Performing Rights Organizations (PRO) and How They Can Help You in the Music Industry
By Michelle Curry
What exactly is a Performing Rights Organization?
According to Donald S. Passman, author of “All You Need to Know about the Music Business”, a Performing Rights Organization or, PRO as it is often called in the music industry, is a business intended to represent music creators and their right to be paid when their music is performed in public...
In other words, a PRO is a company responsible for collecting the money from a public performance and supplying members with their share of the money. PRO’s collect money from public performances by issuing rights to establishments that are interested in playing a member’s music publicly; these rights are referred to as licenses. After the PRO collects the license fees, the company distributes each member their share of the money in the form of performance royalties.
How many Performing Rights Organizations exist and what are the society’s functions?
There are currently three major PRO’s in the United States; BMI, SESAC, and ASCAP. All three Performing Rights Organizations work with composers, songwriters and music publishers to ensure compensation of publicly performed work. Affiliating yourself with a PRO grants the organization permission to issue licenses to the people and places that want to use your songs publicly. PRO’s issue this license for a fee and then pay its members their share of the money.
What is considered a Public Performance?
Donald S. Passman expresses in his book that “any time your music is played and heard in a public place it is considered a public performance.” Your songs can be played in a nightclub, on the radio, on television, in a venue, in a supermarket, in an elevator, in an amusement park; basically anywhere that your music is heard publicly it is considered a public performance. Your performance does not have to be live to be measured as a public performance.
What are the requirements for my work to be considered for Public Performance Rights?
In order for a musical creation to even be considered for performing rights, it must first be copyrighted. The legal definition of copyright is “a limited duration monopoly” (as stated in the US Constitution). In other words, in order for something to be copyrightable it must first be original, and second in tangible form. Tangible form simply means your work is written down or recorded; your work can not be copyrighted by simply “being in your head”. Many people believe your work must be registered with the Library of Congress to be legally copyrighted, but under the United States copyright law, as soon as your work is in tangible form, you have created a copyright. Even though there are many perks to registering your work with the Library of Congress, you don’t have to register in order for your work to be securely copyrighted. Joining a PRO can ensure writers, composers and publishers that all of their original work submitted to their PRO will be properly copyrighted.
Visit www.copyright.gov to learn more about the details of copyright and how to properly register.
What are the different sources of Public Performance income?
Taken from the book “All You Need to Know about the Music Business” by Donald S. Passman, the five most common sources of income involving public performance are radio, television, touring, Muzak, and webcasting. All three of the US PRO’s have some form of tracking system for songs played on the radio. The PRO’s either require radio stations to keep logs of all of the musical compositions played or the societies use services that digitally “listen” to stations and report what is “heard”. Television stations are required to use Cue Sheets, or lists of every musical composition used, how long it was used, and the setting it was used in (background music, theme song, used in the opening or ending credits, ect). Depending on the setting of the song, the length of the song, and whether it is played on local or national television accounts for the music creators’ payment share. PRO’s also consider live performances as payable public performances. The PRO’s pay based on set lists, or the list of songs played at a concert by the band or artist involved. PRO’s receive the set list from either the venue or the artist’s manager. Another big source of public performance income is Muzak. Muzak is the resource used to find music played in less popular mediums of public performance than radio and television. Muzak involves music in grocery stores, elevators, waiting rooms, ect. Webcasting is also a prominent source of performance rights money. The act of webcasting is non-interactive, meaning you don’t get to decide what you listen to, similar to radio. Webcasting is essentially a radio station on the internet, such as Pandora.
What are the differences between the US PRO’s and which one is the best?
The three Performing Rights Organizations in the United States all basically do the same thing. The reason for joining a PRO is to guarantee that you are compensated when your musical work is performed in public. All three organizations guarantee this, therefore choosing the “best” one is based on your personal preferences.
Passman points out in his book that one major difference between the three US Performing Rights Organizations is the fact that BMI and ASCAP are both non-profit societies meaning that all of the money available after paying company expenses is distributed among its members. SESAC on the other hand is privately owned and operates for a profit. SESAC is definitely the smallest society of the three and only has about 1% of all the performing rights. However, simply because SESAC is the smallest does not mean that it is of any less significance than BMI and ASCAP; it simply means the company operates on a more personal level.
How can joining a PRO help me with getting a record deal?
