Here’s the deal with PROs, or Performance Rights Organizations:
They’re fucking confusing.
That’s what I thought when I first started learning about them. I don’t necessarily feel that way anymore; it’s just that there’s no handbook. This is the “clueless-about-royalties-and-
This is why I’ve put together this here three-episode mini-handbook (look for volumes two and three coming up) on what I’ve learned about getting set up with a PRO. My hope is that you can this info to help make sense of those weird, confusing impromptu post-show business lessons, and piece together the scattershot advice you get from other musicians you meet backstage. With a little self-education you should be able to handle this stuff on your own, without some sort of asinine service. It’s not that hard to understand.
Like Nataly Dawn of Pomplamoose said about managing her indie career in this interview, “People think that all of these things have to be done by geniuses behind huge desks or at the top of skyscrapers, but you can just go online and do it yourself.” So what follows is a long and windy tale that documents, more or less, how I came to understand this stuff. This is what I know.
What is a Performance Rights Organization?
A PRO is a nonprofit that represents writers and publishers of music. (We’ll talk more about what being a writer and a publisher means later.) PROs basically chop up a song’s “ownership” 50/50. They say, “Hey, this song has been reported to us as having been written by Sage Harrington and published by Goat Soap Society, and since it’s been covered about a gazillion times at live shows by artists all over the country, both she and her publishing company deserve a whopper of a check!”
What does this mean for independent artists? Let’s start by talking about my CD. I recorded one almost two years ago, but before pressing it, I wanted to affiliate myself with a PRO. I’d been told at a music conference, by old music biz guys at bars, and by other musicians, that I needed the ASCAP “stamp” on my CD, or else radio stations and those ever-elusive big-time music execs that could potentially pluck me from the hoarde (or, herd) wouldn’t take me seriously.
Joining up with a PRO (the main ones are ASCAP, BMI and SESAC; there are more, but these are the most popular) means that you’re legit. You’re into this as, like, a career. It also means this organization has your back. They’re there to help you. You meet whatever requirements they have for you, pay them a fee, maybe, and they collect money in certain ways for stuff you’ve made.
A Couple Disclaimers
Let me say right now that I’m going to be talking about ASCAP a lot because they’re my PRO, although I’m not necessarily endorsing them specifically. I’ll be talking about their system because it’s the one I’m familiar with, so please keep in mind certain things may be specific to ASCAP but will probably also be true for other PROs. I can’t be sure, not having had the opportunity to poke around in the members-only section of other PRO websites.
Lastly, I am a singer-songwritery type, so I’ll be coming at this adventure from that perspective. Things may work (probably only slightly) differently for composers of classical works or those who write (or want to write) music for production libraries.
So Let’s Get Started: Some Distinctions
There’s this thing that happens in the legal world: You start thinking of yourself in segments. It’s weird, but it’s a system that has its roots in a time when different people did all these different jobs. In the olden days, singers sang, lyricists wrote, and a whole team of business people made a bunch of money and hid it from the singers and the writers. Today, this system seems weird because Indie Rules and We’re Doing All This Shit On Our Own over here.
Hopefully there will be more money and emotional well-being in it for us indies than there was for the likes of Stephen Foster, the writer of “Beautiful Dreamer” and other classics, who, as Rennie Sparks writes in The Handsome Family‘s song, “Wildebeest,” “smashed his head on the sink in the bitter fever of gin” after he made little to no cash on the wildly popular songs he wrote like “Oh, Susanna” that we still sing today.
Back to business. Here are the parts of you:
- What you’ll probably want to do first is register yourself as a songwriter with a PRO. This is pretty self-explanatory. We artsy fartsy types are probably least scared by this category. This is where we shine. This is where we write goofy minute-and-a-half-long songs about porridge, pen deep lyrics about existential angst or abandonment, write contemporary bluegrass tunes on the guitar, compose opuses, or record short instrumental pieces at home on mandolin, piano, cello, sousaphone, glockenspiel, and marimba that will hopefully get picked up for use in a Target commercial.
- Within the distinction of “songwriter” there are more distinctions: You might be a singer-songwriter, where you write the words and the music. You might just write lyrics. You might compose instrumental music. You might write classical works. You might create music for production libraries, which movie-makers and the like access for use in film, TV, and commercials. These are all distinctions that PROs make, so you should be aware of them too.
- This is also self-explanatory. You play at bars, libraries, coffeehouses, venues, etc. Hopefully the venue pays you. Hopefully you sell some CDs. Hopefully people sign up for your email list. Hopefully you make a connection with at least one person. A PRO can’t help you too much in this area (but more on that in volume two). You’ve gotta do all this wrangling of guarantees and promo and whatnot on your own. This is, largely, a whole other ballgame.
- This is where things start getting weird for us artsy types. What is a music publisher supposed to do, anyway? What’s happening in publishing land may seem scary, overly climate controlled, cold, business-y, and cultured under an unhealthy amount of fluorescent lighting in an obscene amount of tweed and starchy white button-downs.
- If you find one you’d like to work with,”traditional” publishers can help you push the songs you’ve written for other people to sing. Each time your songs are performed or recorded, you, as the songwriter, get paid for it. I’ll let Wikipedia and About explain further.
- But why do I have to bother with this whole publishing charade as an indie? Why should I sign up with a PRO as a music publisher? Well, you could potentially get into the publishing racket and be a pusher of your own tunes, if you wanted, but here’s the reason I did it: I wanted 100% ownership of my songs (also, I don’t have any music publishing friends to hook up with). Remember, when you register a song with a PRO, they’ll ask you who owns it: Songwriter(s) own a total of 50% and publisher(s) own the remaining 50%. So, when your song is played on the radio, covered, pressed, and/or downloaded, your PRO keeps track of that and sends money to the writer(s) and publisher(s) accordingly. If you’re not set up to receive royalties on both the writer’s side and the publishing side, you could be missing out on half the cash.
- After learning this, I registered myself as a songwriter and a music publisher with ASCAP. Here’s an interesting, if slightly confusing, second option: It’s apparently possible to claim twice the ownership on the writer’s side to circumvent this whole publishing company dealio. A friend of mine, (who’s affiliated with BMI) does just this to avoid the fees associated with creating a publishing company.
Phew! We got through some heavy stuff today. There’ll even be more to cover next time. In “Everything I’ve Learned About PROs, Vol. 2,” I’ll write more about the weird legal distinctions that’ll give you the background you need to understand how all this works.