to, and our only choice comes at election time when we can choose the incumbents or the handpicked “opponents”, while not being allowed to know any details about how they voted or what was said or done at board meetings. It’s no wonder the ASCAP board quickly created language in 2002 to virtually eliminate the option to get on the board ballot by petition the moment they could. Sounding more Soviet every day!

    They have a bank of lawyers (paid by us, of course) to make sure that no matter how abusive or discriminatory their policies towards certain groups of members may be, they stay within the law. And as history has shown, anybody who sues ASCAP (like composer Peter Myers) will get buried in lawyers, since ASCAP doesn’t even pay for its own lawyers – that’s right, we do. Discriminatory? Well, let’s see… at ASCAP, a one minute song cue on a television show is currently paid 500% more than a one minute score cue, and 33 times more than a one minute score cue for advertising on the same show. I haven’t met anyone who can begin to justify those whopping pay differentials with a straight face. Instead, the ASCAP Board hides behind their locked doors at board meetings and seems more focused on keeping their jobs by virtually eliminating the election petition option and keeping members in the dark by clamping an absolute blanket of secrecy on everything they say and do at their secret board meetings. The good news is that my ASCAP contacts tell me that after years of criticism, things may be changing a bit for the better in terms of the election situation and the weightings – we’ll stay tuned…

    If the blanket license carve-out is allowed by the judge in the current DMX case, it may mean that many more broadcasters can economically direct license, which could finally open up a non-PRO option on a wide scale. As much as the prospect of negotiating on your own against a broadcaster is daunting, the idea of your “own people” enforcing an 80% penalty on your music so that the songwriters can get richer may be worse. More and more broadcasters want to deal directly with composers, and ASCAP with their 80% score penalty is giving composers every reason to find an alternative to having their money hijacked to further fatten the wallets of the songwriters.

    Isn’t it sad that collective bargaining – a great concept for this situation – is being destroyed by those who choose to hijack the system and manipulate the rules to enrich certain member groups at the expense of everybody else.

  • March 3, 2010 @ 9:17 am

    Amen & Amen Mark!

  • March 8, 2010 @ 12:18 pm

    Without any direct knowledge of the numbers involved, I’m guessing that songwriters (yes, count ALL of them) outnumber score composers by a huge margin. Therefore, like the old gold prospector said in “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” the payoff for one’s succeeding at something represents his labor as well as that of all those is who tried AND NEVER MADE IT.

    For us underscorers, with our potentially higher entry requirements of training, equipment, and demo investment, the market already seems glutted. However, for songwriters, (for whom many have essentially an investment of a guitar and recording device) the smaller participation investment allows for far more of them, creating a greater pool that has to be reflected in the eventual payoff to the winner(s). Just as horse race odds reflect the number and choices of the bettors, somehow it must also be for songwriters/underscorers. It’s just ironic that those with the greater financial investment SEEM to get shortchanged at the payoff.

    So let me ask, and I’m trying to be utterly objective here: If there were no PRO’s, and minutes of underscore outnumbered minutes of song, wouldn’t market forces of supply and demand reward those who beat out more competitors for a smaller share of the market more? And if more people DO want to be songwriters than “composers,” can we really ignore that fact? Since the competitive arenas are somewhat different, in a truly fair world, shouldn’t the payoff be as well? Or is just the SIZE of the disparity with which we quibble here?

  • Peter Kaye
    March 12, 2010 @ 9:57 am

    “… the ASCAP membership agreement lets them do pretty much anything they want to, pay us any way they want to… ”

    Well, this is not really accurate (as opposed to BMI, who can and do whatever their broadcast owners want them to do), I believe the consent decree requires a government, oversight panel that has to approve these matters.

    But if you think direct licensing is a solution (hah, as if any, one composer has any clout with broadcasters), just look at how well we are negotiating our payment without a union!

  • Mark Northam
    March 12, 2010 @ 2:19 pm

    Hi Peter –

    Since after the passage of the Amended Final Judgment 2 in 2001, the consent decree no longer provides government oversight on ASCAP distribution rates. In other words, the government let them off the leash. And what did they do? Very quickly thereafter, the ASCAP Board created language that stripped members of a number of rights and virtually ensured their own re-election by virtually eliminating the right of members to nominate a Board candidate by petition.

    Direct licensing is not the solution, but neither is a songwriter controlled society that devalues score music in order to put more money in their own pockets.

  • Max Friedman
    March 13, 2010 @ 7:50 pm

    This is Mark’s favorite rant. He has been making and remaking this one point for 15 years now. The sun will rise tomorrow, death and taxes await us all and Mark will write essentially the same article with the same points again at least one or two times this year. – and next year and next year and snoooooz

  • Mark Northam
    March 13, 2010 @ 8:09 pm

    So Max, shall I assume you support ASCAP’s 80% penalty against a one-minute score music cue? If not, I wonder why you feel the need to minimize the objections of others (like myself).

    Sometimes points are worth making again, and I believe the systematic devaluation of instrumental music by ASCAP is one of those. The number of people we’ve been able to educate about this situation is significant. The songwriters still have us far outnumbered, but things are changing…

  • Max Friedman
    March 13, 2010 @ 9:42 pm

    well one has to wonder why you only attack ASCAP and not BMI (which has essentially the identical system). It feels more like a vendetta than anything else. ASCAP, for all of it’s faults is the thin blue line, protecting us and our rights. I don’t see BMI making a similar effort. Perhaps being owned by the broadcasters has something to do with that.

    ASCAP is not perfect but it would be nice to see you write a column complementing their work from time to time. It would add to your credibility at least.

  • Mark Northam
    March 13, 2010 @ 10:10 pm

    ASCAP leads the way, BMI follows. BMI is a competitive counterbalance to ASCAP due to its broadcaster funding. If we can get composer reform at ASCAP, BMI will have no choice but to follow.

