BMI songwriters create music in many genres, ranging from mainstream pop and country, to death metal and hip hop. BMI represents artists such as Selena, Demi Lovato, Fifth Harmony, Lil Wayne, Birdman, Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, Eminem, Rihanna and Shakira and Ed Sheeran; bands as diverse as Maroon 5, Evanescence, Nickelback and Linkin Park; Sam Cooke, Willie Nelson, Fats Domino and Dolly Parton; as well as composers such as Harry Gregson-Williams, John Williams and Danny Elfman and musical songwriters Richard & Robert Sherman. BMI also represents Michael Jackson's music catalog, Sony/ATV Music Publishing, which features the late artist's music as well as the largest repertoire of any catalog in history.
In the 1930s, radio was coming to prominence as a source of musical entertainment that threatened to weaken record sales and opportunities for "live" acts. The Great Depression was already draining artist revenues from recordings and live performances. ASCAP, the pre-eminent royalty/licensing agency for more than two decades, required radio stations to subscribe to "blanket" licenses granting ASCAP a fixed percentage of each station's revenue, regardless of how much music the station played from ASCAP's repertoire. In 1939, ASCAP announced a substantial increase in the revenue share licensees would be required to pay. BMI was founded by the National Association of Broadcasters to provide a lower-cost alternative to ASCAP. As such, BMI created competition in the field of performing rights, providing an alternative source of licensing for all music users.
The vast majority of U.S. radio stations and all three radio networks refused to renew their ASCAP licenses for 1941, choosing to forgo playing ASCAP music entirely and relying on the BMI repertoire. In February 1941, BMI and the Department of Justice entered into a consent decree, requiring certain changes to BMI's business model, including giving licensees the option of paying only for the music they actually use instead of buying a blanket license. The U.S. District Court in Milwaukee was chosen by the Justice Department to supervise the decree for both BMI and ASCAP.
Competing against the strongly established ASCAP, BMI sought out artists that ASCAP tended to overlook or ignore. BMI also purchased the rights to numerous catalogs held by independent publishers or whose ASCAP contracts were about to expire. To attract newer writers, BMI proposed to compensate songwriters and publishers on the basis of a fixed fee per performance, as opposed to ASCAP's two-tier system which discriminated against less-established songwriters. Thus, despite its original motivation regarding radio station royalties and its focus on radio station revenues vs artist revenues, BMI became the first performing rights organization in the United States to represent songwriters of blues, jazz, rhythm and blues, gospel (black genres, performers, and writers that ASCAP did not want to represent), country, folk, Latin, and—ultimately—rock and roll. During the 1940s and 1950s, BMI was the primary licensing organization for Country artists and R&B artists, while ASCAP centered on more established Pop artists. Also during this time, BMI expanded its repertoire of classical music, and now represents the majority of the members of the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Letters and the winners of 31 Pulitzer Prizes for Music. In July 2017, BMI has renewed long-term partnership with C3 Presents, world's largest music festival producers.
BMI issues licenses to users of music, including: