How Every Songwriter Should Get Their Sh*t Together

So, you consider yourself to be a budding songwriter. Great. Welcome to the club. (I’ve been writing songs, whatever that means nowadays or even back when I started in my teens, on and off for most of my adult life.) You’ve written a bunch of songs. Whether they’re going to be for your own project, or you’re going to take them to Nashville or New York (the former location might be the better bet, since every major publishing company seems to be based there now, regardless of what genres they handle) isn’t the issue here. The issue is how you’re going to get your shit together.

Here’s the scenario: You’ve written a bunch of songs, strummed them into a four-track cassette portastudio that you bought at a pawn shop somewhere, mixed them onto another cassette or a CD, and you need to protect them. So, you take a copy of your demo CD, put it in an envelope, and mail to yourself so that you can get a “poor man’s copyright” and put the tape away in a box in a closet (or a drawer in your bedroom) until that time when you decide you have to sue somebody for plagiarism.

Nope. Let’s be honest — the poor man’s copyright doesn’t really work. There’s no cases on record where a poor man’s copyright actually defended someone’s hard work. This means that you’re going to have to pony up a few bucks to the US Copyright Office to get your songs protected.

It is true that once you hit SAVE on your laptop or digital recorder — or STOP on your cassette player if you’re a bit of a luddite, or even draw that closing double bar at the end of your lead sheet if you’re so inclined to write in standard notation — you already have your copyright. You just need to pay a few bucks to the US Copyright Office to register your copyright and have some peace of mind while you flog your songs to the music business and the general public.

“But, dude, kind sir,” you say in protest. “I have fifteen songs on my demo CD. A copyright is $35 (the fee if you’re registering one song that you wrote on your own) for a Single Registration if I register it online. I don’t want to pay $525 to fill out registrations for fifteen songs.” That’s okay, I say — because you don’t have to. That CD with all of your latest songs could easily be copyrighted in one cheap sitting. You could take that CD, group-title it “Joe Songwriter’s Songbook #1”, denote the titles of all the songs on the CD elsewhere on the form, and only pay one fee — $55 for a Standard Registration online — to get your songs protected. The Standard Registration is perfect for most songwriters. You could demo your latest ten or fifteen songs of the month or the season, whether you’ve written all of them on your own or not, under a Standard Registration form. Do this every time you’ve got a batch of songs written, before you and your band go into the studio, or before you hop that plane to Nashville and rub elbows with everyone else that’s trying to get an appointment with BMG Chrysalis or Universal-PolyGram, and you’ll already be a few steps ahead of the game.

The next step before you make any other kind of professional moves with your songs, is to join a performance rights organization. Now, you’ve probably heard a few of your less experienced or informed acquaintances demonize these organizations, probably because they’re playing in cover bands, and they’ve had a few gigs in places where the bar owner didn’t think he had to pay a license fee with the PROs (hey, he’s only paying the band $100, even though the place holds 100 people and could easily charge $5 a head at the door and pay the band the door take instead — why should he pay some organization in New York with alphabets for a name on top of that?), and somehow someone from one or both of the major PROs made a polite visit to the club only to get mercilessly and needlessly dissed by the poor businessman of a club owner who thinks that the PROs are government organizations collecting yet another ripoff of a tax from hardworking people (never mind that the only hardworking people in that bar are the band members and whatever wait and bartender staff are on duty, and the bar owner is the one doing the ripping off of his own employees, the bands he hires, and — since he won’t be a responsible club owner and play ball with the PROs — the writers of the songs the bands are playing). This is all wrong.

There are four Performance Rights Organizations in the United States as of this writing. Three of them have been around for years, one is relatively brand new, but — here’s the bad news — you’re only going to be able to affiliate with either of two of them. They all are out to look out for their member songwriters and publishers. They monitor broadcast (terrestrial, digital, and internet) and live performances, make the appropriate calculations, collect license fees from their radio, TV, and venue affiliates, and use those fees to pay royalties to their writer and publisher members. They are not evil. They are your friends. If you’re playing your songs in public — be it in a live venue or on record — they’ll make sure you get paid for your efforts.

I’ll break it down as simply as possible:

PRO #1 is ASCAP, the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers. This organization started at the turn of the century under a bunch of prominent Tin Pan Alley songwriters and publishers. They’re the oldest and most prominent PRO in the country.

PRO #2 is BMI, Broadcast Music, Inc. BMI was started in the late 1930’s by the National Association of Broadcasters, whose members were butting heads with ASCAP over licensing fees at the time, as a cheaper alternative to the ASCAP repertoire. BMI got an even bigger upper hand years later when they started embracing acts ASCAP was reluctant to touch at the time — blues, R&B, jazz, and rock. They are the second biggest PRO in the country — and the third to be formed. (I’ll get to that in a moment.)

