Michael O’Neill


Two years ago, Michael O’Neill was named CEO and, last year, president of Broadcast Music Inc. In the two decades that he has been with the company, much has changed in the music industry—namely BMI’s challenge in making money for songwriters and composers in a digital age.

When alumnus Michael O’Neill announced in a 1994 job interview that he knew basically nothing about the music industry (although, of course, he loved music), he was evidently just the man for Frances Preston, at the time the CEO of Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI), the nonprofit organization that advocates for musicians and protects royalty rights. Preston, desperate to find a point man to extract more revenue from cable, television, and radio companies that paid BMI to play the music of its songwriters and composers, figured that O’Neill RBS’86, a financial wiz at CBS who contracted sports-programing deals, could learn the music industry.

And he has, indeed. By 2013, after close to 20 years at BMI, O’Neill became CEO and, a year later, president. In the intervening decades, much has changed in the music industry—namely the challenge of making money for songwriters and composers in a digital age, when access to music is easy—and usually free. “The internet has this whole concept of free,” says O’Neill. “But for the songwriter, that doesn’t work. So, how do we get businesses to step up and pay for it?”

O’Neill has testified before Congress over copyright laws and gone to court numerous times to fight for songwriters’ fees. Last year, BMI generated revenues of $977 million and distributed more than $840 million to its songwriters—the highest revenues and royalty distributions in company history. Its repertoire consists of roughly 8.5 million musical works created and owned by more than 650,000 songwriters, composers, and publishers. Although recording companies are bigger and better known, a performing rights organization like BMI, founded in 1939, is integral to keeping songwriters, composers, and publishers in business and creating new music. The company was a big player in introducing jazz and country music to radio listeners.

BMI strives to stay abreast of the changing tastes of listeners, and it nurtures talent while maintaining the right mix of songs and songwriters to offer to movie companies, radio stations, and Pandora. But the ongoing implications of the internet are the largest concern. “Consumers don’t have to pay for access to music, and that has thrown the industry into a tizzy,” says O’Neill, a native of Oceanport, New Jersey. “How do you manage through the chaos and make money for the songwriters and keep your employees motivated?”

Evidently, O’Neill has the answers. Up until 2010, he had been running the licensing group and had growing responsibilities for the writer-publisher group as well as for distribution. His appointment to the top posts came as a big stamp of approval: “It was like the company was telling me I could do it,” says O’Neill, who returned to Rutgers Business School–Newark and New Brunswick in March to be the featured speaker at its CEO Lecture Series. “They were giving me these huge areas of responsibility and saying, ‘Let’s see how you run with it.’”