If you're a working musician or songwriter, you probably know a thing or two about PROs, or performing rights organizations. You've at least probably been told that you need to be registered with ASCAP, BMI, or SESAC (the three PROs in the US) to get paid when your music is performed on the radio, on TV, and in other public places. But there's a lot more to it than that, and even musicians who have been in the industry for years still have questions about PROs, how they work, and exactly what they pay you for. So let's answer three of the most common questions about PROs.
1. Is registering with PRO an alternative to registering your copyrights with the government?
In short – no, registering your music with a PRO is completely different from registering your copyrights with the government. Let's break it down so you can see the benefits of each.
You actually get copyright protection as soon as you put your song into tangible form, whether that be recorded or written down. At this point, you get exclusive rights to duplicate, distribute, adapt, perform, and display your music. Registering your songs with the government is not required for copyright protection, but it does get you some extra benefits that are definitely worth the cost if you're trying to make music a career. A federal registration is the absolute best form of evidence in courts if you get caught up in a copyright dispute. Plus, it gives you the right to sue and collect statutory damages from the infringer.
Registering your songs with a PRO only allows you to receive performance royalties if it's performed on the radio, on TV, in venues, or in other public places. PROs will not register your songs with the government –that's up to you!
2. What's the difference between performance royalties, mechanical royalties, and sync royalties?
Performance royalties are what PROs pay you. These are earned when your song is performed in public. This could be when it’s performed on the radio, on TV, on internet radio stations, and in venues, hotels, stores, restaurants, or any other public place.
Mechanical royalties are not paid by PROs. Mechanical royalties are earned when your song is sold on a reproduced medium like CDs, DVDs, records, or tapes, and via digital downloads and internet streaming like Spotify and Apple Music. Mechanicals can be a little tricky to track down as an indie artist, but a service like CD Baby can help you collect them worldwide.
Sync royalties are also not paid by PROs. If someone wants to use your song is used in a movie, TV show, video game, or commercial, they need to negotiate a sync license with you. The payments you get from a sync license are paid directly from the film or production company to the artist. There is no standard fee or payments for sync licenses, but it can take the form of a set fee, an upfront fee with additional royalties later, or even a step deal with higher payments depending on the success of the production.
3. Do I need to start a publishing company or be signed to a publishing company to get all my royalties from a PRO?
This is a bit of a tricky question, and it depends on which PRO you're affiliated with. But first let's talk about exactly what "all your royalties" really means.
The money you earn via a PRO from public performances is typically split into the "writer's share" and the "publisher's share." So half of the money earned would go to the writer, and half would go to the publisher. Now, you can see a problem starts to arise when you're an independent artist without a publisher. No one wants to miss out on 50 percent of their public performance royalties!
If you're registered with BMI as a writer, you can collect both your publisher's share and your writer's share as an independent artist. If you're affiliated with ASCAP as a writer, you'll need to also join as a publisher to get your publisher's share.
If you want to learn more, check out this free ebook, Hack the Music Business. Learn how to manage your time to get more done, take advantage of all the revenue streams available to you to make more money, and how to promote your music and grow and audience.
Dave Kusek is the founder of the New Artist Model, an online music business school for independent musicians, performers, recording artists, producers, managers, and songwriters. He is also the founder of Berklee Online, co-author of The Future of Music, and a member of the team who brought midi to the market.