Money Behind the Music | Performing Rights Organizations


Since the dawn of the digital era and online streaming, music has become more accessible than ever before. For independent songwriters and artists that are just now beginning their journey to create and share their own music with the world, this is great news. However, it can be frustrating to pour your heart and soul into a project without seeing any return.

Fear not, for there are ways for you to receive compensation for your hard work. Because your song is your own property, you are entitled to six exclusive rights, including the right to public performance, whether the performance is live or just a sound recording.

Performance Royalties and PRO’s

If your music is being streamed online, played over the radio, or even being performed live at a venue, you are entitled to performance royalties. Performance royalties are generated by the public performance of a composition, whether it is a live performance or the ‘performance’ of a recording.

If you think about it, music is being publicly played almost everywhere, from coffeeshops, to radio stations, to shopping malls. In fact, you may even be listening to publicly performed music right now! How could songwriters and publishers possibly license their music to each of these entities and then proceed to collect the little bit of income generated from each source? This is where Performing Rights Organizations, commonly referred to as PRO’s, come in.

In order for a venue, business, etc. to legally play music in public, a blanket license must be obtained from the PRO’s by paying either a flat fee or a small percentage of revenue generated, depending on the PRO and the type of licensee. These blanket licenses give the licensee permission to publicly perform all music within the respective PRO’s catalog.

In exchange for licensing fees provided, PRO’s do the administrative work and pay out performance royalties to the songwriters and publishers that they represent. They act as the intermediaries between the performances of the work and the creators of the work. In the United States there are three main PRO’s that represent songwriters and publishers: ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC.

Which PRO is Right For Me?

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ASCAP and BMI, together accounting for 90% of performance royalties, are both registered not-for-profits, and the amount they are allowed to charge for performance licenses is heavily regulated by the Department of Justice. Songwriters and producers are able to join whichever one they choose online, but keep in mind that songwriters and producers can only be represented by one. On the other hand, publishers are able to be represented by both, as well as SESAC.

SESAC is slightly different from ASCAP and BMI; it operates as a for-profit company, and membership is exclusive, whereas anybody can join ASCAP or BMI.

If you are a songwriter or producer that is just starting out, the choice between the three will not make or break your career. The differences between them regarding methods for royalty collection and payments are relatively small. Additionally, the length of contract for each is fairly short (ASCAP offers a one-year automatic renewal contract, BMI offers a two-year standard contract, and SESAC offers a three-year standard contract).

Each PRO comes with its own set of perks, including discounts and various workshops and events. It is often said that SESAC does offer more hands-on service, since they represent far fewer songwriters and producers than ASCAP or BMI.

At the end of the day, you should consider asking your own network about their own experience with each PRO. If you have connections at ASCAP, then it might be best for you to register with ASCAP. If you often write or produce with other BMI writers or producers, then perhaps go with BMI. If you have the “in” at SESAC, well, you know what to do.

Streaming Royalties

Perhaps you are not only a songwriter or a producer, but you are also a recording artist. If you record and release your own music, then you own two different types of copyrights (confusing, I know). You own the rights to your composition (your written song) as well as your recording! ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC only represent owners of compositions. A fourth PRO, SoundExchange, licenses their catalog to digital streaming platforms and collects digital performance royalties on behalf of their artists.

Although digital performance royalties are very small compared to royalties collected for compositions, it is still well worth your time to register your recordings with SoundExchange. Plus, you get all of the additional benefits that come with being a member, including exclusive information and metrics for measuring how your music does on the market!

Registering with a PRO

Registering your music with a PRO is actually a pretty painless process. ASCAP and BMI offer an online registration process. ASCAP requires a $50 membership application fee, and an addition $50 fee if you are also your own publisher. BMI does not require any application fee for songwriters or producers, but it does require $150 membership fee for publishers. SoundExchange also offers an easy-to-navigate registration process, and it is free.

Keep in mind that if you are your own publisher, you will want to register as both a songwriter and a publisher with your PRO in order to receive all of your royalty payment!

Believe it or not, we see thousands of song titles come in to us daily that are streamed online or played on a radio station that we are unable to link to any of the three PRO’s, meaning that the writers of these compositions are completely missing out on the performance royalties they would otherwise receive had they simply registered their works. Each PRO has the same mission: to provide the writers and publishers of a song the proper compensation when that song is performed; we can only do that if we have an accurate registration for that song telling us who to send the royalties to.
— Michael Alberts, BMI

So get on out there and register your music with a PRO! Take advantage of the services that PRO’s offer you in addition to the extra mailbox income and shift your focus to honing your craft and sharing your art with the world, and get paid for it!