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When to Join a Performing Rights Organization

Others on Songtalk may fuss with me on this, but I believe strongly that NO writer should join a PRO unless (1) he or she is signing a publishing contract, (2) he or she has been invited to join by a PRO official who has articulated a REAL commitment to promoting the songwriter's work, or (3) of course, he or she has performance royalties that must be collected.

Let me focus particularly on #2. I hear from writer after writer that they have already affiliated with ASCAP or BMI because they thought they should, because it made them feel "professional", and/or because someone told them they should. The writers I'm referring to do not have a publishing contract and are not collecting royalties.

What's wrong with joining? Well, when these writers visit Nashville, they will be unable to visit with representatives from any PRO other than the one they've already joined. In some cases, the PRO they belong to may require them to meet with the person who signed them, who may or may not be available at the time of the visit. And if that person has not voiced a commitment to promoting the writer, the writer has unecessarily shut off many avenues for networking and for becoming successful.

The unaffiliated writer can meet with representatives from any one of the three PRO's any time he or she visits Nashville. Each new person the writer meets is another possible network link.

I joined BMI when I signed my first songwriting contract. Before then, I had met with someone from either BMI or SESAC every time I visited Nashville, and I had formed a good relationship with one person at BMI. He returned my phone calls, reviewed my songs even when I mailed them in, and ultimately gave me referrals to big-time publishers. No one had responded to me that strongly at SESAC, and I had not received an invitation to join SESAC (which is required).

I have never visited anyone at ASCAP. Davy Ray was the main contact there at the time, and although I talked to him on the phone (and he was a nice guy), he kept requiring me to affiliate before he would give me any priority for an appointment (which was policy at the time). The policy has changed since then, and I have referred a number of unaffiliated writers to one of the current reps who knows me pretty well through other circumstances.

So I joined BMI. Although I did receive some referrals, nothing really came of them. Meanwhile, my rep was moving up in BMI and became harder and harder to reach.

A friend of mine had an appointment at SESAC and insisted that I come with him for moral support. His songs did not go over well with the rep, but he kept talking me up during the session. The rep expressed some interest in me, but I did not offer any songs to him nor did he want any until I was within 6 months of the end of my BMI contract.

When it was time, I called that rep. I described all my single-song contracts, described my frustration that because of those contracts, all I ever could do was present my most recent material; no one had ever sat down and listened to the bulk of my catalog to see what I was capable of doing.

The rep was VERY busy, but nevertheless went out of his way to schedule me in between NSAI Symposium sessions he was involved in. We literally sat in the hallway of the Vanderbilt while writers swirled all around us, and the rep listened to song after song on my boombox.

Since then, he has referred me to new publishers, pitched my songs for me to Bryan White and his producer, listened to my stuff through the mail, corresponded with me in several ways including the Internet, returned my calls, and connected me with other SESAC writers for collaboration.

That could have happened to me at BMI or ASCAP, too; that is NOT just a SESAC service. The only difference is that I knew SESAC would help me because they wouldn't let me join unless they were going to do so - hence, the invitation requirement. Being a SESAC writer doesn't mean I'm any better than ASCAP or BMI writers; however, BMI and ASCAP have many affiliated writers who are nowhere near being ready to become professionals, simply because they do not screen applicants. SESAC admits only those they believe can be successful.

WHEN the time comes, you should choose your PRO the same way I did: who do you know, and what do you know they will do for you? If you don't have an answer to that question yet, then your first priority should be to keep visiting each PRO until you find that special person.

Until then, do NOT join any PRO! - Jim Melko 


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