Understanding Performance Rights Organizations

DISCLAIMER: This blog is a general guide on PROs. This is not intended as legal advice. The information on this page may be incorrect or outdated. Please confirm any information in this post with an attorney and/or the relevant PRO. For transparency, the author is a member of ASCAP.

Performance Rights Organizations (PROs) are organizations around the world that monitor performances and broadcasts and assess licensing fees, as appropriate, to pay royalties to their members. PROs often work as advocacy groups too, fighting for their members rights and favorable laws for music creators. Here’s a more detailed explanation from BMI, one of the PROs in the United States:

BMI is what is known as a music performing right organization. A performing right organization represents songwriters, composers and music publishers. Often called PROs, these companies collect license fees from businesses that use music, including television and radio stations; broadcast and cable networks; new media, including the Internet and mobile technologies; satellite audio services like XM and Sirius; nightclubs, hotels, bars, restaurants and other venues; digital jukeboxes; and live concerts. These license fees are then distributed as royalties to the songwriters, composers & music publishers the PROs represent. (BMI)

Blanket Licenses

Business and venues cannot publicly perform music without a license according to US copyright laws. PROs allow businesses and venues to buy blanket licenses that grant the venues rights to play/perform all works licensed by that individual PRO.  Some restaurants might only license with BMI, for instance, so their live entertainers can only play songs written by BMI members there.

Basic Information & FAQ

Who should join? Professional composers, writers, and music publishers usually join PROs.
Why should I join? Because these organizations will pay you royalties for public performances and broadcasts of your music.
Who pays in? Licensing fees are paid by venues, radio stations, and TV networks. Note that it’s the venues, not the performing musicians, who pay the PROs for live performances.
Who gets paid? Royalties are paid to writers (composers, lyricists) and publishers.
Can I join multiple PROs? As a writer, you can only belong to one at a time (but you can switch). As a publisher, you can join multiple societies (for instance, if the writers you publish are members of different PROs).
What do I do after I join? Add all of your works to the PROs title registration system. Only works in this system will earn you royalties when they’re performed or broadcast.
Do I have to join as a publisher too? It depends on the PRO. ASCAP splits royalties between the writers and publishers, so if you self-publish, you’ll want to join as a publisher too. BMI does not require writers to join as publishers if they self-publish. GMR and SESAC do not have this information readily available.

PROs in the United States

There are four PROs in the United States (Wikipedia list of worldwide PROs).

Two of them have open membership:

  • The American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP)
  • Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI)

Two of them are by invitation only:

  • Global Media Rights (GMR)
  • SESAC (which used to stand for “Society of European Stage Authors and Composers,” but as a US-based organization now, it’s just known as “SESAC”)

Here’s a brief summary (information collected on June 10, 2019):

PROs-1

ASCAP

ASCAP Website

The American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers was established in 1914 as the United States’ oldest PRO.  Today ASCAP has more than 700,000 members and, according to ASCAP, ASCAP is the only US PRO owned and governed by its members.

Who Can Join? You can join as a writer if you’ve written or co-written music or lyrics for a publicly-available musical work. That includes works performed in concert, released on CD (even self-marketed CDs), included in a YouTube video, or available as sheet music or a digital download.  You can join as a publisher if you “…are actively engaged in the music publishing business, and assume the financial risk involved in publishing music” (ASCAP) or if you’re a writer and haven’t assigned your publishing rights to someone else.

How Do I Join? Fill out an application and pay the $50 fee. If you’re applying as a publisher and writer, fill out the joint application and pay $100. The fees are one-time only, but non-refundable. There are no annual dues.

What Special Benefits Are There to Joining ASCAP? ASCAP offers grants, benefits (such as discounts on insurance, travel, etc.), and workshops.

BMI

BMI Website

Broadcast Music Incorporated was founded in 1939 as a rival to ASCAP when ASCAP raised its share of revenue from 5% to 15% (later lowering it to 2.8% in 1941). BMI is now the largest music rights organization in the US, with over 900,000 members and 14 million musical works.

Who Can Join? You can join as a writer if you’ve written or co-written at least one musical composition currently being performed or that’s likely to be performed soon. A qualifying public performance can be live in a public performance or recorded and released on radio, television, or online.

How Do I Join? Fill out an application. There is no fee for writers. Publishers must pay $150 (if the publishing company is owned by an individual) or $250 (if the publishing company is owned as a partnership, corporation, or LLC). Writers do not need to set up a publishing company to get full royalties. (BMI)

What Special Benefits Are There to Joining BMI? BMI offers showcases, panels, workshops, festivals, and conferences. It also offers benefits (such as insurance, discounts, etc.).

GMR

GMR Website

Global Music Rights is the newest of the PROs, founded in 2013.

Who Can Join? Artists must be invited to join.

SESAC

SESAC Website

SESAC was founded in 1930 as the Society of European Stage Authors and Composers, but changed its name in 1940 to just SESAC, Inc. Despite its original name, it is a United States PRO.

Who Can Join? Artists music be invited to join.

How Do I Join? Have your representative (manager, agent, etc.) contact SESAC on your behalf. They do not accept unsolicited submissions.

Share Your Thoughts

Have any thoughts, questions, or corrections? Post a comment below!

Sources

Most of the information in this post was taken from the websites of the four United States PROs (links above). Some additional information was located from the other sources listed here: Bloomberg (“Company Overview of SESAC, Inc.”); DIY Musician Blog (“What is a Performing Rights Organization”); Encyclopedia Britannica (“ASCAP”).

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