Everything I’ve Learned About PROs, Vol. 2

How to Win at Performance Royalties | Pyragraph
Adam Faucett performing live. Photo by Skott Green.

In my first installment, I promised that I’d write more about what I’ve learned regarding the legal distinctions that can give artsy types the heebie-jeebies. Never fear. This stuff isn’t as scary as you might believe. Here we go.

How do PROs help me make money?

Performance Rights Organizations (PROs) do this by first making weird distinctions about your work. Here’s what we’ve got: Mechanical, master, and sync licenses. Performance royalties also kind of fit into this category.

  • Mechanical licenses deal with tangible units. These are put into use, for example, whenever someone records a Neil Diamond song. At the time you press the CD, you are required to pay a certain amount per track and per pressing to SESAC, his PRO. SESAC takes a cut and distributes the rest to Mr. Diamond, as the songwriter of “Sweet Caroline,” bah bah bah. (Also see how to obtain mechanical licenses just in case you yourself want to do a cover of “Single Ladies,” just like Pomplamoose did.)
  • master license is used when someone wants to use a recording (i.e., the master recording) in a movie or commercial or some such thing. Say you wrote a song and recorded it yourself, and Pixar wants to use it in their next children’s summer movie. They’d need to pay for a master license in order to use your particular version of that song.
  • sync license gives, say, movie-makin’ folks the right to use a certain composition in their movie. So, Pixar wants to use your song in their next summer blockbuster. They’ve paid you for the right to use your recording, but now they need to bow to the songwriter god. So your PRO makes sure you get paid for that, too. Here’s another scenario: say Tylenol wants your Bob Dylan cover in their commercial. Tylenol will probably approach Bob Dylan’s music publisher for the sync license, and you (the recording artist) for the master license.

But, performance royalties, man, these are the most exciting thing to me right now.

I don’t have any movie makers coming at me with bags of cash. People aren’t clamoring to cover my songs, record them, then sell oodles of downloads. Or vinyl. Or cassettes. But one thing I am doing is playing shows. I play shows at bars. I play at restaurants. I play at fancier venue-y venues. So this, this, is something that every musician at every stage of her career can do. (Pun intended.) Because of this magical distinction between performer and songwriter, you can perform your own songs and then collect royalties for them as the songwriter.

This was a revelation to me! A positive revelation! It was revealed by Dandee Fleming, a fellow Albuquerque musician-someone who owns a bar/restaurant, and has hired me to play many shows. Thank you, Dandee, for revealing this truth to me! Now that I’m looking into it, though, it’s not as though anyone was keeping this a secret. All of this is made reasonably clear on ASCAP’s website and elsewhere. Had I only the fortitude to wade through all this jargon on my own before now!

So where is this money coming from?

Okay, so now we’re planning on collecting royalties by playing our own songs, which seems crazy, right? It seems like cheating; I mean, where is this money coming from, anyway? Ever notice the ASCAP or BMI stickers in a restaurant or bar window? That venue has bought a license from those organizations. How much the license costs depends on a bunch of factors including capacity and how many nights a week the venue hosts live music.

So, the venue pays into ASCAP, BMI, SESAC, etc. When the artist, YOU, performs a set at the venue and reports it to their PRO, the PRO goes to their secret pool of licensing money and pulls from it the appropriate amount for the songwriter, YOU. (Of course, your songs need to be registered with your PRO before you can get paid for them.) Here’s the moral of the story, as Dandee says:

“Musicians, make sure you sign up with a PRO and sign up with their Live Music payout systems as well. They are collecting it, might as well get a cut.”

Now you’re ready! Choose your PRO.

On one hand, it’s a hard choice because all PROs just seem so damned similar. On the other, it’s super easy. Because they might actually be functionally indistinguishable. Here’s how I chose: acting on the suggestion of the aforementioned music biz guy at one bar I played at, like, three years ago, I opened up five of my favorite CDs. Most of them were affiliated with ASCAP. So I chose ASCAP.

Also, you can only pick one PRO.

Why? I don’t know. I think they’d get confused if you tried to play on more than one team. You could register as a songwriter with BMI and as a publisher with SESAC, but that’s just adding a level of complication I wouldn’t want to deal with. You’d have to learn two different online interfaces, and for what? Like I said, I don’t think there’s any real difference between, for example, ASCAP and BMI. They use different formulas to determine the amount of royalties you receive, but the differences seem to balance out.

Breathe a sigh of relief, my friends. There will be no more definition of legal terms the next time we meet. In Volume 3, I’ll write for you not just a to-do list, but a how-to-actually-get-yourself-set-up-with-a-PRO list. This shit is easy, so don’t worry. I’ve got you covered.

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