What Is a Performing Rights Organization?

A performing rights organization is an essentially for songwriters for both career development and ensuring you are paid when your song is performed. But what exactly does a performing rights organization do? How did they get their start? And what are your options when it comes to choosing to join one? Let’s take a look.

Each of the performing rights organizations (PROs), SESAC, ASCAP, and BMI, ( and SoundExchange but we’ll look at that separately in another post soon), perform essentially the same function: protecting the public performance aspect of a copyright by licensing music for commercial use and collecting royalties on behalf of the songwriters and publishers. They grant blanket licenses to radio stations, venues, large retail stores, and other music users to allow them to use the PRO’s music catalog. Then, the PROs track and monitor the use of music in order to pay each songwriter and publisher the corresponding royalties.

Each songwriter, even if they are a member of a band that writes songs together, needs to join a PRO on an individual basis. In fact, each member could theoretically join a different PRO, though because of the different payments and tracking systems they may each end up earning a different amount for contributing to the same number of songs. It could also make it more complicated for people looking to license the band’s music for public performance.

If a songwriter intends to keep their publishing rights, which are equivalent to half of the income for a song and essentially the control of the copyright, he or she will also need to register as a publisher. If the songwriter signs a publishing deal to get help finding publishing and income opportunities for their song, then the publisher will handle the publisher’s side of things themselves. The publishing company must be affiliated with the same PRO as the songwriter (most large publishing companies are registered with both as a result).

ASCAP:American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers
ASCAP began in 1914 in New York City as a union-like organization to try to get music users to adhere to the Copyright Act by paying musicians for the public performance of their works. The intention was to create a democratic organization, run and owned by the musicians, that would give them the ability to join together to enforce their rights. It remains member-owned and operated to this day. Through its history, ASCAP has played an integral role in all genres of music and representing acts and writers like Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Louis Armstrong, John Cage, Stephen Sondheim, Jimi Hendrix, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, The Beatles, Kiss, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, The Ramones, Michael Jackson, Johnny Cash, Madonna, Pearl Jam, Billy Joel, Beyonce, Tom Petty, Jay-Z, MIA, and The Killers. For more see: ASCAP Index

ASCAP is owned and run by songwriters and publishers and their board is made up of elected songwriters and publishers. Contracts are one year for both writers and publishers.

BMI: Broadcast Music Inc.
BMI was formed by music broadcasters in 1940 as a reaction to a strike by ASCAP. ASCAP wanted to raise the fees broadcasters were required to pay to use their music on the radio but a new agreement had not been reached before ASCAP’s contracts expired. At the time, as so-called “hillbilly” and “race” music became popular ASCAP chose not to allow these musicians to join. So, without music to play, the broadcasters to decided to join forces and appeal to those niches. They formed BMI with an open-door policy that allowed any writer or publisher to join. Eventually, the Justice Department filed an antitrust suit against ASCAP, BMI, and the radio networks and they were all forced to reconcile but BMI had already played an important role in the success of these new genres. BMI has represented writers and acts like Michelle Branch, Mariah Carey, David Bowie, Weezer, Eminem, Fats Domino, The Eagles, Barry Manilow, Foo Fighters, John Legend, Maroon 5, Nirvana, Radiohead, Eric Clapton, and Elton John. For more info visit: BMI.

BMI is owned and run by broadcasters and contracts are 2 years for writers and 5 for publishers.

SESAC originally stood for Society of European Stage Authors & Composers. Though now it’s just SESAC (pronounced like sea-sack), not an acronym. It was founded in 1930 by German immigrant Paul Heinecke to represent publishers of classical European works. It began including American music in the 1930s working mostly with gospel music at the time. In the 1950s in started an electronic transcription service that would provide SESAC radio programs for stations to play and worked mostly with jazz music. It expanded into pop music in the 1960s and began working with songwriters in the 1970s. In 1985, the company moved its headquarters to Nashville. In the 90s, SESAC began focusing on technology and expanding its genres to include country, R&B, rap, and rock. More recently, they opened an office in Los Angeles and began to focus on film music. It is a privately owned company that represents acts and writers like Bob Dylan, Neil Diamond, RUSH, MGMT,Coheed & Cambria, Young Love, Lady Antebellum, and The Avett Brothers. Visit SESAC for more information.

SESAC has a selective application process for new members to affiliate and they don’t accept everyone. According to SESAC, this process allows them to create a personal connection and a roster full of “quality not quantity.” Once selected, it is free to join and contracts for both writers and publishers are three years.

What do you think? Are you a member, intern, or employee of one of these organizations? Which PRO do you think is best?

Correction: A previous version of this implied that only SoundExchange collects royalties for public performance on digital, cable, and satellite services. The PROs discussed here do in fact collect royalties for these, but only for the writer and publisher as explained above. SoundExchange collects for the owner of the sound recording copyright and the featured artist on that recording. The difference is that currently only digital services require royalties for the sound recording and performer. Thanks to Lauren Mack for clearing that up!

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