What Might Happen To Your Music After You Die (and What You Can Do About It)

According to its Web site, the American Composers Alliance (ACA) Custodial Membership Plan, “guarantees the continued availability of a composer’s music for performance, recording or publication and provides other related services for the dissemination of the composer’s works after his or her death. (Note that the composer need not be a composer-member of ACA.)

Specifically the plan:

  • Acts as a publisher, maintaining score and part masters, distributing scores and parts for sale or rental, and royalties as a publisher would.
  • Provides information to musicians and the public regarding the composer, the composer’s works, and the availability of works for performance, publication or recording whether or not those works are distributed by ACA, along with maintaining an ACA catalog of the works.
  • Provides a place where the heirs or estate may bring questions regarding any aspect of performance, publication, copyright, or recording of the composer’s works.”

In response to the above, I wrote the Executive Director of ACA, Deborah Atherton, posing a number of thorny questions. I include her response below (which are edited for brevity) with my thanks for her taking the time for such a comprehensive reply:

“Unlike other publishers of music, we are fortunate in being able to offer a wonderful archival state-of-the art repository for their works at the University of Maryland. We encourage our composers to make separate arrangements with the University of Maryland for the originals of their works and for any papers, documents, recordings, or photographs associated with their careers that they would like to preserve. But ACA is currently committed to being, not an archive, but an active publisher. Our job is not to preserve the original physical work (except insofar as it is needed for publishing) but to keep the music itself in circulation and available. It is important to emphasize that we do not own copyrights, and do not own the original work. We are not a non-profit organization, but an association incorporated to serve our members. Our income is from our members, through dues and through the annual publisher’s share of royalties from BMI.

“Consequently, we do not have a separate non-profit organization established for custodial membership. There is a separate interest-bearing fund for custodial members fees, and very careful bookkeeping, which shows interest and amortizes the membership as the initial deposit or deposits are used. If ACA was forced to close at some time in the future, all remaining funds would be returned to the designated heirs, while the deposited works would remain at the University of Maryland. ACA takes a tiny administrative fee for administering this fund and program, one-half of one percent of interest earned, and this, in fact, is one of the issues currently under discussion as we take a look at ACA’s future. But we encourage our composers to find a home for their original scores, papers, and recordings, in all formats; we would greatly prefer NOT to have the only original copies in our possession.

“As to the future of ACA… There is no completely safe place for art–libraries feel quite free to de-accession work they no longer want to hold (although I confess I was shocked when I first learned that). Even the wealthiest non-profits sometimes run into trouble–it wasn’t too long ago that the NYPL was in deep trouble–and for small arts organizations the future always has a big question mark. ACA is set up in such a way that both the funds and the musical works revert to the custodial members or their heirs in the case of ACA’s going out of business–and all the scores in our possession are preserved at the University of Maryland’s Performing Arts Library. Composers and their heirs will never lose anything by their arrangement with ACA, and are in fact, guaranteed a place in the University of Maryland’s collection. I think it’s a pretty good deal, though I agree, that if we could establish a very well-funded archive for contemporary music, to be held in perpetuity, it would be an even better deal. However, I would add that ACA has been in existence since 1937, and we cheerfully anticipate being in existence in 2037.”

ACA has only a BMI license, and is not licensed as an ASCAP publisher. As such, ASCAP composers are allowed to join its Custodial membership program but not ACA itself. ASCAP composers will have most privileges that BMI composers have. In return for ACA’s loss of income from publishers’ royalties of ASCAP composers’ music, ASCAP Custodial Membership composers will need to pay a somewhat larger startup fee.

The ACA Custodial membership Program is probably the only one of its kind in existence. Its goal is laudable and ambitious, and its concept is one that is sorely needed in our world. Additional correspondence with present and former officers of ACA has turned up some more thorny issues that need airing. Nevertheless, and with thanks for the honesty with which all the people responded, I will just cite some areas that composers should be aware of. First, there has been some history of the regular ACA membership program borrowing from the custodial program to meet current expenses. I am told that this is not so much an issue at present, but it is not prohibited in the bylaws. Second, ACA has undergone a bit of turmoil during the past few years, in terms of change of staff, financing and overall questioning of its mission. During that time it ceased to service current ACA members’ scores for over a year. There has also been a somewhat unsettlingly high degree of turnover in its personnel, and as of this writing, it is once again seeking another executive director (Deborah Atherton, the Executive Director quoted above, has recently resigned and a new director is being sought as this goes to press). Unlike the American Music Center, ACA’s sources of income seem to be largely derived from members’ fees and the BMI guarantee, which has been somewhat reduced over the years. One should embark on this journey (as all other journeys) with eyes open, and judge the long-term viability of any program on the total weight of the evidence.

From What Might Happen To Your Music After You Die and What You Can Do About It
by Barton McLean
© 2001 NewMusicBox

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