What are Performance Rights Organizations?
As musicians, we love to share our passion with the world.
We write songs because they allow us to express ourselves in creative ways.
We share our songs through live performances and recordings because we want other people to experience the magic and enjoyment that we feel as artists.
In a perfect world, talented musicians could make a living simply by writing and performing, but reality has a way of stepping in to remind us that the rent is due, the lights need to stay on and food needs to be on the table.
As a result, musicians need to remember that, while making music is fun, it’s also a business, and in business, you need to get paid for the work you put in.
The good news is that it’s easier than ever to make money as a musician these days, but working efficiently through the right channels is the key to maximizing your profit.
While you can sell your songs on your artist website or through online publishing platforms, there are times when you’re going to need some extra help getting paid for your efforts.
Especially when it comes to getting paid for the use of your work in larger public performance settings, such as commercials, video games, live events and radio. For these situations, it’s necessary to be a member of a performance rights organization.
What is a Performance Rights Organization?
A performance rights organization (PRO) is an entity that represents the rights of artists, advocates on their behalf and collects royalties for the public performance of works.
These organizations often boasts hundreds of thousands of members and can be found in virtually every country on the planet.
Many PROs are non-profit, and some offer tiered membership options. When you register your works as a member of a PRO, you can expect to get paid a royalty for the use of your music if it is played in a public broadcast through a broadcaster that has purchased a license from your PRO.
The Difference Between a Public and Private Performance
When you purchase music for your own enjoyment, such as when you buy a CD or an MP3, you are actually purchasing a license. This may come as a surprise, but when you think about it in terms of music ownership, it makes sense.
You own the physical disc or the file that was purchased, but you don’t own the music as only the copyright holder is the owner. Instead, you are buying a license to listen to the music for personal enjoyment.
Because a PRO only collects money on behalf of the copyright holder or publisher when a performance is used publicly, such as when music is played for an audience for commercial purposes, these organizations do not have anything to do with how you get paid from purchases of your music by individuals.
These payments are instead handled by the seller of the music, and in most cases, this is the publisher as the publisher is assigned the right to sell licensing for the musical works they represent.
How Do PROs Ensure Artists Receive Royalty Payments?
The thing about having your music played far and wide and ensuring payment is that you can only be in one place at a time.
If your music is played on the radio on the other side of the country, how do you know, and more importantly, how can you ensure payment for the public performance of your music?
This is where PROs really provide a benefit because they handle all of the legwork for you.
In the example above, the radio station pays a licensing fee to the PRO. This fee is usually for a blanket license, meaning it covers any and all works registered to the specific PRO.
When a radio station (or any other public broadcaster) plays a song, the play is captured, usually by software. The broadcaster must then pay a fee for each time the audio is played for an audience.
With a blanket license from a PRO, the broadcaster can play registered works as often as the license allows as long as the works are included in the licensing agreement.
While it’s beyond the scope of this article to discuss all of the various types of licensing situations that could come into play, there are other instances where a broadcaster may use something like a needle-drop license.
This is where the broadcaster pays a royalty fee for each individual time a song is played, and this typically pertains to situations where a piece of music is not covered by a blanket license or the audio is not registered to a PRO with which the broadcaster has an agreement.
For the purposes of this discussion, however, we’re looking at the traditional role of a PRO with a blanket licensing agreement.
Is a PRO a Publisher?
PROs are not publishers, but they do work with publishers on behalf of artists representing copyrighted compositions. A music publisher is the entity that has been assigned the right to sell licenses for the usage of music.
In some cases, the artist retains portions of the copyright, but in others, the publisher is assigned the copyright. In either case, the publisher is the party that is able to decide when, where and how the music can be sold for public performance.
The publisher registers its works with a PRO in order to receive royalties. This means that the PRO is not the publisher, but instead, it works as a collection agency that takes monies paid out for the public performance of a sound recording and passes them along to the publisher.
The publisher then distributes these payments to artists and others involved in the publishing process according to the publishing contract. In many cases, the split will be 50% to the artist and 50% to the publisher, but again, this all depends on how the publishing contract is structured.