    Maybe for you an 80% penalty is “protecting your rights” but from my point of view, it’s a massive money-grab by the songwriters – especially considering that when ASCAP is paid by the broadcasters, they don’t get a nickel more for score than song. The math speaks for itself, and in my opinion, is far from “not perfect”. It simply isn’t right to justify such a massive, arbitrary penalty against an entire class of writers by comparing it to direct licensing or a non-PRO world – those are apples and oranges.

    That being said, ASCAP certainly does many good things – the EXPO is good, and the Film Scoring Workshop is as well. And they do a GREAT job collecting lots of money from broadcasters. It’s the way they choose to pay it out that is the issue for me.

    But let’s not get off the topic here – this is not about me, it’s about ASCAP’s massive penalties aimed at score music and those who write them. What is your opinion about the 80% penalty applied by ASCAP to a one-minute score cue compared to a one-minute song cue within the same TV show? Every composer who gets an ASCAP check is affected by this. Your thoughts?

  • Peter Kaye
    March 14, 2010 @ 9:03 am

    ” …the Amended Final Judgment 2 in 2001… ” Ack!, it is hard for me to admit this but I have not been paying the closest of attention for almost a decade (a couple of years spent in Europe at the beginning of the decade). I will have to look into this. Still, I have to agree with Max’s assertion that your obsessive commenting about ASCAP would be most likely read as a support of BMI. “BMI is a competitive counterbalance to ASCAP”, is hardly the true picture. BMI is the “anti-christ”, a Quisling (if you might forgive my lack of better vocabulary this morning), like all dark and evil enterprises, its face is of the nicest people (I have fond thoughts and memories of many who work there). ASCAP is very much like our country, full of faults, not the least of which is to be vulnerable to control by the rich and powerful. In both cases (ASCAP and the USA) there are methods to effect, whereas BMI is a dark Mordor. Admittedly ASCAP’s powers that be (particularly under the recently past president, whom, like Ceasar, I suspect of being hungry for power) have been working to close those avenues of change (just as the lobbyists do in Washington), yet I believe Mr. Williams to be an intelligent, honest and fair man. Yes, the 80% is wrong, but ours should be to keep up the clamor so that President Williams hears it (as you did so well in this letter), but to refrain from destroying our (composers) last source of reasonable renumeration, if just by strengthening BMI’s evil lure.

  • Mark Northam
    March 14, 2010 @ 2:43 pm

    Hi Peter –

    Here’s an interesting article (long, but VERY detailed and well researched) by our performing rights columnist Mark Holden that details the controversial changes the ASCAP Board created since the government let them off the hook in 2001..

    I have to disagree with your assessment of BMI. While it’s true they’re funded by the broadcasters, I just don’t think a lot of pretty smart composers like Jerry Goldsmith, John Williams and others would be members if they were really were the “anti-christ” of the PRO world as you believe.

    But it’s a matter of perspective, too. The broadcasters seek to minimize or eliminate performing rights royalties altogether, as they see it as a “tax”. So are they our enemy because of that, or are they actually our clients since they pay the license fees that fund the entire performing rights system? I believe ultimately they are our clients because they are “using” (performing) our music. And as such, I take great exception to any organization who bills them on our behalf (well!) and then turns around and redistributes the money is such an unfair and inequitable fashion, simply because of a prejudiced and discriminatory view that “all songs” represent first class music an “all score” represents second class music and should be financially penalized as such in order to provide more money for the “first class” (songwriters) writers. While some songs are great, the same could be said for some score music. And to reiterate, ASCAP receives no more for a minute of song than they do for a minute of score – what on earth gives them the right to pay out the money in such a skewed and lopsided manner? The arrogance and greed of ASCAP”s ruling songwriters, that’s who. Those are the people that are the “keepers of the faith” and must continue the “song is king, score is second class” way of thinking in order to justify the huge payment rate differences. And those people are not friends to composers.

    I have NO WISH to destroy ASCAP. But publicly calling for change in strong terms is not a wish for destruction, it’s a wish for reform, and I truly hope Paul Williams is the guy to make it happen. The forces of arrogance, greed, and selfishness are truly the “dark and evil” influences (to use your term), and those are the influences that have created the massive injustice for composers that the 80% penalty represent – a money grab by one group of writers at the cost of everybody else.

    I’m excited about Paul’s presidency, and want to give him every benefit of the doubt in terms of recognizing the true value of custom score music in film and television and undoing some of the damage that the board has done over the last 9 years to policies like the election policy. Should Paul and ASCAP be successful in creating this reform, you won’t find a bigger supporter of ASCAP than me. In the end, it’s why I’m still an ASCAP writer and publisher member.

  • JJM
    March 24, 2010 @ 12:13 pm

    ASCAP has been known to be a dirty company. They love money.

  • March 24, 2010 @ 9:41 pm

    Most music creators likely think all they have to do is create music in some digital file, upload a copy to the copyright office and register it, or register it with ascap or bmi and the heavens will open and the bucks will come falling into their lap. Most music creators are clueless as to how to earn money from their music; ascap’s existence mEans they won’t starve, because otherwise they would try to come to grips with the complicated business of negotiations and royalty collection. Discuss more serious issues such as the rampant fraud in the collection of royalties, and then stop the discussion and actually do something about it.

    Meant with love and peace.

  • Jack
    March 11, 2011 @ 2:54 am

    Unfair business practice towards bands and artists from stowe vermont.Two venues in Plymouth ,New hampshire.One named Hong Kong Garden and The Lucky Dog.They refuse to pay Ascap .And they charge money at the doors to pay bands performing .But they cheat and exploit them of the money they should pay at the end of the night.Will Ascap do anything to help.

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