In the U.S., Performing Rights Organizations, or PROs, like BMI, ASCAP and SESAC are entities that collect the royalties due to copyright holders (songwriters and/or publishers) and parties who use copyrighted works publicly in locations such as shopping and dining venues.

This includes live performances of works in establishments like bars and clubs.

They do not collect royalties for mechanical licensing: things like streaming, downloads or physical album purchases.

Other countries have their own version of copyright collection organizations, such as a SOCAN in Canada. For a full list, click here.

As a songwriter, to receive compensation for the performance of your compositions, you must be registered with a PRO.

  • If you have a publisher, they will collect this for you.
  • If you are self-published, it’s on you to register, submit your performances, etc.

The great news is that getting started is pretty simple to do.


1 Choose Your Performing Rights Organization


Because SESAC is by invitation only, you essentially have two to choose from – ASCAP and BMI. And yes, you have to choose.  You cannot be a member of both.

American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP)
Founded in 1914, ASCAP was the first rights organization in the country. For more than 20 years they were the only royalty/licensing agency, requiring radio stations to subscribe to “blanket” licenses granting them them the right to play records from the ASCAP repertoire and feature ASCAP artists live. A price increase in 1939 opened the door for BMI.

Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI)
Founded in 1939, BMI was created as an alternative source of music content for radio stations. They purchased the rights to numerous catalogs held by independent publishers or whose ASCAP contracts were about to expire, focusing on genres ASCAP chose to ignore, like country, folk, rhythm and blues, gospel and jazz. Publisher Ralph Peer moving his catalogue of artists to BMI was a key turning point for the organization.


2 Sign Up: But Remember – This Is A Contract!


When you sign up with a PRO, you are entering into a legal agreement.  There will be a stipulated timeframe that you are contracting with the organization for, making them the legal collector of your royalties.

ASCAP will allow you to sign up for free as a songwriter and collect your royalties for the songwriting portion of a composition.

  • Note:  if you want to collect the other 50% due as the publisher (assuming you haven’t signed with a publisher and are self-publishing), you will need to create a publisher account.  A publisher account is $150 as of this writing.

BMI charges $50 to sign up as a songwriter and allows you to collect 100% of the songwriter royalty and 100% of the publisher royalty if you are self-publishing.

  • Should you choose to create a publisher account you can for an additional fee, but it is not required to secure the publisher portion of your royalty.

I’m affiliated with BMI as a songwriter and publisher

(I’m a big Ralph Peer fan and I like the fact that BMI never tried to charge the Girl Scouts of America for signing campfire songs!)


3 Claim Your Public Performance Royalties


This money doesn’t show up by itself. You’ll need to enter your performances into the database for your respective PRO.  They usually pay out quarterly.

Yes, they pay out.  If you cover someone else’s song, just make sure it’s in your submitted set list for the live performance, and the songwriter(s) will get paid!

For example, my band Amelia Earhart Returns does two covers: “Last Night Grand Hotel” by Nanci Griffith and “Angel From Montgomery” by John Prine.  They’re on our set list submissions and they both make a couple of pennies every time we play it.

BMI has a super simple web-based interface called BMI Live.

  • You’ll register your songs into your catalogue – this is official stuff, so be sure to list the correct songwriters, publishers, and title information!
  • You’ll create a performance based on the venue and select the songs performed live from your catalogue.
  • Anyone performing your song, and any covers you perform, should be entered into the database.  If you grant a mechanical license, make sure you include that when performed live, the artist or publisher is responsible for entering the song in their respective PRO.
  • If you own both the songwriter rights and the publisher rights, be sure your total percentage is 200%.  You are claiming 100% of the songwriter royalties and 100% of the publisher royalties.
  • For co-written songs, be sure your total for each portion is 100%. For example, you co-write a song with someone else and you each are your own publisher.
    • You have 50% of the songwriter portion, and your co-writer has 50%. Total = 100% of songwriter portion.
    • You have 50% of the publisher portion, and your co-writer has 50%. Total = 100% publishing portion.
  • Note: if a venue doesn’t pay for a BMI license, you will not be paid for the performance.

ASCAP has a web-based system, but in my view, it’s a little clunky because you enter half the information at a time (songwriter portion and publisher portion).


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