Copyright Issues For Musicians

Many musicians, especially those starting out, have only a vague understanding of the music copyright process and how it might affect, or reward them.

If you are writing and publicly performing your own songs regularly, then you could qualify for royalty payments from one, or both of the main copyright licensing collection agencies.

In music there are essentially three types of Right:

- Rights in the composition (the “song”)

- Rights in a particular recording of the song (the “track”)

- Rights of a performer whose performance is captured in the track

In the UK there are two main organisations that collect copyright licensing fees from venues/media etc and distribute the revenue to their members.

These are PRS (Performing Rights Society) and PPL (Phonographic Performance Ltd).

PRS is merged in an “alliance” with MCPS (Mechanical Copyright Protection Society).

- PRS collect on behalf of and distribute royalties to the creator (or publisher/owner) of the song, or piece of music.

- PPL collect on behalf of and distribute royalties to the owner of the recording and/or the musicians who performed on the recording.

- In alliance with PRS, MCPS collect and distributes royalties for musical works that have been reproduced or copied.

Both PRS and PPL collect fees from a variety of small businesses ranging from pubs and clubs, to shops, offices and garages.

In most situations where music is played in public, PRS and PPL have a legal right to demand a copyright licensing fee from the user.

After administrative expenses have been recovered the rest is divided up among the members of the relevant organisation.

That sounds good, but there are problems for some musicians with regard to both the collection and distribution of copyright revenue. (More on that later)

In order to receive royalties you need to be a member of one or both of these organisations.

Most musician/composers will want to become a member of PRS since that is the organisation that collects copyright on behalf of composers.

If your song is played on Radio 1 for example, you would collect the royalty payment from PRS. If you own the recording and played on it, you could also qualify for payment from PPL.

You can join PRS on their website at: The only cost is a one-off administrative fee of £30.

Membership of PPL is free and you can join on their website at:

To its credit, PRS (90,000 members) operates a system where members can “self report” their own live performances of their songs and generate a royalty payment which works out at about 30/40p per song per gig.

Every pub, or venue that you play in will have a PRS licence which could cost them £1,000 a year or more.

One solo performer who averages four gigs a week told me he was surprised to receive a payment of four figures for his self registered submissions to PRS.

However, the ‘self reporting’ system does not apply to tracks played by DJs in pubs/clubs/restaurants/cafes, or tracks played on local radio stations. This is where some musician/composers are losing out. Especially those who work hard at promoting their material and getting it played wherever they can.

Since discos came on the scene in the 1970′s and DJ’s began to replace live bands in many venues, DJ’s have never been required to submit track play data and PRS/PPL have never had to process such data. Therefore the distribution of fees collected from venues hosting DJs has been more or less based on guesswork.

PRS and PPL claim to use sophisticated algorithms in their analysis of available data, such as the charts and radio play, to determine the payouts. But, these methods tend to favour big name artists with big name record companies.

We all know of the wide variety of tracks that are played at events in the Hastings area hoping to attract and please punters. That list doesn’t necessarily resemble the Top 500 which dominates the playlists of most commercial radio stations.

If distribution for tracks played at live events is based partly on radio play, then the Top 500 is going to have an unfair share of revenue collected at ‘local’ events and writers of the tracks that were actually played are going to lose out.

The fact is, if your tracks are popular in your home town and are being played by DJs in clubs and on local charity radio stations, the absence of any kind of playlist reporting system would mean you got no payments for those ‘spins’. Even though PRS and PPL fees had been paid by the venue or radio station, the money would go to other artists.

PRS and PPL are big players in the UK music industry and operate very efficiently in the area of fee collection. Some licensees have complained of the rights agencies’ excessive enthusiasm in pursuit of the settlement of demands, which can exceed £2,000 a year for a pub/club that stages live music several times a week.

We have heard of instances where a licensee has been maintaining his obligations to PRS, only to receive a large demand from a second copyright organisation (PPL), of whom he has never heard. In one case this led to the venue going out of business after being served with a backdated demand.

Small pubs featuring a band once a week, to an audience of forty or fifty people, may struggle to pay the band, let alone over a £1,000 a year copyright fees. We are aware of popular venues in the Hastings area which have stopped having live music, because of the level of fees demanded by PRS and PPL.

In September 2012 ‘The Live Music Forum’ launched its ‘Copyright Campaign’, aimed at restoring some balance to the fairness of the music copyright licensing system and the role played by PRS and PPL in the collection and distribution of copyright royalties. The webpage describes the process and includes replies to a set of questions we put to PRS and PPL.

There are great changes afoot with the proposed introduction of a “Copyright Hub” and we will continue to report on how this affects musicians and composers.

To summarise the demands of the ‘Live Music Forum Copyright Campaign’ we called for:-

- A single licence to cover all live and recorded music performance and mechanical royalties.

- A lower rate for live music venues presenting live music 100 times a year or less, to an average audience of a hundred or less.

- A fairer system of distribution, which includes plays of local artists on local radio stations and in local club venues and festivals.

- A review of regulation on the practices of rights collection organisations

Please ‘Like’ the Facebook page associated with this campaign:

Phil Little

December 2012






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