Nowadays, ASCAP and BMI play nice with each other, because both organizations — who are technically non-profit organizations and are the two big mahoffs in the American performing rights field — must operate under consent decrees established by the Justice Department. On top of that, thanks to how complicated and chaotic all matters of music copyrights and publishing have gotten over the past twenty years, both PROs tend to go hand in hand or at least make parallel moves when it comes to strengthening existing US copyright laws on behalf of their writer and publisher members.

(And yes, the PROs have also had to become lobbying organizations on the side because they must deal with the U.S. Government, but that’s okay. There’s no need to fear that they’ll push for rules in favor of the publishers over the writers, because most of their member writers have their own publishers, and most of the deals major publishers make with songwriters are either going to be co-publishing deals [deals where the publishing is split with the writer’s own publisher], administration deals [deals where a major publisher is basically working for the writer and his own self-owned publisher], and full publishing deals where the publisher is going to own the publishing for a select period until part or all of the publishing reverts back to the writer anyway. In other words, writers and publishers are all on the same boat here, status be damned.)

The other two PROs watch what ASCAP and BMI do, offer tacit support of their older competitors — but unlike BMI and ASCAP, are for-profit organizations. They’re also rather exclusive in their clientele.

PRO #3 is SESAC, formerly the Society of European Stage Authors and Composers. They started in 1930 as an organization to represent European composers in America (something ASCAP wasn’t doing at the time). They dropped the “Society of European Stage Authors and Composers” moniker and simply started calling themselves SESAC ten years later when they started taking in American writer affiliates. They became more prominent in the late 20th Century when they lured Bob Dylan and Neil Diamond away from ASCAP for a million dollars apiece, back catalog and all — and they’ve been racking up a substantial list of songwriters away from ASCAP and BMI since then.

PRO #4 is Global Music Rights, or GMR. They’re the new boys in town. Irving Azoff, the manager of the Eagles, started GMR with a few high-profile names — namely Don Henley, Glenn Frey, Pete Townshend, and the John Lennon estate — to do stuff with his artist’s copyrights that he felt the other three organizations weren’t doing enough of a good job on. Over the past few years, they’ve pulled a lot of prominent names away from ASCAP and BMI. It’s been quite the surprise when I bought a new release or updated reissue from certain acts and seen that the represented songwriters on the album left ASCAP or BMI for GMR.

Now, in the United States, we’re in an odd position compared to songwriters in other countries, where we have four PROs where most other countries have just one. (Canada used to have two, PROCAN and CAPAC, but those organizations merged and became SOCAN. The United Kingdom also had two, PRS and MCPS, but they also merged under the PRS For Music name). So, if you’re a songwriter in the USA, where do you go? Which of the four PROs do you go with?

I’ll get the easy part out of the way first. Forget about GMR entirely. You would have to be an Eagle, Beatle or of similar status to be invited to move your performance rights under their banner. Look at the artist roster there. It’s small and full of big names — Metallica (well, just the main three members anyway — Jason Newstead and the estate of Cliff Burton are still with ASCAP, and Rob Trujillo never left BMI when he joined Metallica), Bruce Springsteen, Slash and Duff from Guns N’ Roses (Axl left ASCAP too, but moved to SESAC instead), Billy Idol, John Mayer, Chris Cornell, Pearl Jam, Tom Scholz, and lately, Prince’s estate — GMR is small and focused on a select clientele for a reason, and making deliberate waves for songwriters and publishers in general anyway with the moves they’re making. Let them do that — little old you with your self-released CD is just going to be in the way right now.

SESAC used to be audition-only — send in your demo tape or CD if you wanted to affiliate with them — around the time they lured Dylan and Neil away from ASCAP for seven figures apiece. Nowadays, they’re invitation-only, but not on the hyper-exclusive level that GMR is. Generally, if you know someone that’s already a SESAC affiliate, you have a decent in. You’d be in good company — Rick Nielsen, Green Day, Nikki Sixx, R.E.M., George Clinton, Lee Brice, Kings Of Leon, Rosanne Cash, Dee Snider — but again, you’d better be in a decent relationship with someone affiliated with SESAC if you want to be a SESAC affiliate yourself. (I don’t think pestering Dee or Nikki on Twitter will count…)

(A quick aside: If you’ve noticed on ASCAP’s Facebook page, they’ve been making a big to-do about some of their bigger members re-upping with them, rather than going to one of the other three PROs — especially SESAC and GMR. Especially GMR, since most of their clientele are former ASCAP affiliates! ASCAP is apparently dealing with a combination of feeling the heat from the new players in town, and going out of their way to remind everyone on the planet who started the idea of a performance rights organization in the first place.)