If your music is not being played on the radio, it is going to be difficult to get a company to offer you a record deal. DrumMagazine.com explains that this is where your PRO comes in. They have invested interest in you and therefore want to see you succeed. PRO’s are not only useful when getting your music publicly performed, they can also be helpful when alerting record labels about their new artists; getting your name out there. PRO’s actively promote their artists and many times supply opportunities for artists to perform for publishers, music producers, and record labels.
Can I be a member of more than one of the Organizations?
You are only allowed to be a member of one PRO at a time. However, if you would like to switch from one organization to another, you can wait until your current contract expires and move on to a different PRO (www.musicians.about.com).
How do I join a Performing Rights Organization?
First off, you must have one or more original musical creation that is legally copyrighted, meaning written down or recorded. Technically, you don’t need to join a PRO until your music is being played in public, however a PRO can help you receive radio airplay and other forms of public performance. Signing up to join a PRO is as easy as visiting the PRO’s website you are interested in. You can either join as a writer or a publisher. If you register as a writer, you will need to supply information about songs you have written, such as the title, the name of the performer/performers, the date it was released or performed, ect. If you register as a publisher, the information needed is a little more complex. When registering as a publisher, you are registering as a business, and will therefore need to provide all the important information about your business, such as the name of your publishing company, the business structure, list of officers, tax identification number, ownership information, ect. The PRO’s will process your application and soon you will be affiliated. Unlike BMI and ASCAP, SESAC uses a selective process when determining their affiliated songwriters and publishers, and therefore are a little more “picky” when deciding their members.
There is a $35 fee to apply for an ASCAP membership, for both writer and publisher; however there aren’t any annual fees. It is free to affiliate with BMI as a writer; however there are required fees involved to affiliate as a publisher. There are no fees or dues when offered a SESAC affiliation.
A Little about ASCAP
ASCAP, also known as The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, was established in 1914 and was the first Performing Rights Organization founded in the US. As America’s first and largest PRO, it has over 400,000 US members. The company’s members include composers, songwriters, lyricists, and music publishers of every genre of music. According to the ASCAP Website, “ASCAP is the only performing rights organization in the U.S. created and controlled by composers, lyricists, songwriters and music publishers.” ASCAP is also associated with international societies and represents hundreds of thousands of music creators worldwide.
ASCAP has been the PRO choice of many great American music creators, past and present; Duke Ellington, Jay Z, George Gershwin, Stevie Wonder, Dave Matthews, Alan Jackson, and Beyonce to name a few. ASCAP also represents music creators from every music genre; pop, rock, alternative, R&B, rap, hip-hop, country, Latin, film and television music, folk, roots and blues, jazz, gospel, Christian, new age, theater and cabaret, dance, electronic, symphonic, concert, and many others.
Learn more about ASCAP by visiting www.ascap.com.
A Little about BMI
BMI stands for Broadcast Music Incorporated and was established in 1939 as the third PRO formed in the United States. As stated on the BMI Website, the company was established as a “non-profit-making performing right organization, and was the first to offer representation to songwriters of blues, country, jazz, r&b, gospel, folk, Latin and, ultimately, rock & roll.” BMI was created to compete with ASCAP in the performing rights region. Its members include songwriters, composers, and music publishers and it serves to collect license fees and distribute royalties to its members. BMI is currently the second largest Performing Rights Society in the United States and works with over 70 international companies to collect royalties from other countries.
BMI represents many different genres of music and its member list includes Eminem, Lady Gaga, Mariah Carey, Taylor Swift, Black Eyed Peas, Celine Deon, Jennifer Lopez, Dolly Parton, Rhianna, Elton John, Maroon Five, Miley Cyrus and many more.
Learn more about BMI by visiting www.bmi.com.
A Little about SESAC
SESAC was founded in 1930 and initially only promoted European and Gospel music. When first established SESAC stood for The Society of European Stage Authors and Composers, however the company expanded its promotion to more diverse music genres and today is simply known as SESAC. SESAC has remained significantly smaller than BMI and ASCAP but prides itself on the personal relationship and level of service it provides for its members. SESAC’s corporate Headquarters is located in Nashville, but contains offices in Los Angeles, Atlanta, New York, Miami, and London.
According to the SESAC Website, “SESAC will represent the right for your music to be played in public. Songwriters and publishers are paid royalties based upon how much their songs are played. The system required to compute compensation is based on many factors, including state-of-the-art monitoring, computer database information and broadcast logs.”
Learn more about SESAC by visiting www.sesac.com.
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