A quarter century ago, Mike O’Neill joined Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI), the music licensing organization, after establishing himself within CBS. At the time, the internet emerged as a commercial force, permanently transforming the media and music industries.
“It wasn’t easy to leave CBS,” O’Neill reflected. “But I decided shortly after we were successful in the retransmission-consent battle that it was a good time for a change.
“It was happenstance that BMI called me right around that time. I thought I could learn something different,” said O’Neill, who as president and CEO oversees all of BMI’s business operations, both domestically and globally, and directs its strategic growth to benefit BMI’s songwriters, composers, music publishers and licensees.
Early in his career, he interviewed at CBS Records but ended up working on matters for CBS Sports, so better late than never as far as his entry into the music business.
O’Neill found it appealing that BMI licensed every business that used music.
Former BMI president and CEO Frances Preston, who O’Neill eventually succeeded, “told me if I can help BMI better understand broadcasting, which generated the majority of its revenues at the time, she would teach me the music business,” he said. “I thought that was a pretty good trade. That was 25 years ago.”
Making the Music Move
O’Neill joined BMI in 1994 as director, group and national accounts, from the CBS Television Network, where he was director of affiliate relations. Within two years, he was appointed BMI’s assistant VP, media licensing, and two years later, promoted to VP, sales and administration, media licensing. In 2006, he was appointed senior VP, licensing, and in 2010, senior vice president, repertoire and licensing. In September 2013, he received his appointment as CEO and assumed the additional title of president in July 2014. O’Neill is also on BMI’s board of directors.
In 1994, cable TV was still evolving and new media platforms were on the horizon, such as satellite and digital radio, not to mention the internet’s promise as a major commercial force. “All of these platforms used music to help drive their audiences, which, for BMI, was a beautiful thing to grow with them as they grew,” he said.
During the past two decades, BMI needed to embark on an education process that music was not free, in spite of Napster’s emergence. “Our songwriters and composers make a living composing music,” he said. “That’s their property and you can’t just take their property for free.”
Regulatory-wise, new challenges confront BMI these days. Two and a half years ago, BMI asked the U.S. Department of Justice to update the consent decree that governs how BMI licenses rights to publicly perform musical works. It took a new turn recently, with the DOJ asking if the decrees are even needed. BMI joined forces with the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), the National Association of Broadcasters and licensees to make a united front to reach a “true industry compromise that works for everybody,” as it accomplished with the Music Modernization Act.
BMI and ASCAP are “fierce competitors” in signing up songwriters, composers and music publishers, O’Neill noted, but on the regulatory front, the licensing rivals are always quick to support each other’s mutual interests, such as protecting and fortifying the consent decree.
The public comment period recently closed. If the DOJ ultimately kills the decree instead of modernizing it, entertainment and media observers predict chaos in future music licensing. “We hate going to court,” the BMI chief said.
Asked what his greatest accomplishment might be, O’Neill noted he’s particularly proud that BMI announced this year it represents 1 million songwriters and composers and has generated more royalty revenue than any music rights organization in the world.
Based in New York, O’Neill travels much in his BMI role. Asked about his typical routine, he points to impending business trips to Los Angeles and then to Nashville for a do honoring Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, the late songwriting parents of his BMI predecessor, Del Bryant. Felice and Boudleaux wrote such hits as “Love Hurts,” “Wake Up Little Susie” and “Bye Bye Love.”
Asked if he had a favorite song, O’Neill notes the BMI catalog represents chestnuts including “Every Breath You Take,” “(Sitting on the) Dock of the Bay,” and “You Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” as well as recent hits from Ed Sheeran and Taylor Swift. To pick one, he said, would be akin choosing one child over another. Hailing from the Jersey Shore, O’Neill joked that he’d love to get Bruce Springsteen to migrate from ASCAP.
Television-wise, O’Neill will watch anything that has music composed by BMI-affiliated Mike Post.
Joining O’Neill in this HOF class of 2019 is BMI’s current chairman, Michael J. Fiorile, the former chairman and CEO of Dispatch Broadcast Group. Jack Sander, also a former BMI board chairman, was inducted in 2009.
An Inclusive Leader
“Mike’s management style [on the BMI board] is inclusion,” Fiorile said. “He’s always very anxious to hear what others are thinking before making major decisions. He’s a very good leader.”
Similarly, Sander, a retired vice chairman of Belo Corp., noted that when BMI sought Bryant’s successor five years ago, the search committee looked extensively outside the organization but found their best candidate internally.
“We’ve seen Mike in a number of roles at BMI,” said Sander, who was always impressed with O’Neill as “a sharp, bright young guy” with people skills well-suited for navigating the complicated business landscape, especially needed for the new leadership that BMI required in 2014.
With regard to his induction, O’Neill noted that he joined CBS in 1987 right after a major restructuring, allowing him to work for some great leaders, including Hall of Famers Peter Lund, Joe Abruzzese, Tony Malara and Howard Stringer. “I’m happy to bring the age of those people down a bit in the class of 2019,” O’Neill quipped. “I’ve had some good training all the way.”