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articles      "The PRO: The Way to Go?"
"The PRO: The Way to Go?"

 » jmelko, 12/19/10 21:36:09

You’re ready to take the plunge: you’re going to visit Nashville and present your songs to  the industry. But where do you start? Who should you call? How does all this work,  anyway? Is there anyone you can talk to when you don’t have any contacts? 

As a workshop coordinator for the Nashville Songwriters Association International  (NSAI), I have often encouraged members of our Songwriters Workshop at SouthBrook  – which includes the Dayton/Cincinnati NSAI chapter - to schedule their first  appointments with representatives from the three major performing rights organizations  (PRO’s): ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC. The primary purpose of the PRO is to collect  royalties from any public performance of your song to a listening audience – radio,  television, the Internet, concerts, etc. (They do not collect royalties for tangible  recordings – CD’s, cassettes, videotapes, etc.) 

“Why would I want to visit a PRO if none of my songs are making any money right  now?” you may ask. Well, most successful publishers will not meet with you unless you  are referred to them by a PRO. 

“Why would the PRO want to meet with me if my songs aren’t making any money?” As  a songwriter you represent potential – the potential of writing songs that may someday  earn royalties. If a PRO focused only on the writers who are already earning income and  never cultivated new writers, it would not last long. 


It seems simple enough: you’re a songwriter who believes you have already written  potential hits – and the PRO wants to find potential hit songwriters. Obviously, this is a  perfect marriage – right? 

Right! But (you knew there had to be a “but”) let’s take a closer look at the elements of  that marriage.  

You’re a songwriter. 
You believe you can write hits.
The PRO wants to find potential hit songwriters.  
The PRO’s business is to collect royalties from public performances. 

When you look at it that way, it isn’t quite so perfect a match. On your side is belief; on  the PRO’s side is business. 

As a workshop coordinator for more than ten years, I have seen plenty of songwriters  who believe that what has to change in the above marriage is on the PRO’s side.  Somehow, those in the music industry must set aside their low and arbitrary standards  and recognize the incredible talent in the songwriter. The PRO just needs to believe!  The songwriters I’ve seen who make headway in the business, however, realize that  songwriting is a business and understand that a PRO is a prospective business partner.  Ralph Murphy, ASCAP’s Vice President for International and Domestic Membership in  Nashville, puts it this way: “Two percent of our 161,000 members generate income in  royalties through ASCAP. 14.8% of royalties collected by ASCAP go to our cost of  doing business – which includes all the services ASCAP provides both to earning writers  and to aspiring songwriters – including the salaries and benefits of the writer relations  staff.” He then notes, “The time I spend with an aspiring songwriter represents a  financial cost to ASCAP. If I have to prioritize a requested meeting with one of the  songwriters who pays our bills versus a songwriter who is not yet published, I will of  course have to give the professional songwriter priority.” 

That may sound like there is, once again, no hope for the aspiring songwriter – but  remember the other part of the PRO side: finding potential hit songwriters. Somehow,  the PRO must balance its need to survive and grow by finding new hit songwriters with  its fundamental purpose – to collect performance royalties. How can you, then, get  “found”? 


The three PRO representatives whom I interviewed were unanimous in their first  recommendation: “Get involved with a local songwriting organization,” says Caroline  Davis, Director of Media Relations for BMI in Nashville. All three PRO’s prefer  songwriters to provide references when asking for an appointment; a referral from the  leader of a reputable local organization is considered acceptable. Tim Fink, Associate  Vice President for Writer/Publisher Relations at SESAC, advises, “Get involved in a  local group to find out what’s going on and who to contact. We take references from  other writers, publishers, song camp personnel, NSAI chapter leaders, attorneys,  managers, etc.” 

“Network, network, network, network, network!” says ASCAP’s Ralph Murphy. “You  must be self-motivated, because the successful songwriters are not always the most  talented. I have seen tremendously talented people who won’t make it because they don’t  understand the business of music. It is a lifestyle – you ‘bank’ your relationships for the  day when success is possible.” 

