Originally published on Fynsworth Alley.
MICHAEL KERKER is the Assistant Vice President of ASCAP, the American Society for Composers, Authors, and Performers, serving as ASCAP’s authority on musical theatre and cabaret. He coordinates the ASCAP Musical Theatre Workshop, the Sunday Night Songwriters series at the Firebird Cafe in New York, and other programs to encourage work by emerging and established writers in the musical theatre idiom. He has served on the boards of the Manhattan Association of Cabarets and Clubs, The Johnny Mercer Foundation, The Songwriters’ Hall Of Fame, and The Society of Singers.
DL: Let’s start off talking about your job. For people who have no idea what ASCAP even is, how do you explain it?
MK: To explain what ASCAP is, it’s nice to tell this short story: When Puccini came to America towards the turn of the century for the American premiere of his musical The Girl From The Golden West, he invited the great American composer Victor Herbert to the opening night. When the performance was over, they went to a very famous restaurant in New York on 14th Street called Shanley’s – kind of like the Harmonia Gardens restaurant in Hello, Dolly! Most restaurants at the time had little four-piece orchestras, and when they walked in, because Herbert was the composer of the day, they struck up some Victor Herbert melodies and played them during dinner. Puccini said to Herbert, “Isn’t this wonderful that while we’re dining, you’re earning money?” Herbert didn’t know what he was talking about. Italy had already established a performing rights organization to protect songwriters, to ensure that songwriters would be paid for their music when it was played publicly. Cutting to the chase, Puccini explained what this performing rights society was like, and thus Herbert got the idea that the United States needed an organization comprised of songwriters so that songwriters would be paid when their songs were performed publicly. That’s what ASCAP is. Herbert started it, and the story goes that in 1913, he invited the major songwriters of the day to a meeting. The meeting was held at Luchow’s on West 14th Street, another very famous restaurant. Because the weather was so bad, only eight people showed up! So those eight, plus Victor Herbert are the nine founding fathers of ASCAP. Of interest to your readers, one of the people who showed up was John Golden, for whom the Golden Theatre on Broadway is named; he wrote the song “Poor Butterfly.”
Essentially, what ASCAP does – any place you hear music performed, and that can be bars, grills, restaurants, nightclubs, radio stations, bowling alleys, airports, radio stations, television stations… ASCAP licenses the rights to use music. All that money in turn goes back to the songwriters in the form of royalties. It’s a very complicated system as to how it goes back to the writers, so I won’t go into it now, but that’s essentially what ASCAP does and how it got started.