Okay, so what are “Public Performance” royalties?
Music that is publicly “performed” on radio, tv, movie theaters (outside the U.S.), even bars and restaurants, can collect a royalty. If you scored a tv show on a major network, you could be looking at thousands of dollars. If you got a short background cue on a small cable network, you might be looking at less than a dollar.
So how does it all work, you might ask? Well, it’s a long story, but I’ll try to explain it. Bear in mind, this will be mostly from an American perspective, since that’s the country where I learned all this.
Years ago, back before mp3s, CDs, or even vinyl records were invented, people could still make a living writing songs. Most commonly, they would be associated with a music publisher who would print sheet music. That used to be a big business.
Then in the early days of radio, songwriters and publishers would say, “Hey! That’s my music getting played! I should be paid for that!”
Radio stations had a concern of their own. Technically, they needed to obtain permission to play each song. That’s no easy task, because were a whole lot of publishers that would need to be contacted, which would be a mountain of work.
So Congress passed a law which solved both problems. First, they set up a system so that the royalty rate could be negotiated and BMI (our first “Performing Rights Organization” or PRO) was set up to administer these royalties. BMI negotiated on behalf of all songwriters and publishers to not only collect royalties, but also give permission to radio stations to play any BMI songs. (At that time, everybody was BMI. ASCAP came later.)
So radio stations could write one check to BMI and let BMI handle the rest. (Much simpler than each station writing a zillion checks to every single songwriter.) BMI (and later ASCAP) then distributes that massive fund to all their songwriters.
Enter – The “Publisher”
Oh wait … I should have said: all the songwriters and their publishers. You see, half the royalties go the songwriter and the other half goes to the publisher. This may sound like a raw deal for songwriters, but there are a few things to bear in mind. First, a lot of songwriters keep their publishing (they act as their publisher), so if you’re in a situation where you can do that, you’re golden. Second, if someone else is the publisher, that can actually be a good thing, because they have incentive to get your song placed and played. Speaking for myself, I’ve had several songs placed on records through the publisher’s connections, not mine. It’s the old “50% of something is better than 100% of nothing” truism.
With film and television, giving up the publishing to the studio is just the way things are. Even John Williams gives up his publishing, so don’t feel bad. Plus, like with the record industry, there is some benefit to letting the studios own the publishing, and that is that they’re motivated to make sure cue sheets are properly filed so royalties can be collected. (Is that really worth 50%? Probably not, but I’m a glass-half-full kind of guy.)
What’s a cue sheet, you might ask? A cue sheet is where all the music (often called “cues”) for a film or tv show are listed, along with the times, type of use, songwriter (make sure they spell your name right!), and publisher for each cue. The studio fills this out, turns in into the appropriate PRO(s), and then we wait (usually 9 months or so) to run out to the mailbox and collect our riches.
When I wrote “the appropriate PRO”, that’s usually determined by the country where the film/tv show is produced, and in the United States, where composers/songwriters have choices of which PRO they belong to, the studio asks which one(s) and files with each.
Which is better – ASCAP or BMI?
The inevitable question here for Americans is “Which is better, BMI or ASCAP?” The answer IMO is they’re both about the same. Personally, I’m ASCAP, and when I’ve had BMI co-writers, sometimes they’re checks are slightly higher, sometimes slightly less. Emphasis in both cases on the word, “slightly.” If I were joining today, I’d email both ASCAP and BMI and join whichever one sent me the friendliest response. Having a “connection” can be handy later on. (SESAC is not an option unless you already have a lucrative catalog. Unlike BMI and ASCAP, SESAC is a for-profit organization, which is an entire topic in itself.)
So where can you find these Performing Rights Organizations? Well, thanks to your tireless pals here at VI-Control, we’ve compiled a list of some of them. Apologies if your country is not listed, although please let us know if you find a link for them.
Miscellaneous Royalty Resources:
Performing Rights Organizations (PROs) by country: