The ACA Story
(Article 1 in a series of articles highlighting the history of ACA, in celebration of ACA's 75th anniversary)
In 1984 it is difficult to believe, that as late as 1937, composers of concert music in the United States were not paid performance royalties. With a considerable body of American symphonic music already in existence at that time, it seems, in hindsight, the most natural thing in the world for 48 composers to have gathered in the rooms of the Beethoven Society in New York City in December, 1937 to discuss their mutual problems. It was, in fact, a revolutionary step that was to have far-reaching consequences. Among other things, it led to the formation of the American Composers Alliance. The original organization committee consisted of Aaron Copland, Wallingford Riegger, Roger Sessions, and Edgard Varèse. Copland, who was elected Chairman, became the first President of ACA, a job he held for seven years. These composers were not just exploring methods of securing just remuneration for their labors but, more importantly, they were seeking a far wider recognition for American concert music in general.
By mid-1938, the ACA roster of members consisted of 184 composers from around the country. Still, there remained some doubters; those who adopted an attitude of watchful waiting. They seem to have been guided by fear that they might lose an occasional performance if they dared ask for a performance fee. Although not disputing their rights to an opinion, they apparently lacked the courage to take a hand in the positive aspects of collective action.
Therefore, we must fully appreciate Copland and his colleagues when they decided to force upon the performing organizations the option of paying performance fees in accordance with the law or facing the suspension of performances of all contemporary American music. The members of the newly-formed Alliance fully intended to arouse public opinion to such a pitch as to make the performers’ position untenable. They expected that the music world would gain a greater respect for their work when they realized that these composers were attaching something more to their work than mere artistic value. In other words, the composers were not content to continue to be last in the scheme of things when, in truth, they were first. They were the creators of the music itself.
The next several years were spent in various negotiations with ASCAP as well as the newly formed Broadcast Music, Inc. But it was not until 1944 that ACA Executive Secretary Harrison Kerr and BMI were able to come to an agreement in which the latter agreed to act as agent for the collection of performance royalties for music controlled by ACA. With periodic renegotiations and adjustments, this close relationship has remained in force to this day, to the mutual benefit of both organizations. The last important change in the long-term relationship between ACA and BMI occurred in 1972, when all ACA members joined BMI. Since then, BMI has directly represented these composers in the collection of performance royalties. The reorganization left ACA, in effect, as a BMI-licensed publisher and complete service organization catering to the needs of a select list of BMI composers. Listing roughly 140 members in 1972, ACA now  encompasses approximately 300 composers. Although some members, once established, move on to a relationship with a major commercial publisher, many choose to remain with ACA. The organization remains especially attractive to younger composers whose careers are just getting underway.
However, to backtrack a bit, ACA over the years has initiated a number of important projects in its role of “furthering the general interest of the composer of serious music in America.” The most productive period derives from the brief stewardship of Oliver Daniel, during the early 1950s. Sandwiched between his role of producer of classical music programs for CBS and his job at BMI, where he was widely known for his forceful advocacy of contemporary music, Daniel instituted a series of distinguished new music concerts in conjunction with the Contemporary Music Society. He also reactivated the quarterly ACA Bulletins as well as the regular series of radio programs of ACA music on WNYC. Moreover, during this period, Roger Goeb designed the facsimile printing operation known as Composers Facsimile Edition (CFE) as a service to the music world in general and not just to ACA members.
However, Daniel’s most important contribution to American music at this time was the organization, with Otto Luening (then President of ACA), Douglas Moore and Avery Claflin, of Composers Recordings, Inc. This company has recorded literally hundreds of American composers’ works (most of them premiere recordings) along with many important scores by Charles Ives. Claflin, a banker-composer, was the first president of CRI. Although in 1976 became the country’s first non-profit record company (and thereby was officially detached from ACA [which was not a non-profit organization at that time]), the two organizations continued to work closely together and shared office space at 170 West 74th Street in New York City for many years. To be considered for the ACA Recording Award, many ACA members previously had their works recorded on a point system. But when CRI became non-profit and independent, a peer group jury system was established to choose members’ works annually which will receive the award. [CRI recordings are currently available through New World Records.]
Oliver Daniel was also instrumental, in 1951, in inaugurating the prestigious ACA Laurel Leaf Award. It is given each year to an individual or an organization by the Board of Governors for “distinguished service in encouraging and fostering American music.” [This year, in 2012, the award will be given to Innova Recordings.]
Over a stretch of time going back to the 1960s, ACA’s day-to-day operations have been expertly carried out by General manager Rosalie Calabrese. In 1975, I became ACA’s Executive Director. In February 1977, a concert of ACA orchestral music celebrated the 40th anniversary of ACA. Through my efforts, funding came from BMI and several private foundations. Conducted by Dennis Russell Davies and warmly supported by the newly-elected President of ACA, Nicolas Roussakis, this concert was so enthusiastically received by audience and press that a new, separate non-profit corporation was set up, which gave birth to the American Composers Orchestra. In its first nine years of activity the orchestra performed 117 composers’ works, including 46 world premieres, 31 commissioned works and two Pulitzer Prize winners [stats are as of the date this article was originally written in 1984; ACO has continued on to present many more hundreds of important works by American composers, now into its 35th season, with its third music director and conductor, George Manahan].
The instincts of ACA’s founders seem sound when one considers the vast increase in the number of professional composers at work today, the broad range of styles in which they work, and the large array of media at their service. Surely these far-sighted persons caused a revolution.
Today, ASCAP and BMI are powerful, influential institutions representing thousands of creative individuals on many levels. However, threats remain and powerful commercial interests continue to try to deprive professional artists of their rightful rewards. Although ACA has become perhaps a more modest operation in recent years, it continues to function effectively in the role of publisher/promoter for approximately 300 composers of concert music from all around the U.S. [in 2012, ACA represents nearly 100 living composers and 60 composers’ estates, managing the legacy for former members who established a custodial plan with ACA before death.]
With the firm support of BMI president Edward M. Cramer, senior vice president for performing rights, Theodora Zavin, and vice president of concert music administration, James G. Roy, Jr., ACA offered the following services to its members:
1) Storage of printing masters for members’ scores, to enable copying of music upon demand through its printing operation.
2) Facsimile reproduction services for the music industry in general, as well as to members
3) Catalogues of member’s works made available to the public and updated regularly
4) ACA Recording Awards are given regularly and these recordings are widely distributed to radio stations and schools and are sold by mail order and through stores and dealers around the country.
5) Expert advice and help on such matters as contracts, copyright, legal matters and other technical issues
6) A staff available to help individual members in the promotion of a specific work
7) Lobbying in conjunction with other music organizations
In summary, if collective action was essential in 1937, it is no less important today. ACA keeps one simple goal in mind: to support and promote American composers and their music. Today ACA continues its close affiliation with BMI. Together they strive to fortify the still tenuous position of the American composer of concert music. With our musical research and development, our serious composers can follow their personal artistic visions. Without this, America’s cultural health is endangered. ACA, with enlightened support from BMI, continues to play a lively role in this never-ending mission.
--Francis Thorne, article from BMI: The Many Worlds of Music, Issue No. 1, 1984.
[images added, courtesy of the American Composers Alliance Archives, Composer history collection, located at Special Collections in Performing Arts at the University of Maryland.