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ASCAP ushers licensing system into the digital age

Its audio performance management system will consider more than 500 billion song performance this year alone, to figure out relevant royalties.

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Any person who has ever published, performed or played a piece of music is familiar with ASCAP (aka the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers).

Representing more than 9 million copyrighted compositions, the licensing organization makes sure its more than 500,000 members are paid for their work. That means anytime a song is played on the radio or on stage or any of the other places covered by its policies, someone somewhere gets paid.

This is not a trivial task: this year alone, ASCAP could pay creators for more than 500 billion performances, thanks both to traditional performance and digital services such as Pandora, iTunes and Spotify. So several years ago, it invested in a new audio performance management (APM) and digital rights system to support the ever increasing volume of music being played on the Internet and increasingly specialized radio stations.

"ASCAP's new APM system allows us to more quickly and accurately pay members for their radio and Internet performances," said ASCAP CIO Mark Katz. "Using complex matching algorithms to harvest big data, the APM system has transformed the way members are paid."

While the old system wasn't exactly broken, it was slow and highly manual—it could take months to get paid and there wasn't much ASCAP could do to change things. After all, there's only so much you can do with COBOL to modernize applications. "There was no sense of priority," said Lynne Lummell, ASCAP's senior vice president of distribution and repertory.

The non-profit's old mainframe systems and four legacy applications were supplanted with an Oracle data-processing framework that leverages Informatica analytics to match incoming song information with the appropriate copyright holders, Katz said. It monitors feeds from radio stations and ASCAP partners, and runs the information through pattern recognition algorithms for identification. It can even discern through "dirty audio footprints" (like when there's a voice playing over a song in the background). Royalties are calculated based on that information.

The overhaul took about a year and an agile approach was used to design the system. It was a "very collaborative process between the business users and technical specialists," Lummell said. The build-out cost approximately $500,000—money that was already earmarked to support IT operations, and the return on investment will be realized this year (two years after the update took place).

For the ASCAP executives, one of the most striking features is the opportunity to accommodate continuous improvement as the rules of music distribution continue morphing. "If you can find a performance, it should be payable," Lummell said. "Technology is allowing us to get closer to that, at a cost that makes sense. It doesn’t mean they're being paid more, it means they're being paid more accurately." 

Image courtesy of ASCAP