SESAC’s Tim Fink agrees, “If your local organization brings in industry professionals,  go – not to get your songs critiqued, but to find out what that person is all about so that  you can submit to that person later! ‘Pitch-a-Thons’ are not so much about pitching  songs – very few ever lead to cuts – they’re more about meeting the people up there who  are in the industry.” 

Just as important as local involvement and networking is a knowledge of the music  business. Both Murphy and Fink stress that it is critical to do your homework. By  sponsoring weekly workshops orienting the songwriter to the music industry, both BMI  and ASCAP have taken proactive approaches to avoid having their writers relations  repeatedly waste time going over the basics.  ASCAP provides weekly “straight talk” sessions as an orientation not only to ASCAP but  to the music business itself. BMI provides similar sessions called the BMI Roundtable as  well as workshops in the craft of songwriting led by Jason “Change My Mind” Blume,  author of 6 Steps to Songwriting Success. BMI’s Caroline Davis notes that Blume’s  sessions usually include either a song critique or a pitching session to a local publisher.  In these sessions, writers hear reactions not only to their own songs but those of their  peers – “more detailed feedback than a fifteen-minute session with a writer’s  representative would provide,” says Davis. 

The ASCAP and BMI sessions are free, and you do not have to be an affiliated member  with either PRO to attend - but BMI does request that you register in advance because of  limited space. ASCAP also offers a series called “ASCAP’s Music Business 101 for  Songwriters” which hosts a variety of guest speakers from the music industry on a wide  range of topics (see the ASCAP event calendar on the Web). 


BMI prides itself on an “open door policy”, says Caroline Davis. Any songwriter can  call in advance and request an appointment; however, BMI will understandably give  preference to affiliated members. ASCAP focuses its time on affiliated members, but  will consider meeting with unaffiliated members who come with industry referrals. 

SESAC is the lesser-known of the three PRO’s, with a very different approach to  accessibility [it should be noted that the author is a member of SESAC]. The  organization is much smaller, offering 3 to 4 writer relations representatives for a  membership of about 8,000 members. By contrast, ASCAP has 7 representatives for a  membership of about 161,000 members, while BMI has 11 representatives for about  300,000 members. 

SESAC is selective in its membership; by the time a songwriter becomes a member, he or  she will have already established a relationship with several staff members. Fink  explains, “We’re trying to spread it around so that if I get hit by a truck tomorrow, there  are several reps who know who the writer is and what’s going on with him or her. If you  call here for me and you don’t get me, you know these other people and can go to them  instead.” Fink believes this kind of accessibility also breeds accountability, so that  SESAC staff feel driven to keep their individual members happy and successful. 

A songwriter seeking membership with SESAC must first be able to demonstrate that he  or she has “something going on,” says Fink. “Our receptionist will get that call and ask,  ‘How do you know us? What have you been doing so far?’ If the writer has significant  activity requiring representation or is associated with someone we know, we’ll set up a  meeting. We will then listen to a tape or CD to determine if there is a potential advantage  to a relationship: does this writer have the potential to write songs that will need  representation?” 

That potential is what drives the relationship between songwriter and any of the three  PRO’s. ASCAP’s Murphy explains, “It costs about one million dollars to promote a  single. That song is a script for a lyrical conversation between an artist and his or her  audience, which can be someone listening to the radio while driving to work at 7 AM.” 

He points out, “A song is a product; like a hamburger stand sells hamburgers, the  publisher, artist, and record company sell songs. As a staff songwriter, you are an  employee to the publisher who is putting on the line his or her salary, 401k, health  insurance, car, and family’s future!” That is a risky venture, says Murphy: “ If they said  ‘no’ to songwriters 100% of the time, they’d be right 95% of the time. When someone  signs you, that person is literally putting his or her job on the line.” 


BMI’s Davis says, “We’re here to help you with the business part, which is just as  important as the music part. You can’t make the music you want to make if everything  else is not in line. In any kind of profitable venture, you’ve got to take of business. We  want to educate songwriters about the licensing and make them realize that they  themselves are each small businesses.” 

SESAC’s Fink agrees: “Songwriting is a business. A lot of people don’t see it that way  because of the creativity involved. They don’t realize that a lot of songwriters have to get  up every day and go to work to produce a commercial product.” 