Common Performance Rights Organizations in the Music Industry
Below is a list of some of the largest and most well-known PROs in the industry. These organizations make up the majority of PRO memberships, but they pertain to North America only.
With that said, most major North American PROs have reciprocity agreements with international counterparts, so being a part of one is sort of like being a part of all.
Among the top PROs in the United States, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) is typically considered to be the professional standard.
ASCAP provides representation and advocacy for members along with the standard collection of royalties. Additionally, ASCAP offers health insurance and education programs, marketing tools for musicians, networking events and discounts on travel and merchandising.
ASCAP does, however, charge a membership fee and does not offer any type of free option, so it is usually chosen as the PRO partner for record labels and various publishers that are more likely to have capital to spend on artists.
Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI) is another top choice in the world of professional PROs, and unlike ASCAP, BMI offers a paid membership and a free option.
The organization offers royalty collection services once songs are registered with the organization, and even members who choose the free option are able to take advantage of this service.
BMI also advocates for the rights of musicians and is heavily involved in the legal fight against copyright infringement, both in North America and abroad.
BMI members can register their own songs through the organizations website, making it easy and convenient for independent artists to manage their own works.
The Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada (SOCAN) is a North American PRO that functions much like ASCAP, but the organization is focused more on Canadian artists, publishers and broadcasters.
Although organizations like ASCAP offer reciprocity with many international PROs, SOCAN was created to work within the legal framework of the copyright laws in Canada specifically. SOCAN offers many of the same services as other traditional PROs and sells licenses to Canadian broadcasters.
Originally designed to support the rights of European performance artists, the European Society of Stage Actors and Composers (SESAC) is a smaller PRO with headquarters in several major United States cities, including Nashville.
Today, SESAC bills itself as an alternative to larger PROs by touting its personal connections with artists and publishers. It should be noted that SESAC is not considered a traditional non-profit, and the organization does profit from membership fees.
As streaming has become one of the main ways in which people enjoy and broadcast music, this technology has made it more difficult for artists to keep track of plays and payment.
To solve this, newer PROs have come along that monitor streaming plays and collect royalties and advocate on behalf of artists across streaming platforms.
SoundExchange is an example of a streaming PRO, and although the organization is relatively new, its inception signals a change in the way artists and publishers are working with broadcasters and music fans.
The organization offers multiple splits for sound recording royalties, offering featured artists a larger cut than supporting artists. This provides a way for artists to collaborate in a connected world while still maintaining equitable payment structuring and recognition for all contributing artists on a recording.
SoundExchange does not, however, administer royalty collection for publishers and songwriters as these are covered by traditional PROs. As with traditional PROs, SoundExchange does not collect payments for individual private sales of music.
Should You Join a PRO?
If you’re an independent artist who wants to maximize earning potential, joining a PRO is a good idea, but there are some caveats to this move. First, consider the cost of membership. As mentioned above, organizations like BMI do offer a free membership option, but the benefits received might be fewer than those offered to paid members.
Also, consider that you can only join one PRO at a time, and membership will last for as long as you have your works registered or for the duration of your membership agreement. This means that even if your membership expires and you want to join a different PRO, you will need to re-register your works with the new PRO.
Lastly, consider that your PRO will advocate on your part, and this may include legal challenges to seeking relief on your own for copyright concerns. As a result, always read and ensure that you understand the terms of your membership before agreeing to anything as your membership may affect your ability to seek recourse in the future.
Become a Performance Rights Organization Pro
As with anything related to career development in the music industry, it pays to speak with a professional in order to understand the best course of action. This is why you should take the time to research your options before deciding on a PRO by educating yourself through the experiences of others.
When possible, speak with musicians who have experience working with different PROs so that you can get a real-world take on the reality of dealing with the process of registering works, receiving payments, working with payment schedules and understanding how a PRO membership affects your rights.
There are plenty of videos online in which musicians and publishers detail their experiences, and it’s also a good idea to work with a mentor or experienced music consultant to address the needs of your specific situation.