You Can’t Win If You’re Not In

You Can’t Win If You’re Not In

It was one of those weekly “creative music” gigs at the Luggage Store, a gallery space situated on one of the seedier blocks of Market Street, downtown San Francisco’s main drag. Chances are Ernesto Diaz-Infante programmed the evening’s lineup, but I went to so many of those Luggage Store shows, they sort of blur in my memory. Yet a certain performance sticks out. Matt Ingalls was in the midst of a nimble solo improv, his clarinet shifting registers faster than seemed humanly possible, then came a sonic repose. The composer-performer began to mutter something under his breath and then the words grew louder: ASCAP, ASCAP check, fourteen cents from ASCAP, fourteen-cent check from ASCAP. Permeations of the phrase sputtered from his lips, a rhythmic counterpoint to hocketed blats from his clarinet.

While the performance was fantastic, what stuck with me was that mysterious fourteen cents. Was this a premonition of royalties to come in my own future? I wasn’t a member, so how would I know? I thought I had a vague idea about the workings of BMI and ASCAP, but hindsight tells me I was clueless. In the circles I traveled in, nobody ever seemed to discuss performing rights organizations. My suspicion tells me that most of my fellow composer colleagues and Mills College classmates didn’t even bother to join. I do remember asking Fred Frith about performing rights organizations. As I recall, he sang the praises of GEMA. I had a few performances in Germany, so I sent for an application. More complicated than a mortgage, the papers collected dust and eventually disappeared. For one reason or another, the importance of affiliating with a performing rights organization was never really conveyed to me. Let me fill you in…

Pssst. Hey, you. Want some free money? Yes, that’s right FREE MONEY! I’m totally serious. I finally joined ASCAP around three years ago and ever since I’ve been on the gravy train, thanks to their annual awards. But wait, there’s more! After finally getting around to registering some of my compositions, I finally got my first royalty check this week. I don’t know how things get calculated—credits, credit values, huh?—but the folks at ASCAP cut me a check and the amount was nothing to sneeze at. And that was only for two measly performances—I just submitted a bunch of performances they didn’t pick up on. Might this add up to a new iPod? I have no idea. But one thing is for sure, if you’re unaffiliated, you won’t even get a lousy fourteen cents.

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One thought on “You Can’t Win If You’re Not In

  1. CM Zimmermann

    Does free money really exist?

    I understand that your point is to encourage composers to look into such organizations as ASCAP, however you do not, unfortunately, engage the reasons why such organizations are created or the larger context of performance rights and collective organizing. Your post’s conclusion runs something like: ‘check out ASCAP; you can get free money, which might allow you to buy a new Ipod.’ At a time when it is vital that the new music community function collectively and stress solidarity, you are appealing to individualistic ideals prevalent within the very economic and social system that threatens contemporary music.

    This is from ASCAP’s website:
    ‘ASCAP is the only U.S. performing rights organization created and controlled by composers, songwriters and music publishers, with a Board of Directors elected by and from the membership. ASCAP protects the rights of its members by licensing and distributing royalties for the non-dramatic public performances of their copyrighted works. ASCAP’s licensees encompass all who want to perform copyrighted music publicly. ASCAP makes giving and obtaining permission to perform music simple for both creators and users of music.’

    I am not maintaining that organizations such as ASCAP are without problems, however it seems to me that we need more focused discussion of our institutional framework, rather than strategies for obtaining personal technologies.


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