Performance Rights for Production Music and Royalty Free Music

You might see the term PRO, or Performance Rights Organization when shopping for music on Bard, Pond5, or any number of music licensing sites. What is this and how does it affect how you buy a song for your video production? The “Performance Rights Organization” label added to certain artists might sound like a legal wrangling headache that most video editors and creators don't want to deal with, especially considering royalties are something most video creators might want to avoid. Fret not. It’s actually way less complicated than it might seem at face value.

We’re going to break this down into two basic concepts: Performance Rights Royalties and PROs over the course of two articles so you will be better prepared to buy music from more artists.

Part 1 - Performance Rights and Royalties

When you think of performance royalties, you might be thinking of a scenario where music artists can claim a portion, or percentage of your revenues in return for the right to use their music in a video or podcast you created. If you think this, you’re only partially right. While this is a traditional form of performance royalty, there is another one that is what you are far more likely to encounter.

Performance royalties, in their most traditional form, is when an music artist, or music production team can command that they get residual royalties for the use of a song in a production. This kind of royalties appeared for large budget productions, such as a Superbowl advertisements or a movie. Because they are big artists they can command special treatment for granting you the right to use their song. Most of the time they change based on variable metrics like a audience size, the length of music (in time), or total revenue generated. If you break it down to its most basic concept it means that the performance right is the right they are giving you to play the music to an audience, and the royalty is the payment they expect for said performance of the song.

This is all really good to know when you pick up the phone to ask UMG, or Capitol Records for a Paul McCartney song, but what about all of this production music you are looking through. You’re very much unlikely to be dealing with big artists that are asking for specific contracts. Right? Most of the music you are purchasing comes from music sites that give you something called a Sync License. Those licenses tend to give you pretty broad right to sync a song to video, and play it on some kind of streaming service. In almost all cases, those performance royalties are not part of the license. This is why they tend to throw around the “royalty free” moniker; the traditional performance royalty is not part of that sync license you buy.

If performance rights royalties are only applied to popular artist’s music, why should you be aware of PROs and Performance Rights on things you buy in a library or stock music site?

It’s because a performance right is applied to this music in a very specific, easy to handle way. The performance rights you are likely to encounter is something managed by a third party called a PROs (which we’ll get to in the next article) and is intended to get music artists paid through the ongoing use of their music through venues and services. It’s a remarkably well oiled machine that has been around for decades. The good news is that this type of performance right puts little burden on you, the media/video/podcast/animation creator.

What a PRO is basically doing is tracking the usage of music through radio stations, streaming services such as YouTube, Vimeo, and Twitch, and through stadiums and venues that play music. Next time you go into a Starbucks and hear an Ed Sheeran song, you will know that Starbucks has kept track of this and is paying a small royalty to play that music. It’s the same for a radio station, or a sports arena. In the case of YouTube or Twitch, they keep track of which music is in user uploaded videos and reports that to PROs,. They also pay a monthly royalty to the PROs that represent those artists. The artist is essentially getting small portions of residual royalties anytime the music is being heard in the public by an audience. The amounts they get is literally fractions of a percent, but it can add up over time.

And we all want artists to be paid.

What does this mean for you? You should feel free to buy a PRO labeled song the next time you see it. The process to handle this kind of song is to just report that you are using it. Say you are on Jamendo and you see a track that is the perfect tone and style for your video, but you see a pesky PRO label on it. The way to handle this is to collect the PRO information for the song you are using -which can usually be found on the library or site you are buying it from- and fill out a cue sheet. This cue sheet gets sent to the library you are purchasing from and to the PRO that represents the artist you are buying from.

The only time you might want to worry about a performance rights is when you are hosting and playing PRO represented music to an audience. This could mean a personal website, or a small audience gathered at your place. In most cases, PROs make allowances for this as it is difficult to track, and would almost generate more legal work for them than revenues. It’s best to check with the PRO before hosting your own audience though.

Next week we will take a deep dive into organizations known as PROs. We’ll find out who they are, why they exist, and tools to deal with them if you ever have to.