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PRS - The Performing Right Society

The first of an occasional series in which David Mellor takes a look at the organisations that help musicians and composers earn an honest crust in this hard world. This month: the Performing Right Society.

The first of an occasional series in which David Mellor takes a look at the organisations that help musicians and composers earn an honest crust in this hard world. Practically all professional songwriters and composers in this country are members of the PRS. What does it do for the music business and where would we be without it?

The Television Distribution Department.

It's hard to put a value on creative work sometimes. Take this article for instance. In essence, it is just a collection of words, all of which can be found in the Oxford English Dictionary, which I have spent a few hours organising into a form that makes a degree of sense and conveys a quantity of information to the reader. What is less apparent perhaps is the fact that it took several years of education for me to be able to read and write at all, that I have managed to develop sufficient skill in finding things out to be able to collect the facts I need, and also that I actually went out and spent some time at PRS headquarters in preparation for this article.

This is, of course, an extremely pompous way of describing things and I would in normal circumstances say (like Paul Hardcastle says of 19) that I "just made it up". But the fact remains that more effort goes into it than meets the eye, and my work when it is finished will hopefully have a certain marketable value.

As a writer I am in a fairly simple situation. If my work reaches a good enough standard I can sell it to a magazine and earn enough from it to stand my round in the pub again. (Chorus of "We'll believe it when we see it!") Once printed, it has reached the end of its working life and is unlikely to be printed again - I have been paid enough in the first instance for me to accept this.

As a composer, the situation is somewhat different. Firstly, it costs a damn sight more to demo a piece of music than it does to have a manuscript typed up. Secondly, whereas an article may be read once then discarded (although I hope you hang on to your Sound On Sounds!), a good piece of music may have a working life of twenty years or more - someone will be making money out of it, so it is not unreasonable for the composer to expect a share of the rewards.

In the bad old days, before the Performing Right Society was invented, the system worked like this. A composer (say Beethoven) wrote a tune and sold it to a publisher who printed sheet music. The music sells and Beethoven gets a cut of the profits. No law to say that you can't nip up the road to Prontaprint and run off a thousand copies to sell on the street corner; no law to say that if you perform the piece in public that Beethoven should get a share of the box-office receipts. It's no wonder that all those classical composers died in poverty! (Actually, Beethoven was a canny lad and sold his work to more than one publisher, so he didn't do too badly. Don't you try it nowadays!)

In the nineteenth century, composers were given the right to control the performance of their works, which made matters somewhat better, but obviously something more elaborate is needed today. Imagine a jukebox owner sending a cheque to the writer of each individual song on his machine - he would rather scrap it and have bar-billiards than do all that paperwork!


Enough of the history, now that we know the problems it is time to find out how things stand at the present day.

Firstly, we need to know something about copyright. There are some common misconceptions here. Copyright is not granted like a patent on an invention. As soon as you create a literary, dramatic, musical or artistic work then you, as the creator, own the copyright on that work. In the case of a musical work, you automatically have the right to control the following uses of the work:

- Reproducing the work in any material form
- Publishing the work
- Performance in public Broadcasting
- Inclusion of the work in a cable programme
- Making any adaptation of the work

All this is the composer's copyright. There is no registration of any sort needed. These rights are present the moment the work is complete - as long as it is written down or recorded, you can't copyright a brainwave! This right is the composer's property to sell, assign, or bequeath, in the same way as you might sell a car or hire it out. Copyright, generally speaking, lasts until fifty years after the composer's death, then anyone can use the work freely.

Although you do not need to register a piece of music in any way, there are certain advantages in doing so - if there is a dispute over whether someone pinched your tune, for instance. You can protect your copyright by depositing a copy of the work with your solicitor and getting a dated receipt or by sending a copy to yourself by registered post and leaving it unopened. Either way, if it comes to a court of law, you could prove that you had written the work before a specific date. Alternatively, a work can be registered at Stationers Hall, for a fee.

I think I have said all I need to about copyright to help in the understanding of the work of the PRS, except to stress that it can be a complex issue at times and if you have any problems in this area you should seek competent legal advice.

PRS members being shown how their works are registered with the Society.


As I mentioned earlier, one of the rights a composer or songwriter has in his work is the 'performing' right. This means that every time it is performed, whether live or via a recording, he or she is entitled to receive a payment. What the PRS does is to save you the slog of visiting every TV station, concert hall, public house, laundrette and National Express coach in the land to claim your royalty.

