BMI Celebrates 75th With "Year of the Songwriter"


 By Andy Mesecher

Founded by the National Association of Broadcasters in 1939, Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI) was the first alternative to ASCAP’s blanket licensing fees associated with radio stations. You see, as radio royalties quickly grew through the 1930s, legislation was agreed upon (a Consent Decree) between the Justice Department and ASCAP to allow the formation of competing performance rights organizations (PROs). Under such a decree, BMI was born to level the playing field by providing an alternative source of licensing for all music users.

What separated BMI early on from other PROs was its decision to represent music that was innovative, yet risky, and give these new styles an equal opportunity to succeed. The organization follows that same formula today. As current BMI C.E.O. Mike O’Neill explains, “My predecessor Del Bryant was instrumental in helping license the art form of rap [early on]. Latin music we also embraced.”

O’Neill first joined BMI 20 years ago. Since then he has seen the company’s payouts expand exponentially. “[BMI has] changed dramatically in the way we’ve grown our distributions for our songwriters,” he explains. “I think when I first started we were distributing circa $150 million [a year]. Today it’s over approximately $850 million.” So what has created such additional revenue for BMI songwriters? “Over that period of time we’ve diversified [revenue streams]. When I began at BMI, the abundance of revenue came in from radio and television. …  But you look at today, radio and TV [are a much smaller percentage]. Cable has grown, satellite has grown and general licensing (bars and restaurants) is through the roof.”

Along with recovering royalties for its members, BMI helps its members to connect with one another through a number of industry events each year. “We provide career advice; connect you with other creators of music; make introductions to the music industry (such as publishers, record companies, booking agents); provide opportunities from intimate guitar polls to major exposures at festivals like Lollapalooza, Bonnaroo or SXSW.” In fact, producer/composer Christpher Tyng’s introduction to the industry came when friends entered his music into BMI’s Pete Carpenter Fellowship—a film/TV scoring contest that would award one entrant with a three-month fellowship in L.A. to work with Hollywood’s finest songwriters/composers. Tyng shadowed composer Basil Poledouris (Conan the Barbarian, RoboCop). Tyng now owns his own studio, has scored for Futurama, The OC and others, and is currently grooming artists the way BMI’s Basil Poledouris once groomed Tyng.

Today BMI represents over 600,000 songwriters. While many are well established, some are still finding their path. For beginning songwriters, O’Neill expresses the importance of joining any organization early, BMI or not. “If [a songwriter is] feeling the urge to write, and are starting to put their thoughts down, they should affiliate with BMI, ASCAP or another PRO. It’s important for their career development. There are ways that our executives and website will help facilitate the craft of songwriting. And, being the honest broker BMI has to be, we’ll give you honest feedback [about your songwriting]. You may not always like it, and we may not always be right, but we’re not afraid to say where to improve.”

To honor its 75-year anniversary, BMI has coined April 2014 - April 2015, “The Year of the Songwriter.” Along with a booked penned by Spin founder Bob Guccioni, Jr., BMI will honor the year with a “BMI TV” video series featuring top songwriters sharing the stories behind their songs/recordings; live concert events; and opportunities for emerging writers to help propel their careers. And according to its website, BMI will also continue to be the key driver of new public policy initiatives, such as the recent Songwriter Equity Act, to protect the copyrights of its songwriters in the digital age. When asked about the future, O’Neill made it clear that while the music industry shifts and musical styles are forever changing, the BMI mission will remain the same: To serve its songwriters, composers and music publishers, so that they can keep creating the music that will define and inspire the next 75 years.

Contact Leah Lupo, [email protected]

Photograph notes:

1. Thomas Rhett performing BMI Tailgate in Nashville
2. Kris Kristofferson signing to BMI with the late Frances Preston, former President/CEO of BMI
3. BMI at Comic-Con
4. BMI's pre-Grammy "I Wrote That Song" party
5. Del Bryant with Lady Gaga and Samantha Cox
6. Mike O’Neill, Dean Dillon, Steve Cropper, Jody Williams.
7. BMI Latin Awards
8. Adam Levine presenting at BMI Pop Awards
9. Country Heavyweights & O’Neill at BMI Country Awards