Make sure you get paid: register your music with a Performing Rights Organization

Make sure you get paid: register your music with a Performing Rights Organization

A few days ago, I talked about registering your music’s copyrights in my article, Protect your work with copyrights. That’s step one to making sure that you get paid for your music and that someone else doesn’t. But copyrighting is only step one, and by itself it’s not going to get you paid. Somehow you have to know that you’re music’s been used or played somewhere, otherwise you’ll never know who you need to collect your money from.

If you think about that for more than a few seconds, you’ll soon realize what an impossible task it will be for you to track plays and performances of your music. It would be hopelessly impossible if you had to do it yourself, and so you need help. That’s where Performing Rights Organizations (PROs) come into play. In the US, there are really two main PROs that most of us need to consider: ASCAP and BMI. You’ve probably already heard of them, and maybe even have some inkling that you should probably know more about them, but maybe you never took action. Well, the time to take action is, as always, right now. Those of you who are outside of the U.S. need to find out what your country’s PRO is and join. Wikipedia has a list of countries and their PROs that will help you find yours.

Man shoveling money
You won’t shovel it all in without a PRO on your side

What is a PRO?

In simple terms, your PRO exists to make sure you get paid when your music is performed. And in this case, perform basically means whenever it’s played in public (as opposed to when somebody plays your CD in their home or car for private use). If another band picks up one of your songs and works it into their show as a cover tune, obviously that’s a performance of your music, and you should get a cut of whatever they make playing it. While that’s the obvious definition of perform, there are others. If a bar plays your CD on the house sound system as background music, that’s a performance, and you deserve to get paid. If an office building plays your song as elevator music, that’s a performance. If the local radio station spins your cut, that’s a performance too. Basically, any public playing of your song whether live or recorded is a performance. And in all of these cases, you deserve to be paid for your work. Pretty exciting, right? But pretty impossible for you to monitor.

But your PRO has you covered, at least more covered than you can cover yourself. Without getting into impossible detail, essentially the PROs work with anyone who performs your music. For instance, any venue that features live music should legally make payments to the PROs in order to cover the performance rights of the music that’s played. A restaurant should be similarly paying the PROs, as should everyone else that uses music, from the owner of the elevator to big-budget films that use music.

Of course, not everyone who publicly performs your music is likely to follow the rules, but those that do play fair are making sure that you as a songwriter are getting paid.

How does the PRO know when to pay you and how much to pay? Radio stations, shows, films, plays, and so on submit que sheets to the PROs which list all of the songs they’ve performed for a given project or time frame. If these que sheets are completed accurately, then the PRO can easily figure out which of the artists they represent should be paid and how much to pay them. In those cases where it’s not so obvious–like a club that features live music–the entity using the music would pay a more blanket payment to the PRO that the PRO then distributes money to its members. That all gets a bit murky, and you can’t expect to see any money from your PRO specifically from that system because realistically your songs are barely on the PRO’s radar unless some sort of verifiable cue sheet has put them there.

Which PRO should you use?

In most countries, you probably don’t have a choice. In the U.S. most of us realistically have to choose between ASCAP and BMI, because although there are a couple of others, they’re quite restrictive when it comes to membership, and most of us don’t qualify. OK then, for you in the U.S., which should you join? You can read the marketing of each and they’ll naturally both tell you they’re better than the other, so that’s not very helpful. But maybe you’ll find something in their marketing that tips the balance for you to one or the other. You can’t necessarily just go with the one that most of the big-name artists use because they both have mega stars on their rosters. But you do have to choose one or the other. You can’t register the same song with more than one PRO at a time. So, which should you use?

I can’t answer that question for you–you just have to do the research and decide. However, I can telly you how made the decision. My music is registered with BMI, and the reason is almost embarrassing. At the time I registered (years ago now), I was not exactly what you’d call wealthy. At that time, ASCAP charged $25 to join. BMI membership was free. Back then, $25 was significant for me, so that math was pretty easy. That fee is now up to $50 now, so it might make a difference, especially to young musicians who don’t have a lot of available funds. It’s a one-time sign-up fee, and there are no annual or other fees after that, so if your research brings you down on the side of ASCAP, it might be worth it for you to pay their fee. BMI sign-up is still free and there are no annual fees, so it’s the cheaper of the two to get into.

In the end, both PROs do the job for their clients.

Do you have to register with the PROs in every country?

Thankfully, no. Much like each country has agreements with other countries to honor one another’s copyright registrations, so too do most of the the PROs have agreements with PROs from other countries.  This, in theory, should help you get paid when your music is performed in a country other than yours. How well that actually works, well, that’s anybody’s guess most likely.

Does a PRO replace the need to copyright your music?

No! You absolutely must copyright your music and register it with your PRO of choice.

Is the PRO system perfect?

Far from it, but it’s the best we’ve got right now. ASCAP and BMI both seem to genuinely have the best interests of their artists in mind. They seem to do their best to advocate for their artists, collect the money that’s due, and make proper payments. But you can see the complications involved in getting each member paid exactly what’s owed. There’s no way for the PRO to really know if your song was played on the jukebox at Bert’s bar tucked away down on the east side, and Bert’s certainly not savvy enough to even know he’s supposed to be paying into the system.

Further, this type of public performance is only one aspect of the money you technically have coming to you when your music is used. It gets pretty complicated and pretty confusing pretty fast. But like I said, it’s the best system available to artists at the moment for hoping to make any money from these types of public uses. So don’t let the fact that it’s not a perfect system stop you from getting a least some of the money you have coming to you. At least for now, no one’s thought of a better system. Or if they have, they haven’t been able to implement it.

So, the PRO system is one piece of the great getting-paid-for-my-music puzzle. And it’s an important piece. So take advantage of it, and pick up at least some of the money you’ve earned.

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