If you’re a songwriter or a creator-of-musical-goods, then you’ve probably heard someone reference a PRO before. It might have sounded like music industry jargon, which, technically, it is… Or perhaps you’re already familiar with the concept of a PRO but are unsure of which one to join and where to start. Well, this article is for you, my public performance-royalty-collecting comrades. I’ll answer some of the most common questions aspiring and independent artists have about these organizations and how they work (for you).
Read on, and make that paper.
What is a PRO?
PRO simply stands for “Performance Rights Organization.”
These are the people that keep track of your catalog of songs and distribute licenses to various venues, radio stations, and television networks, so that they can play your material and you get paid. Then, they divvy out your royalties.
In other words: PROs get the songwriters and publishers paid by distributing public performance royalties.
Another thing that is critical to note about PROs: These organizations exist to help songwriters and song publishers. They do not assist with the collection of public performance royalties for artists or those who own the recording rights. But more on that, later.
Why should anybody care?
Well, quite bluntly — if you don’t associate with a PRO, then you don’t get paid performance royalties. And that’s money left on the table. Simple as that. If you don’t have any songs that are on the radio or getting played beyond your bedroom, then this isn’t that big of a deal for you yet. No money has been left unclaimed.
However, if you’re looking to make a real career out of writing music, then it’s absolutely critical you associate with a PRO.
If you already have songs that are getting airplay or are being performed on stages, then you absolutely need to be collecting. It’s your money. You just need to claim it.
Register as both a “songwriter” and a “publisher.”
When you’re ready to join a PRO, you’ll want to associate as both a songwriter and a publisher. Here’s why:
Songwriters are owed compensation for performances of their compositions. Songwriters already own a piece of the song-pie simply for having written it. You may already know that this is called the composition right. It is solely owned by the writers of the piece — not the label, not a lawyer, not a publisher, and not a producer (unless he or she is a co-writer). As soon as pen has left paper of a songwriter’s finished lead sheet (melody and lyric), that songwriter’s copyright has begun. “Copyright” meaning, the right to make copies. The songwriter is the sole owner of the copyright of the composition (melody and lyric) and is the only person who can make copies at the moment. If someone, say an artist, wants to make copies of the song, or record it on their album, they’ll need to purchase a mechanical license from the songwriter. The songwriter still owns the composition right of the song (and maybe the publishing if they haven’t assigned it elsewhere), but the mechanical license grants the artist use of the song.
Publishers are owed compensation for performances of songs where they own the publishing rights. When a song is written, or born into the world, it is born with a certain set of rights. The writer of the song owns not only the composition rights, but the publishing rights as well. If you are not working with a publisher, then those publishing rights are yours. That is money on the table that belongs 100% to you.
Registering as both a songwriter and a publisher ensures that you are compensated as both a songwriter and a publisher. If you simply register as a songwriter, then you are missing out on your publishing royalties.
How do PROs get paid?
Venues, bars, and radio stations all must pay for a license when they play your music. That license comes with a fee. Those fees are paid to the PRO, who distributes the license to the venue or radio station. Then, they pass along that money to the rights owners (you and/or your publisher) as your royalties, with a percentage being kept by the PRO.
Of the American PROs, ASCAP and BMI operate as non-profit organizations. SESAC retains some income as profit. More on each major American PRO later on.
Do PROs collect royalties for streaming platforms?¹
This is a fairly complicated question at the moment. The short answer is yes, but buckle in, because if you both write and perform your own music, the way streaming royalties are paid out gets a bit bumpy…
As we mention above, there are two rights that kick in when a song is played, the composition right and the publishing right. But in the ’90s, a complicated series of legislative initiatives, the Digital Performance Right in Sound Recordings Act of 1995 and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998, together created a digital performance right for sound recordings, which necessitated a new kind of PRO to handle royalties for that right.
Typically when we talk about a PRO in the United States, we’re referring to one of the three organizations we get into below — ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC — who represent the rights of songwriters and publishers. But there is one other PRO — SoundExchange — created to represent performing artists and labels for royalties related to a sound recording’s digital performance right.
Traditional PROs collect and distribute royalties from streaming on behalf of songwriters and publishers. SoundExchange collects royalties on behalf of artists and labels.
Bottom line: If you both write and perform your own music, you should consider signing up with both one of the the big three PROs as a songwriter and publisher, and as an artist with SoundExchange.
Can I affiliate with more than one PRO?
When it comes to the 3 songwriting and publishing PROs — ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC — nope. You gotta pick one. If it were possible to have two or three memberships floating around, it would be like double dipping into the same pot. No one likes a double dipper. It’s gross.
Who are the major American PROs and how are they different from one another?
It’s important to do your research before deciding which PRO to affiliate with. If you can, head to a city where each of the main PROs have offices and meet with a writers’ rep at each location. They’ll be happy to discuss with you what they do for songwriters and what membership will look like. Many PROs also offer great perks like workshops, panels, discounts on conferences, writing rooms, and more.
Here’s some basic info to get you started:
“American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers”
Offices: New York, Nashville, Atlanta, Los Angeles, London, Miami, and Puerto Rico
ASCAP was started by composers and is run by composers and publishers today. Its board of directors is made up of composers, songwriters, and music publishers who are elected from the organization’s membership. With over 565,000 members, ASCAP is the second largest PRO in America by membership (the largest in terms of revenue). They also have agreements with other rights organizations worldwide and represent global members. They claim to have a distributorship of 88¢ per dollar collected.
Membership Fees: $50 to register as a songwriter, $50 to register as a publisher. One time payment, no annual renewal.
“Broadcast Music, Inc.”
Offices: New York, Nashville, Atlanta, Los Angeles, London, Miami, and Puerto Rico
BMI was founded by a group of radio broadcasters who sought to represent music licensing in emerging genres. Since them, it’s grown to become the largest performance rights organization in the US, with a membership of 700,000 members. They also work with PROs in other countries to represent their members.
Membership Fees: Songwriters can join for free. Publishers must pay a one time fee of $150.
“Society of European Stage Authors and Composers”
Offices: New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Miami, London, and Nashville
Originally established to help European publishers with their American performance royalties, SESAC has since grown into the fastest-growing American PRO representing songwriters, composers, and publishers of all genres. SESAC has also recently acquired the Harry Fox Agency, offering bundled licenses and streamlined efficiencies when dealing with certain mechanical rights.
Membership Fees: SESAC selectively affiliates, and encourages all professional-minded songwriters to apply for membership. No fees or dues are required if you are offered to affiliate.
¹This article was updated on June 3rd, 2016 to more clearly reflect the allocation of streaming royalties. An earlier version mistakenly claimed that PROs do not pay out royalties from streamed music.
Which PRO did you register with and how has your experience been? Share your thoughts in the comments below?