How BMI and ASCAP Track Your Song Usage in the Media

Think about having to keep track of every play of every song all the time. That is precisely the task faced by performance rights royalty collection societies like BMI and ASCAP. Their responsibility is to know exactly which of their members' songs are being played and where so that they can accurately distribute royalties to publishers and songwriters.

The job itself is herculean, but the groups do have methods to manage the mammoth undertaking. Here is how they approach each media sector to make sure their members get paid. Note that this information applies primarily to U.S. performance rights royalty collection and more specifically to ASCAP and BMI practices. However, the basics are the same in most territories.

Royalties for Radio

a vintage photo of a family listening to a radio together
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Tracking radio plays is by far one of the most daunting tasks faced by performance rights collection groups. Since it is downright impossible to generate a list of every song being played on every radio station all the time (let alone manage that data), collection rights groups tackle this challenge in a few different ways.

BMI uses a mix of station reporting and digital monitoring. They require every station to whom they issue a license to keep a log of the songs they play for a set period each year.

Typically, every station reports its playlists for a three-day period. BMI combines that data with digital monitoring of radio plays to come up with an idea of whose songs are in heavy rotation.

ASCAP relies solely on digital monitoring.

Monitoring Live Television

Television networks carry a great deal of the burden when it comes to reporting live plays. For both BMI and ASCAP, stations must keep what is known as cue sheets: a list of every song that is played on the network, when it is played and for how long.

All of that information is necessary because different royalties are paid for different types of song usages. In addition to combing the data provided by the stations, the performance rights societies also use digital monitoring to keep track of television song plays.

Digital Plays

When it comes to digital plays, life is good for songwriters, publishers, and performance rights societies.

The nature of digital performances of songs means that digital broadcasters are able to report their playlists with just about 100% accuracy to the performance rights groups. (Keep in mind that a live "performance" doesn't have to mean a live show; it can mean a public airing of a recorded song.)

In fact, they can provide so much data that their thoroughness is almost problematic for BMI and ASCAP. It is, in fact, such an information overload that they often struggle to make sure it all gets reviewed.

Live Plays

Live plays are tracked much more loosely in the U.S. than other territories. In the U.S., the 200 highest grossing venues report their song plays to the performance rights groups; these venues are determined according to a list generated by a music industry publication called ​Pollstar.

Understandably, this method barely scratches the surface of concert plays, so many songwriters in the U.S. see little if any royalty income from concert plays of songs they have written.

In many other countries, these plays are tracked much more closely, and even small venues are required to turn in setlists of the shows they host.

Special Case: Film

Contrary to what you might think, in the U.S., performance rights royalties are not collected on music played in films because the film industry successfully fought to be excluded.