Join Garrick Chow for an in-depth discussion in this video What is a performance rights organization (PRO)?, part of Getting Started in the Business of Songwriting.
When you hear your favorite song on the radio or a cool track in a new TV show or even a song playing in the background at a restaurant, the writer of that song is paid for that performance. Performance Rights Organizations work on behalf of the writers to get them paid. If you want to get paid for your songs being played, you need to register your songs with a Performance Rights Organization or PRO. Once your songs are registered, they become part of that PRO's library and are available to that PRO's customers. Their customers include places like radio and television stations. Night clubs, restaurants, websites, malls, any place that plays music publicly.
Every time a registered song is played in one of these places, royalties are owed to the copyright owners. The PRO's collect royalties and then pay the royalties minus some minor operational fees to the copyright holders and publishers. Factors like how you filled out your Split Sheets and whether you have your own publishing company will affect the amount of your royalty payment. Most places that play music publicly like malls or restaurants, purchase a blanket license that gives them access to the PRO's entire library, rather than purchasing individual licenses per song. Although, some places may do that if they don't use a lot of music.
At this point, you're probably wondering how PRO's keep track of which songs are played at any time in order to get accurate records for royalty distribution. Each PRO uses a variety of methods. And sometimes these methods are a matter of contention giving how arduous a task it would be to track individual song plays. In general though, entities like radio and TV stations are audited with a varying combination of sample surveys, program schedules and playlists from their broadcasts and the information on which songs were played is pretty accurate. While places like restaurants and stores, usually pay a flat rate and the money collected from them goes into a royalty pool and its distribution is based on varying calculations.
I'm not going to get into how the PRO's determine royalty amounts here, since each one does it slightly differently. But let's talk briefly about these specific PRO's themselves. In the US, there are three main Performance Rights Organizations. ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC. As a songwriter, you can only register your songs with one of them. ASCAP, or the Association Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers was founded in 1914 and is the oldest PRO. Their current membership is comprised of over 470,000 composers, songwriters, lyricists and music publishers.
Currently, they charge a one-time fee of $50 to register as a writer, and $50 to register as a publisher. In order to collect your publisher's share of royalties as an ASCAP member, you need to have an ASCAP publishing company. We'll talk more about setting yourself up as a publisher a little later. BMI, or Broadcast Music Inc was founded in 1939 and boasts more than 600,000 members. Many songwriters register with BMI, because it's free to do so. Registering as a publisher currently costs $250 though, but you don't need to be a publishing company to collect your publisher's share of royalties at BMI.
SESAC is the only performance rights organization in the US that's not open to all songwriters. Instead, they invite songwriters to join. And they're very selective making them to smallest PRO, which according to them, lets them nurture personal relationships with their songwriters and publishers. So if you're just starting out, don't bother calling SESAC, they'll call you when they're interested. Instead, focus your attention on either ASCAP or BMI. You can of course, find out more on each PRO at their websites. Throughout the world, there are other PROs.
Most countries have one or more, as seen here. For instance, the PRO in Germany is GEMA. ASCAP, BMI and SESAC have relationships with these other international PRO's. Ideally, they'd all collect your money and route it back to you from all over the world. However, in reality, it's not that simple. Sometimes, you have to employ a third-party company to help you chase down the payments and we'll talk a little bit more about that later on.
The second half of the course is geared toward the DIY musician. Garrick discusses ways to self-distribute and promote your music with TuneCore, CDBaby, Topspin, Bandcamp, and ReverbNation. Plus, learn the importance of websites, social promotion, and music placement, as well as making music videos, signing with a record label, and building a solid team.