Making Money Making Music: Songwriters

Making Money Making Music: Songwriters

by Billy Fishkin

Ever wonder whether songwriters make money when their music is played on the radio or in a bar?

Whenever there is a public performance of registered music, someone is legally obliged to pay for it. This potential income is separate and distinct from the royalties that songwriters can make from the sale of downloads or CD’s. And the only way for you, the songwriter, to collect your piece of the public-performance royalty pie is to register your compositions with one of the performing rights organizations: ASCAP, BMI, or SESAC.

To learn more, we emailed a handful of questions to Billy Fishkin, an attorney and music licensing consultant with over 15 years of music business experience. Billy was kind enough to share his knowledge and shed some light on the world of PROs.

Who needs a membership to a PRO?
Performing rights organizations (PROs) are essentially membership organizations that authorize the “public performance” of music. They collect fees from music users for such authorization, and distribute the royalties back to the members or affiliates. The members or affiliates served by the PROs are generally songwriters, composers and music publishers.

While “need” may be a strong word, as a songwriter, you should definitely want to be affiliated with a PRO if you expect there to be any public performance of your music; and that includes radio play, live performance, TV or film placement, commercials, et al. Imagine your music is on a commercial that airs during an episode of The Simpsons. If you’re not a member of a PRO, you’ll miss out on the “D’OH!

I only play locally so far — no songs on the radio, no use of my songs in other regions or on TV. Why would I need to join?
This used to be more of a dilemma when dues were required to be a PRO member. Songwriters would ask, “Why pay more than I’ll ever see in return?” Now that affiliation is more or less free, there’s hardly a downside (see “Is it expensive?” below).

Some people join just to feel more like a “real” songwriter. Imagine, John Q. Smalltown belonging to the same organization as His Royal Prince of Paisley Park. However, there certainly is a substantive benefit of affiliation.

Even if you only play local gigs, part of the PROs’ royalty pools are distributed for live public performances. Even the smallest, most remote bars, taverns and restaurants, if they have music, should be licensed by the PROs for such performances — which means those venues are paying for the music. In fact, each PRO engages in “general licensing” of establishments that use music to enhance their business. The PROs do work to track public performances of their affiliates’ or members’ music, although performances at that little local gig of yours certainly can be missed.

The PROs have Member or Affiliate Services departments to whom you can report your performances and hopefully be credited accordingly. SESAC, for example, has an online Live Performance Notification System. So, instead of beating your head against a wall because your PRO wasn’t at Ma’s Corner Bar the night you played, you can actually assist in the process by reporting the details of your performances.

What if I don’t even have a CD?
PROs are, by their nature, organizations for songwriters, composers and publishers — not for recording artists, per se. In fact, some of the real poster children for the PROs (Diane Warren for ASCAP, Jules Shear for BMI, and Bryan-Michael Cox for SESAC, for example) made their names and their money writing songs that have been recorded and made famous by others. If you simply write quality songs, the sky is the limit regardless of who records them.

Even if you’re just starting out, be an optimist. You may eventually record a CD. You may get radio play. You may have a song recorded by someone else. You may get a song placed on TV or in a film. Thus, you’ll want to already have your PRO affiliation lined up so that you can eventually enjoy your piece of the public performance pie.

Is it expensive to sign up?
Generally speaking, no. The two bigger PROs, ASCAP and BMI, do not currently assess membership fees for songwriters and composers. ASCAP used to charge annual membership dues, but discontinued doing so. The smaller SESAC does not charge an affiliation fee, either. However, affiliation with SESAC is not automatic; it involves a selection process.

With no real fee to speak of, and a bevy of benefits to be had, there’s little reason not to join a PRO.

Will the PRO help get my music placed in movies, on TV?
Not directly. Getting a song placed on TV or in a film is a great score (no pun intended). I can’t wait until the end of Entourage every week, just to hear what plays during the closing credits. While the PRO’s are generally not involved in actual song placement, all three of them offer valuable workshops, resources and guidance to their members or affiliates. So, if TV and film placement is part of your desired musical career road, affiliating with a PRO can definitely help with the paving.

I heard my own band on a local radio station! So where’s my check?
I can’t help but picture the scene in That Thing You Do! when the kids hear their song on the radio and bounce off the appliance store walls. You, too, should first savor the excitement of the event before checking for that direct deposit.

For radio, ASCAP has long utilized a sample survey that uses statistical formulae to approximate what works have been performed, where, and how often. The survey system works especially well for Bruce Springsteen. However, if your modest local station performance doesn’t turn up in a sample survey, that thing you did may end up lost in the flood.

SESAC takes a more technological approach, employing a BDS (Broadcast Data Systems) system to track the actual feature radio performances a particular recording receives. The trick here is that you, the writer, must make sure that the specific recorded version of your song is first submitted for BDS coding, or “fingerprinting,” so that it may be detected by the BDS system. As long as your song is properly registered with SESAC and the recording is BDS-coded, you should be credited for each radio performance. Life can actually imitate art — and you can be paid for it.

Billy Fishkin is an attorney and music licensing consultant to SESAC, Inc., with over 15 years of music business experience. He’s also a longtime rock and blues bass player.