If you’re an independent artist who’s gearing up for a career in the music industry, then surely you’ve already heard about the PROs. We’re not talking about music business professionals, but Performing Rights Organizations, which exist to help artists collect performance royalties. There are three main PROs in the United States, and if you want to be able to get money from the licensing or use of your work, then you are required to join one of them. But let’s take it one step at a time.
What are performance royalties?
Performance royalties are essentially payments made to musicians, songwriters, or publishers for the public performance of their music. This means that whenever your song is performed or played on the radio, on TV, in live concerts, in online streaming, at an event, or in any other public setting, you are entitled to collect royalties from that performance.
However, you can’t do that as an individual - only Performing Rights Organizations can do that, so you will have to join one to be able to receive your royalty payments. PROs like BMI, ASCAP, or SESAC work on your behalf to collect performance royalties from broadcasters and businesses, and they distribute them to the copyright holders.
What are PROs and what do they do, exactly?
As we’ve already learned, PROs basically exist to help artists collect performance royalties that result from the public use of their work. They work on your behalf to collect these royalties and distribute them to the copyright holders, which can be either songwriters, music publishers, or artists. By delegating this task to a PRO, you won’t have to worry about your work being used in a public setting without your consent; you can be sure that the organization you choose will do its due diligence to ensure that you get your rightful share.
The three biggest Performing Rights Organizations in the U.S. are BMI (Broadcast Music Inc.), ASCAP (the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers), and SESAC (the Society of European Stage Authors and Composers). As an independent artist, you’ll have to decide which of these three organizations would best suit your needs and your long-term career goals, so where do you start?
Broadcast Music Inc., or BMI, is a non-profit organization established back in 1939, and it’s currently the largest PRO in the U.S. Its vast licensing catalog includes more than 900,000 songwriters, 14 million musical compositions, and it collects and distributes over $1 billion in licensing fees and royalties every year. BMI handles the licensing catalog of legendary artists, including Dolly Parton or Taylor Swift.
BMI is a top choice for independent artists because songwriters are not required to pay a fee to join the organization. However, individual publishers and publishing companies are required to pay $150 and $250, respectively, to join the PRO.
The benefits of a BMI membership are varied, and they include:
- Discounts to BMI affiliates and collaborators
- Discount to the Songwriters Hall of Fame
- Songwriting workshops and training camps
- Discounts for various songwriting apps, software, and services
- Discounts for Video Games Live, Billboard Latin Conference, or Billboard Touring Conference
- Discounts for Berklee Online courses and certificate programs
Artists can sign up for free for a BMI membership online, on the organization’s official website.
The second-largest PRO in the U.S. is ASCAP, or the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers. It was founded in 1914 and represents more than 600,000 songwriters and 11 million musical compositions. It also collects over $1 billion in performance royalties on behalf of its members on a yearly basis.
The first key difference between BMI and ASCAP is that ASCAP requires a sign-up fee of $50, for both artists and publishers. Benefits of an ASCAP membership include, but are not limited to:
- Discounts to the Songwriters Hall of Fame
- Discounts on ASCAP Web Tools, a suite of marketing apps provided by the PRO
- Membership to the U.S. Alliance Federal Credit Union
- A membership to the MusicPro program, offering discounts on health, instrument, dental, and life insurance
- Membership to the ASCAP Wellness Program
- Discounts on rental cars and hotel accommodations
Joining ASCAP can be easily done online via their website.
SESAC, or the Society of European Stage Authors and Composers, is a little different. Unlike BMI or ASCAP, SESAC is a for-profit organization that requires an invite for new members to be able to join. The organization was established in 1930 to help support underrepresented European authors and performers based in the U.S., however, it’s expanded its focus over the years. SESAC now represents more than 30,000 songwriters and 400,000 musical compositions, collecting roughly $500 million in licensing fees every year.
You can’t just sign up for a SESAC membership, and herein lies the key difference. You need an invite to be able to join its ranks, and it helps if you’re an established musician with some reputation in the music industry. The organization does not accept unsolicited submissions, but artists can have their managers, lawyers, or agents reach out to their representatives to inquire about a potential invite, however, that’s not guaranteed, either.
Some of the benefits of a SESAC membership include:
- MusicPro insurance discounts
- Discounts on Spring products
- Discounts on BerkleeMusic.com
- Discounts for the American Songwriter Magazine
- Discounts on rental cars and airport parking
BMI vs ASCAP
Since SESAC is an invite-only PRO that’s usually out of reach for independent or emerging artists, the main choice lies between BMI and ASCAP. Let’s talk about the key differences, to help you make an informed decision that will benefit your career in the long run.
The first difference lies in the duration of your contract. BMI typically sings artists to a two-year contract, while ASCAP goes for one year. If you’re unsure of where your career will be in two years, and you want some flexibility, then ASCAP might be the better option.
Discounts and benefits
When it comes to perks and discounts, BMI has a little more to offer to songwriters, including songwriting camps and subscriptions to songwriting apps. ASCAP is more focused on live performances, offering discounts on rental cars, airport parking, or hotels. So, if you travel a lot, or your goal is to perform live as much as possible or go on tours, then ASCAP might be more beneficial. If you’re looking to expand your skills as a songwriter, then BMI has a slight advantage.
Another benefit that BMI offers songwriters is that it doesn’t require a sign-up fee; only individual publishers and publishing companies have to pay to join the PRO. However, ASCAP’s one-time fee is only $50, so it’s not that expensive either. If you are a publisher, then ASCAP has the upper hand. Joining ASCAP as a publisher costs $50, but a BMI publisher membership is $150.
Last but not least, you’ll want to look at how quick you want your royalties to be distributed to you. Usually, BMI royalties are distributed a bit quicker, with an average payout time of 5.5 months, while ASCAP royalties can take around 7 months to be distributed to you. If funding your musical projects is a challenge for you, you might opt for a membership that gets your royalties in your account a little sooner.
Which one should you choose?
All in all, both BMI and ASCAP offer similar key advantages, but it ultimately depends on your goals as an artist. If you’re primarily a songwriter, then BMI might have some extra perks you might find useful. On the other hand, if you love performing live, then ASCAP might be the better option, with its travel-related discounts and perks. It ultimately depends on what your long-term career goals are. If the PRO of your choice doesn’t feel right for your needs, you can always sign a new contract with the other one, once your existing contract expires.
Frequently Asked Questions
Who can join a Performing Rights Organization?
Performing Rights Organizations (PROs) are typically open to songwriters, composers, lyricists, and music publishers who own or control the rights to musical compositions. Membership is not restricted to established or famous artists; it is generally open to individuals and entities who create music and want to ensure they receive royalties for the public performance of their work. Whether you are a professional musician, a songwriter just starting, or a music publisher, you can typically join a PRO, but you must meet their eligibility criteria and follow their application process. Each PRO may have its own specific requirements and fees associated with joining.
Who pays more, BMI or ASCAP?
The amount of royalties paid by BMI and ASCAP can vary depending on a variety of factors, including the usage of the music, the type of venues or broadcasters involved, and the popularity of the songs in question. In general, there isn't a clear-cut answer as to which PRO pays more, as it can fluctuate from case to case. Both BMI and ASCAP are known for their competitive payout rates, and the choice between the two often depends on the specific needs and preferences of the songwriter or music publisher.
Which famous artists are part of PROs?
Many famous artists and songwriters are members of performance rights organizations (PROs) like ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC. These organizations represent a wide range of musicians and songwriters across various genres. Some notable examples include Taylor Swift, Beyoncé, Ed Sheeran, Kanye West, Ariana Grande, and Drake, who have been associated with ASCAP or BMI. SESAC has represented artists like Bob Dylan, Adele, Neil Diamond, and Rush. These PROs play a crucial role in ensuring that these artists receive fair compensation for the public performance of their music.
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