So that leaves you, Mr./Ms. New Songwriter, with a choice between ASCAP and BMI, which is fine. And that also leaves you with another question before you make your big professional move. Do you affiliate just as a writer, and do you join as your own publisher as well?

To be honest, as someone that was affiliated only as a writer for several years before I finally got to start my own publishing company, I’ll answer by saying if you’re serious enough as a songwriter to want to have your own publishing company name on your liner notes, lead sheets, and stationery, go right ahead. Otherwise, you could still join just as a writer and still get your “publisher” share of the royalties. But having your own publishing company as a badge of legitimacy is very nice, indeed. Some songwriting teachers might advise against you owning your own publishing company, especially if your goal is to peddle songs to other artists. You be the judge. That publisher in Nashville that likes your song just very might well agree to a co-publishing deal if he likes your song enough…

When I decided to take the steps to affiliate with a PRO, I chose to join BMI over ASCAP. My reasons were rather arbitrary: most of my heroes were already members of BMI as writers and publishers. Maybe most of your heroes are members of ASCAP. Check the liner notes of your favorite records. If you still can’t decide, short of flipping a coin, here’s what it takes to join either PRO:

To join BMI as a writer, you can sign up for free through bmi.com. If you’re going to join as a publisher as well, they charge a $150 fee if your publishing company is going to be a sole proprietorship, or $250 if you and colleagues (usually bandmates) are sharing equal parts of the publishing pie (presuming that your band mates are also doing a fair share of the songwriting).

To join ASCAP as a writer, you sign up and pay a $50 fee. It’s another $50 if you affiliate your own publishing company with them.

No matter which of the two major PROs you affiliate with, the process is almost the same. You give them your pertinent contact info, and if you’re also starting a publisher through them, you have to pick five different names and let the PRO settle on one. Don’t be afraid to be creative or funny with your publisher name. Chris Cornell of Soundgarden has You Make Me Sick I Make Music. Elton John and Bernie Taupin had Big Pig Music during their 70’s heyday. My friend Mike Naydock (songwriter for The Badlees) calls his publisher Rastafarian Amvet Music. The Residents have Pale Pachyderm Publishing — apparently Homer Flynn and Hardy Fox liked the alliteration in the name they chose. When I started my publisher, out of the five names I gave to BMI for consideration, they selected the first one, which was also my top choice: Generic Yellow Bird Music. [Before you ask: The name of my own publisher comes from a facetious answer I gave my wife when she asked what kind of bird Woodstock from Peanuts was. It was never established in the strip.]

By the way, once you’ve gotten your publisher name authorized by BMI or ASCAP, you’ll need to look up on your state government’s website the proper method to register your new publisher as a business, even if you’re going to be a sole proprietor or running under a fictitious name registration. Check your state’s laws and guidelines. You’ll then be completely legal. No, you don’t need a lawyer for this — just a computer, a printer, an envelope and some postage. Yes, the fee to the state is another fee you’ll be paying up front. It’s called the cost of doing business. After all, you are in the music business, right?

No, you can’t join BMI for free and then turn around and start your publishing company through ASCAP — things don’t work that way — you have to go across the board with one PRO for both writing and publishing. If you happened to start your own label and needed related publishing companies, you could affiliate with BMI, ASCAP, and even SESAC at the same time if it comes to that, but that’s another matter entirely. Most major publishing companies have affiliates with all of the American PROs nowadays. You also can’t join more than one PRO as a writer. If you’re with BMI, for example, you must give a suitable amount of advance notice before you move to one of the other three.

Once you’ve gotten your place as a member of the PRO of your choice, the next thing to do is start registering your songs with them. That is, letting BMI or ASCAP know what your songs are called, who wrote them, and who published them — not to mention who did what percentage of what on whatever song is in question. You can do this easily through their websites. (If you’ve joined BMI but you’ve written songs with a friend who happens to be an ASCAP affiliate, don’t even worry — again, both of the major PROs are basically friendly rivals out to mutually accomplish the same thing at this point in time, and they’ve been seeing their songwriters cross-pollinate with each other across PRO lines for decades.) Do this as soon as you’ve written the songs, even if they’re just in demo format or if they’re not going to come out on CD and vinyl very soon. (If you ever enter into an administration deal with a bigger publishing company, whoever your go-between is at the bigger publisher has the option to go into secratary mode and actually do all of this heavy lifting for you — hence why it’s called an administration deal!) If you’re going to be playing live, most of the venues you play at will be paying licenses to BMI, ASCAP, SESAC, and GMR, and after every performance, you can log onto your PRO’s website and give them the pertinent details. That means a little more royalty money in your pocket.

Beyond that, all you need to do is keep writing, demoing, recording, and performing your original songs, because you are now a songwriter. That’s what you wanted to be in the first place, right?