The PRO - Music Industry's 'Workhorse'
While much of the public complaining and attention on
royalty accounting and disbursement are focused on the
practices of major labels, performing rights organizations
are not immune. The average songwriter I've spoken too use
terms such as confusing, archaic, antiquated, arbitrary and
unfair to describe how royalties are determined by PROs. The
response below from Billie Jay from JazCraft is pretty
"To tag onto a couple of the responses to IT'S NOW TIME FOR
RADIO TO PAY UP, namely Brian Lee Corber and Rob Parker.
Yes, ASCAP, et al were formed to collect monies from
broadcasting stations relevant to airplay, and to pay those
monies out to its members. But, it's not that simple.
"ASCAP, unlike BMI, does not rely on playlists, saying that
playlists can be falsely manipulated. Instead, they rely on
tapes of broadcasts, retaining an independent company of
listeners to identify each song broadcast over particular
stations. This process is also open to suspicion and
fallacies. The listeners must be able to identify an
instrumental song, for example, one he or she has never
heard before even when the title has not been mentioned by
"I know an artist-publisher member of ASCAP who released an
instrumental album on his own label several years ago, which
aired out over 350 stations. This was substantiated with
playlists that ASCAP would not recognize.
"The album was also reported in Jazz Times, a major
nationally distributed magazine, to be among the "Top 10"
most-played albums in jazz airplay in the United States
during the period of its initial release.
"ASCAP never caught any airplay of that album. The artist
and the label received not one cent from that society. All
attempts to rectify this, entailing years of correspondence
and phone calls, were stonewalled by that society."
Now while I don't really want to get into the whole ASCAP v.
BMI things, I feel that a few points need to be said. First,
while the recording industry may be suffering from the
growth of new technology, PROs have seen their revenues grow
on the coattails of new technology. ASCAP for example
announced a record $587 million disbursement to members for
2002 - the largest for any PRO in the world - much of it
fueled by settlements from the cable industry. They've also
been collecting royalties from websites for years and have
reached agreements with the major satellite radio providers.
Secondly, I feel that the argument rests on a false
assumption: that there is such a thing as the perfect,
meaning fair & equitable, royalty system. Any royalty system
is likely to benefit some members over others - basically,
we're not clones. If, for example, ASCAP were to change its
system closer to BMI's, it would make some subset of its
members better off while making others worst. The same can
be said for BMI were it to move closer to ASCAP's. In the
end, it is the songwriters responsibility to research,
compare and choose what system best meets their specific
situation. And who knows, they may even choose to sign up
The ultimate responsibility PROs have to their members is
increasing the overall pie versus figuring different ways to
slice it. On this point, the PROs have done relatively well
in comparison to their counterparts in the recording
industry. The other responsibility is to manage the
collection & distribution of royalties at the least cost and
greatest efficiency, an achievement claimed by ASCAP with
"one of the lowest operating ratios in the world for a
performing right society – 14.8 % -- and the lowest in the
Is there room for improvement? Always. But at least on a
global scale, PROS seem headed in the right direction.
When it come to PRO's, many people only write about ASCAP and
BMI but most writers forget about SESAC. SESAC use BDS to
compile the number of spins and therefore is more accurate.
Moreover, SESAC also pays retroactively for any corrections
for audits. I think your article should have provided the
reader with more information regarding each of the PRO's
and how they work.
- Gary S Smith, President of Three Keyes Enterprise
Your commentary on PROs is right on. I also had a single
being played on about 30 stations and charting in Gavin
(back when it existed) and I didn't see a cent from ASCAP.
However, at this year's annual members meeting for ASCAP,
they announced a new system for tracking plays. I don't
remember what they called it, but they will basically be tracking
digital "thumbprints" of pieces. This will allow them to
automate much of the listening now being done by humans,
which will lower costs. It will also allow them to track
more music on more stations, including bed music in ads and
such. And better tracking is what we all want. So, at
least they're making an effort to update what they are
- Phil Johnson, Roadside Attraction, ASCAP writer-publisher
A most interesting discussion, especially following the one
on potential streams of revenue from radio for record
companies and artists (as opposed to songwriters and
The biggest problem in this area is that the U.S. - unlike
just about every other territory in the world - has three
performing rights organizations, which compete with each other,
thus increasing the overhead factor. This situation
infuriates music users (who have to pay for three different
repertoires), minimizes a consolidated effort to change
copyright regulations, and generally confuses and clouds the
situation. Only in America, they say - and rightly!
Worse, one of the organizations is owned by the radio
broadcasting industry, not its members, while another is a
privately-held for-profit company. SESAC is irrelevant,
ASCAP has a long history of stuffiness and exclusion, and
BMI (Broadcast Music Inc.) is owned by radio - probably the
best example in history of the foxes running the chicken
coop. BMI's very existence has, for the last 60 years,
worked to depress the money due to songwriters and
The result of all this is that American composers and
publishers earn less money, per capita, than members of
performing rights organizations in other territories. Ah
well, that won't be changed - but sooner or later
songwriters will realize that the much-vaunted American
system is broken. Single organizations in Denmark - or
Holland, or, for that matter Canada - do a better job for
their members than any of the three American organizations
can possibly manage.
And I'm amazed that composers and publishers have failed to
even realize what's going on, let along doing anything about
- Richard Flohil
In fact, there is a lot of room for improvement.
Specifically, ASCAP, BMI and SESAC have adopted highly
discriminatory "weighting" rules which pay a one-minute cue
within a film or television program only ¢16 on the dollar
compared to the same music usage if the music had lyrics.
This despite the broadcasters who pay the money into the
PRO's for redistribution to their members make absolutely no
difference in pay rates under a blanket license.
This kind of wholesale copyright devaluation is unparalleled
anywhere else in the world - most major PRO's worldwide pay
instrumental and song within a television show or film at
the same rate. Why ASCAP has taken the lead (and BMI and
SESAC followed) with this blatantly pro-songwriter,
anti-composer stance is unbelievable - almost as incredible
as the double talk and tap dancing that it does on when a member
asks ASCAP why these "weighting formulas" exist and why
ASCAP leads worldwide in discrimination against instrumental
music. The broadcasters pay the same for all music, then
ASCAP's songwriter-controlled board starts playing with the
rules and all of a sudden song is valued at 600% of
instrumental music, for a one-minute cue (the most common
length) within a film or television project. All done in
secret at ASCAP, since board meetings and all records from
them are kept confidential and not available to members.
Interestingly, according to a recent survey, song represents
only about 5-7% of music on television. How some of the
least performed music can rate such a massive pay bonus is
truly a wonder.
You pointed out a great situation, re: the jazz album that
never got picked up because ASCAP's tracking systems are
rigged to detect songs and not much else. Unfortunately for
us instrumental composers, the payment system is similarly
rigged, and that's something that I fear will be the death
knell of the PRO's as we know them today. In this
enlightened age, how this kind of blatant discrimination can
survive is amazing.
It's time for ASCAP to stop playing politics and trashing
the value of copyrights of instrumental music on film and
television. Score composers deserve better than 16 cents on
the dollar... heck, that's not even a good tip!
- Mark Northam, Film Music Magazine
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