Consider it my naïveté, but I always thought of ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) as a union, and I suppose it is, but then I guess I never imagined one could have a choice in their unions. If you are a stage actor, you either belong to Actors Equity Association, or you don’t. If you are a film actor, you either belong to Screen Actors Guild, or you don’t. If you are a playwright, you belong to Dramatists Guild, or you don’t. There aren’t, generally speaking, multiple options. But in the music business, there are options — the two main ones being ASCAP and BMI. This is the main, surprising point that I picked up from this book (though I don’t think that was the intent).
Actually, I don’t mean this opening paragraph to come across as negative. I really found the book quite informative. As a member of a couple of different artist unions myself, and as someone with a tremendous amount of respect for musical artists, this look at the formation and struggles of a major musical union was really fascinating. What we see here is that an organization which proposes to look out for all its members requires a great amount of dedication by its founders, presidents, and ‘super-stars’ willing to go that extra mile for everyone. It is safe to say that ASCAP has survived because of those dedicated few.
Unions, such as ASCAP, face a difficult journey in our age of the internet. I was glad to see a chapter on this, though probably they could write a whole book in and of itself on the topic. For those of us who simply like to listen to music, we don’t often think about the effects a Pandora or a Spotify or a Live365 or any of the myriad of music broadcasters have on the composers. How does an artist get paid for their work? It takes an ASCAP to fight those battles.
One of the surprises in here was look at how royalties are figured. I can’t imagine the days when ASCAP had audio tapes of radio broadcasts delivered and someone would have to listen to each tape, long enough to determine the title/artist of a song, then fast forward to the next song! In today’s era of apps such as SoundHound, which can determine the title/artist/album title/release date of a song in an instant it is just unfathomable to me that there really would be work done on such a primitive level, just to figure out a few pennies worth of royalties! Fortunately there are better, automated ways, though the number of broadcasting formats and venues has also significantly increased.
In many ways, this book is simply a pat on the back for those involved, and a call to musicians and composers to consider ASCAP as their representative. On their (ASCAP’s) 100 year anniversary, both are important. It is good to look back at the struggles to fight for the artists, as well as the importance of sticking together for the fight’s ahead.
Note that more than 1/3 of this book is a compilation of appendices, end-notes, bibliography, and index. The most useful of these is the listing of the variety of programming and awards that ASCAP offers its members and potential members.
Author Bruce Pollock does an incredible amount of research and clearly has an interest and passion for music and those active in the music industry. His writing is crisp and the book never bogs down despite the amount of history and business information that is relayed. Targeted for a rather specific market, the book does a nice job of informing and welcoming. I have to admit, though, that I’d now like to read the story on ASCAP’s biggest competitor, BMI.
Looking for a good book? If you are interested in music, music business, or music composition, this needs to be on your reading list.
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A Friend in the Business: The ASCAP Story
author: Bruce Pollock
publisher: Hal Leonard Publishing Corporation
hardcover, 320 pages