About performance royalties (ASCAP & BMI)

I posted my entry about publishing on Facebook, and a friend asked a very important question: if you give your scores away for free, should you still register your pieces with a Performing Rights Organization?

Yes, absolutely!

Performance royalties should be one of your income streams. It may be small “fun money” for a while, but if you start getting regular performances, the money can add up.

This post is written for composers of “classical” concert music. I’m focusing on royalties from concert performances–radio, licensing for movies, etc. will have to wait for another post.

Performing Rights Organizations

Performing Rights Organizations, or PROs, collect fees from entities that present music, such as concert halls, universities, radio stations, etc. PROs distribute these fees as “performance royalties” to composers and songwriters who have had music played by or in those entities. 

The main non-profit organizations are the primary PROs in the U.S. are the American Society of Composers and Publishers (ASCAP) and Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI).

Who pays whom?

Many of you may have pieces played at a university, so let’s use this as an example. That university pays fees every year to both ASCAP and BMI. ASCAP’s “base fee” for a university is 36 cents per full-time student. That covers incidental music at functions (walk-in music, student affairs parties, etc.). A School of Music will pay a different license ($236 per venue, plus $20 per ticketed concert). A performing arts venue connected to a university will pay yet another license. BMI has a similar process–a “base fee” of 38 cents per student, plus other rates for college radio stations, etc. 

Organizations that host concerts (festivals, ensembles, etc.) also pay license fees. One of my ensembles got into trouble for not paying ASCAP one time. We performed at a church, but their license did not cover our performance (they merely provided a free space to play). It was our responsibility to pay this fee so the composers could collect royalties.


You can only join one PRO, so which one?

Maybe the figures below will help you make a determination. Definitely speak with people in your orbit on their opinions!

A minor difference: ASCAP seems to assume that you will have a publisher who takes 50% of the performance royalties. Many people register themselves as a publisher so they can retain 100% of the royalties. BMI on the other hand, assigns you 200% of the royalties, unless you specify otherwise. This all makes sense to someone, I’m sure.

More important to know: For classical music, BMI determines royalties based on concert programs submitted by members. ASCAP performs a census and survey on performances, broadcasts, etc. 

Royalty amounts

Here are some ballpark royalty payments. The BMI numbers are based on my own royalty statements. The ASCAP figures were provided by Nolan Stolz and another anonymous contact.


  • Solo/chamber piece performed at a college: $60-80
  • Solo/chamber piece performed outside a college: $200-250
  • Band/orchestra piece performed at a college: $200-300
  • Band/orchestra piece performed outside a college: don’t know!

*note: electroacoustic works count as “chamber music” to BMI


  • $75-300 for chamber music
  • $500-1500 for large ensemble (higher end is for professional groups)

For college performances, assume the far low end of the scale, and note that many are not counted at all! ASCAP gives out an “ASCAP Plus” award to those who have a lot of performances; this helps make up for some of the missing royalties.

Where are your performances?

The differences between ASCAP and BMI basically come out in the wash, I would advise you to think about where you have performances, and what kind of pieces are getting performed. It looks like ASCAP pays a little more per performance. But if the majority of your performances occur on university campuses, you might find that BMI compensates you for more of them. 


While you can only join one Performing Rights Organization, which to join is highly subjective. This post provides some rough, ballpark figures for what you might expect to be paid for each performance. I highly encourage you to talk to your peers and teachers as you make your decision. But the main thing is: join one, and register your music! Otherwise, you’re missing out on a small but easy income stream.

2 thoughts on “About performance royalties (ASCAP & BMI)

  1. From my understanding there is another called SESAC, are they reputable? Also, I was told that these companies charge the venue a fee and what you’re saying is someone like BMI gives us 100% of royalties?

    1. SESAC is reputable; most classical composers I know use ASCAP or BMI so I focused on those. When I say that BMI gives 100% of the royalties, I don’t mean that it’s 100% of what a venue pays BMI. I just mean that there isn’t a 50% cut for the publisher.

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