The Differences in Accessibility of Popular Music and Classical Music


In William Velez’s article “Performing-Rights Collectives Dinosaurs of the New Millennium, he brings up some very interesting points regarding performing-rights organizations.  Despite being written nearly 20 years ago, this article brought-to-light some topics that are relevant to the current music industry. Particularly the commercialization of the music industry and how it affects what music becomes more accessible to consumers. 

            First, let us begin with a brief history of the creation of music licensing organizations. In 1897, composers were granted the right to perform their music in public. Shortly after, in 1907, this was changed to applying only to public performances that were for profit. This change led many composers being worried about illegal performances of their music, and the lack of compensation for their music. Only 7 years later, the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) was formed. As time went on other organizations were formed, including BMI and SESAC. ASCAP has become the most prominent; according to the Stanford Law Review ASCAP has control over 85 to 90% of the performance rights of all popular music along with 50-75% of “standard” music in the United States. Having such a stronghold on music leads to a higher profit margin than other music licensing organizations. For example, in 1990 ASCAP’s total revenue from licensing fees were around $358 million dollars. Compare that to ASCAP’s main competitor, BMI, which had a profit of $276 million dollars. It is clear how ASCAP was able to garner power and influence in the music industry. The rise in profits also led to focusing on every decision on making more profits through certain artists and genres. 

            In Velez’s article, he briefly touches on this by saying that executives had lost the possibility of an opulent career from nurtured talent over the course of several years, and the focus of executives shifted to the process of finding an artist that will result in “almost immediate “bankability”. This mindset has only increased and evolved over time. On several television networks there are dozens of shows dedicated to finding “the next big person” in music. Typically, the musicians on these programs sing popular-genres of music, judged by current popular music celebrities, and the reward is a record deal with a large record corporation. Often times, these competitions encourage viewer support to vote on who will continue through the next rounds of the show. It provides music industry executives with a clear indication of what kind of personality, image, and sound of a new artist is currently popular with the general public. These new artists are heavily marketed with ads, music used in all forms of media (ads on television, plays on the radio, news articles written about them) to help increase the marketability of the artist. This focus on quick profits has allowed many new popular artists to flourish, while pushing classical music further into the background.

            Classical music artists and CDs do not receive the same amount of advertisements, recognition, or air-time when compared to popular music genres. One cause of this can be attributed to the metadata used in streaming services that are popular today. One such service, Spotify, allows one to search the name of an artist and begin listening to their music. However, this process is slightly different for classical music. NPR Music provided an example of searching for Leonard Bernstein conducting Beethoven’s 9thSymphony, and how it may be categorized on a streaming platform. Beethoven’s 9thSymphony was recorded by Leonard Bernstein in three different concerts, with members from four different orchestras, and many different vocalists. Due to the methods of organization, it may be difficult to find different recordings of the same piece that is performed by different musical organizations. For example, distinguishing between the recording mention on NPR and a recording for the New York Philharmonic is much more difficult because of the aforementioned process. This, in turn, makes it more difficult for a consumer to find a particular recording that one may be interested in.  

That is not to say the overall genre of classical music is not growing, though. According to the British Phonography Industry, in 2018 the consumption of classical music in the UK rose about 10 percent overall. This also led to a 6.9 percent rise of CD sales along with an increase in consumers who stream classical music. However, these figures pale in comparison to the millions of downloads and plays of popular music genres.

  • Trice Mayhall


Besen, Stanley M., Sheila N. Kirby, and Steven C. Salop. “An Economic Analysis of Copyright Collectives.” Virginia Law Review78, no. 1 (1992): 383-411. doi:10.2307/1073313.

Schultz, Lucia S., “Performing-Right Societies in the United States.” Notes 35, no. 3 (1979): 511-36. doi:10.2307/939364.

Parr, Freya. “Increase in Classical Music Streams and Sales in 2018.” William Byrd | Accessed February 19, 2019.

Velez, William. “Performing-Rights Collectives: Dinosaurs of the New Millennium?” In Reflections on American Music: The Twentieth Century and the New Millennium. New York: Pendragon Press, 2000. 

“ASCAP Monoply Violates Sherman Act: Copyrights. Monopolies. ASCAP’s Blanket Licensing of Performance Rights Enjoined in Suit by Movie Exhibitors.” Stanford Law Review 1, no. 3 (1949): 538-46. doi:10.2307/1226378.

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