So if the PRO likes what you’re doing, what will they do for you? In general, they will  refer you to publishers. That, however, is not likely to happen in the first visit. Murphy  says that he has “never seen someone come in the first time and hand over a hit. It  requires an investment of yourself - you must physically be here a minimum of three to  five years.” He points out, “My referrals are one of my products. To refer you to a  publisher, I would have to be willing to consider signing you myself.” 

Murphy’s referral standard reflects the standards of the other PRO’s as well. Fink  responds, “It’s a good criteria. Publishers will set up meetings with writers I refer  because I only send the really good ones.” He adds, “ Sometimes I work with a writer for  years before I make a referral I worked with one writer for two years and kept telling  him, you’re really good, but you need to get better. He became frustrated, and I warned  him, ‘Don’t create a bad buzz about yourself by meeting with people before you’re ready.  Better to have no reputation than a bad reputation in this town.’ But he was hungry for a  publishing deal, so he switched to another PRO and ended up in a bad publishing deal.  When that deal ended, he came back to SESAC.” 


Murphy also stresses the importance of the writer’s reputation, not only for quality but  also for personality. “Personality is a huge factor! I have seen great songwriters go  nowhere because they couldn’t relate well to others.” He adds, “Being published is a  partnership – you can’t have a long-distance partnership. There is an interaction  required.” BMI’s Davis adds, “Nashville’s music industry is a very small community,  and people keep running into each other. That’s why it’s so important to live here.” 

Fink, however, differs from his colleagues on the necessity of living in Nashville. He  states, “You do not have to be present to win; you just have to be available to pick up the  prize. I am one of the few people in Nashville who will say that – but you must be  involved in a songwriting community, visit Nashville regularly, and make maximum use  of your time while present.” 


So how can the writer plan to make maximum use of that time? Here are suggestions  assembled from all three PRO representatives: 

  1. Call at least two weeks ahead of time if you want to meet with a PRO  representative, and ask for an appointment. 
  2. Check out the PRO web sites. Read about all the awards banquets and other  articles to learn who the “hot” songwriters are.  
  3. Plan your first trip for a week and a half.
  4. Come the week before Tin Pan South (a week-long event featuring hit  songwriters every night in clubs across town – sponsored by NSAI in the  spring).
  5. Meet with NSAI, the Songwriters Guild, cowriters, and anyone else you know.
  6. Find out what meetings and events are being sponsored by the PRO’s and sign up in advance. 
  7. Find someone doing a demo session and sit in on it to see how it’s done.
  8. Spend the next week going to all of the Tin Pan South shows.
  9. Take a day to evaluate what you saw over that week. 
    a. If you feel you can compete, go home and start writing. 
    b. If you can’t, keep songwriting as a hobby. 

Tim Fink adds, “Don’t go to the Bluebird Café just on Sunday night. I will often see  visiting writers on Monday who say, ‘I went to the Bluebird Sunday night, and I’m a lot  better than they are.’ That’s not what’s going on in this town. That show is for out-oftowners  trying to get to perform there. Instead, go to the 9:30 shows on Tuesday,  Wednesday, and Thursday and see the professionals. If you can stack up against what  they’re doing, then let’s talk. Compare yourself to the industry, not so much to your  peers.” 


Finally, is it in your best interests to affiliate? Both BMI’s Davis and SESAC’s Fink  concur that it is best to keep your options open. Says Davis, “You owe it to yourself to  look around and investigate all three PRO’s. You’re going to learn a lot by talking to as  many people as possible. I believe BMI will stand up in comparison.” Fink notes, “I’ve  tended to preach that a ‘life rule’ is to keep your options open. It is easy to get affiliated  with the other PRO’s and then end up with no one who is into what you’re doing, but a  lot of writers feel like they can’t have a relationship with someone at the other PRO’s  until they do the paperwork. At SESAC, we do the opposite: we develop the relationship  before we affiliate you.”  In general, you have to belong to ASCAP to meet with a writer’s representative.  ASCAP’s Murphy, however, points out that if you haven’t found someone who believes  in your music, it’s “not a matter of getting to the right person, it’s a matter of writing the  right song.” 


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