A Guide to US Performing Rights Organizations

Most musicians get into the recording arts industry to create art and share their talent with the world, not for the money. However, that doesn’t change the fact that you need some sort of income to pay the bills and allow you to continue making your art.

Your music is your copyrighted intellectual property. When it is used by other people, you are entitled to royalties. Music is used in many different ways. When songs are performed in public — in sports venues, restaurants, bars, clubs, online streaming services and other businesses — how do you keep track of those uses and ensure that you get the money you deserve?

Fortunately, there are several entities in the US that are dedicated to making sure you get paid the royalties you are owed for the public performance of your art. These are known as Performing Rights Organizations (PRO).

PROs serve as intermediaries between musicians and music publishers and anyone who uses their music publicly. They do not collect royalties for private performances, such as when a song is played in the privacy of your home for you or a small group of family and friends.

There are four PROs in the US that you need to know about. We’ve provided some details about each below:


The American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers is the oldest PRO in the country with a membership of over 540,000 composers, songwriters, lyricists, and music publishers. With a Board of Directors elected by the membership, this nonprofit organization is founded and controlled by music creators. ASCAP monitors public performances of its membership’s music around the country, and then ensures they are properly compensated by collecting the necessary license fees and distributing them to songwriters and music publishers as royalties. Membership includes benefits like discounts on things like insurance, hotels, and car rentals.


Broadcast Music, Inc is another nonprofit PRO in the US, but unlike ASCAP, it was founded by music executives. As with ASCAP, they provide intermediary services to ensure that music creators are fairly compensated for any public use of their work. BMI is the largest PRO in the US with a membership of over 650,000 musical copyright owners. It also includes member benefits like discounted insurance.


This is the Society of European Stage Authors and Composers. Unlike the previous two PROs, SESAC is a for-profit business and you can only join if you are invited. It is much smaller than the other two PROs, with a membership of around 30,000—an aspect of their business that they boast as “quality over quantity.” It was originally founded to help underrepresented European artists in the US, but is now a full-service PRO for anyone in the US (if they are invited).

Songwriters may switch membership between ASCAP, BMI and SESAC at any time, but they cannot be a member of two or more of those organizations at once. Music publishers may be affiliated with more than one of those organizations at the same time.

ASCAP, BMI and SESAC pay royalties to music publishers and songwriters in respect of the musical composition (the words and the music of the song). They do not pay owners of the sound recording (the recorded version of a song as it is interpreted in that particular recording), or the artists and musicians who perform on those recordings.  


SoundExchange is a bit different from the other three PROs. It distributes public performance royalties for non-interactive digital transmissions of a sound recording. This includes things like satellite radio and streaming companies like Pandora. SoundExchange does not pay royalties to music publishers and songwriters. It pays royalties to the sound recording owners and the artists and musicians who perform on the recordings. Royalties are generally allocated as follows:  50% to the copyright owner (typically the record label); 45% to the featured artist; and 5% to non-featured artists, session musicians and background singers. Producers may also be paid a portion of SoundExchange royalties directly. SoundExchange also collects licensing fees for comedy and other spoken word recordings.

Owners of the sound recordings and the artists and musicians who perform on them are not paid for public performances that occur via terrestrial broadcast (for example, analog radio and over-the-air television) (unless an artist or musician also wrote the song recorded, in which case they would be paid by ASCAP, BMI or SESAC in respect of the song, not the sound recording).

Public performance income can be significant (in some cases millions of dollars), but you must register with a PRO in order to get paid.

For more information on Performing Rights Organizations, which one might be right for you, and how to join, please contact Palisa Kelley of Kelley Law Group and let me work to help you ensure that you get the royalties you deserve.

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Written by Kelley Law Group

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