BMI’s First African American Woman Chairperson on Changing Music Business

Susan Davenport Austin speaks on her historic role at the long-running music company

How did you get involved in radio/music and this aspect of the business?

My family became involved in the radio business 40 years ago with the purchase of four radio stations in Pittsburgh, Boston, and Buffalo. Shortly thereafter we entered into the radio network business with the purchase of Mutual Black Network (MBN), which eventually became the Sheridan Broadcasting Network, which is now the majority partner of American Urban Radio Networks (AURN). So I have been around the radio business pretty much most of my life. I started my professional career as an investment banker, but always stayed near the communications business. After 10 years as a banker I joined Sheridan. I quickly became involved in a variety of industry groups and soon joined the board of the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), an industry trade association. It was through the relationships that I developed in my early years in the industry that I came to be on the BMI board. I am a firm believer that those who contribute creatively to our society should be compensated for their work and serving on the BMI board is a wonderful way to fulfill this goal.

What do you think are the biggest challenges facing songwriters, composers, and publishers today?

We are in an exciting time in the entertainment business. Digital has redefined how creative content is authored, distributed, and enjoyed by consumers. We are dedicated to ensuring that we help new markets grow while at the same time we help to define the value of music in the entertainment economy.

How has the digital age affected music licensing?

The digital age has created enormous opportunities for BMI and others, particularly as we see the consumer public embracing streaming of content. Our goal is to allow new models and delivery systems to help them grow and prosper, while at the same time compensating the creators of the works on which these markets are based.

What are your feelings on SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (Protect IP Act)?

BMI supported the intent behind SOPA and PIPA in stopping online piracy. We believe in solutions that balance the needs of the creative community and the businesses that use their works.

What would be your pitch to an independent musician or songwriter who isn’t or hasn’t yet considered signing up with BMI?

As friends of mine will tell you, I constantly pitch BMI to both upcoming songwriters and to those who might currently be affiliated with another society. I think that BMI’s open-door policy remains a cornerstone of our corporate philosophy. Today, the open door is electronic. Every month, more than 3,000 new songwriters come through a virtual open door, joining us through our online affiliation service. So our role in creating potential and opportunity for songwriters and publishers continues.

How has BMI adapted to the technological advancements in music?

BMI has also been a leader in the utilization of technology to help increase recognition of when works are played. For example, we can recognize short duration works that historically have not been able to be delineated. What this means for the songwriter is that we are constantly focused on ensuring that they are compensated for their work, whether it is utilized in radio, TV, a public venue such as a store or bar, or anywhere in the digital space. I would encourage [independent musicians and songwriters] to go to a BMI showcase and to visit our website (BMI.com) to learn about the programs that we create to support the craft of songwriting. I would suggest that they learn about the hundreds of thousands of writers who came before them as BMI songwriters—these are creative individuals who have truly created the American songbook. I’d fill them in on BMI’s efforts to grow revenues and to protect the rights of creators at the state level, in Washington and around the world.

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