As you might know from the PRS's recent series of adverts, anyone who uses music outside of the domestic environment must pay for the privilege. This includes shops who have a radio that customers can hear, dentist's waiting rooms, pubs with TVs etc. There are very few exceptions. Each music user should pay an annual licence fee to the PRS which may range from around £10 for a motor coach, £28 for a doctor's waiting room, to £70 for a cassette player in a small hotel bar. These are just instances, the actual rate normally depends on the seating capacity and the type of usage. Everything is covered. How about 'occasional and spontaneous piano performances by customers' in a pub? £28 per year plus VAT, please.

Teams of inspectors roam the country to search out the music user who is either unaware of or wilfully avoiding his responsibilities, so if you have a tranny in your bar - beware of the man from the PRS!

But hang on a minute, you shout. Who fixes the rates, and who is going to make a music user pay up if he doesn't want to anyway? The answer is the full force of British law. The music user has a statutory duty to cough up and the PRS has the right to receive the payments, and if there are any arguments the result can be a severe dip into deep water! The various rates and charges are normally decided by negotiation with the relevant trade or professional body. Disputes are settled by the Performing Right Tribunal - a body created by the Copyright Act of 1956.

It may seem from what I have written so far that the odd £10 for a bus here and £28 for a waiting room there does not add up to much. We are not talking peanuts, however. The total royalty income of the PRS in 1985 was over £70 million! After expenses, the distributable revenue to composers, songwriters and publishers was just under £60 million. This may not be much in Trident missile terms but this is the money that helps keep the poor tunesmith in jam butties.

The expenses of the PRS may seem high as a proportion of the total income, but I think you have an idea of how much work has to be done, by now, and I have not covered the broadcasting operation yet. The directors of the PRS anyway include composers and publishers who see that all is kept in order. I think it would be fair comment to say that for each pound collected, a certain amount of money is needed to get hold of that pound, and the object is to do it as economically as possible. And if it costs 99p to ferret out that last elusive nicker then it would still be financially worthwhile.

The number of licensed music users, by the way, is around 160,000 and the income is distributed to some 20,000 composers in Britain. Taking other countries into account, the PRS distributes to over 600,000 copyright owners.


PRS royalty income falls into two main categories: public performance and broadcasting. Total income in 1985 from performance in Britain was around £17 million, with contributions ranging from £88,000 from dance halls to nearly £5 million from pubs - not forgetting £122,000 from hairdressers and waiting rooms of course. Broadcasting brings in a bit more. British TV and radio royalties amounted to some £27 million from BBC, ITV and local radio.

We must not, however, forget all that lovely money coming in from foreign affiliated societies - £24 million in 1985, ranging from £37 from Peru (don't spend it all at once guys!) to £10 million from the USA. Russia chipped in £24,000 too. Of course, just as British composers receive money from abroad, so foreign composers receive money from Britain, via their country's equivalent of the PRS. There is also considerable investment income from money collected but awaiting distribution to members.


The Society's London headquarters.

What everyone wants to know, of course, is how much do I get paid when my song is broadcast on Radio 1? The answer is that it is impossible to say, as will become plain. What I can say is that between January and June 1986 a 2½ minute song played on any BBC national network received a payment of £34.55 to be divided between songwriter and publisher. A similar song performed on Radio Cumbria received a mere 20p. It's a hard life at the bottom!

The basic aim in distributing royalties is that each composer should be paid according to how much his tune has earned. To achieve this with complete accuracy would be an almost impossible task and so expensive to do that it would cost more to carry out than would be covered by royalties generated. Some compromises are therefore adopted.

In general, broadcasters in the UK submit listings of all music used. Local radio stations may submit sample logs rather than complete listings where commercial records have been played. Live, or specifically recorded, music is logged in its entirety. The PRS monitors these returns on a random basis to make sure that no mistakes are being made, or corners being cut. Public performances are rarely logged because it would be too expensive to analyse the amount of data generated. Royalties for these are distributed by estimating from other sources, for instance record sales charts (the top 500), the number of performances, live or recorded, that are achieved. Royalties from film performances are distributed by reference to producers' cue sheets and listings of films shown in each cinema.

When performance details have been analysed, each work is allocated a number of points according to how many times it has been performed; these points being separately totalled for each section of the revenue, eg. BBC TV, ITV, BBC radio. The number of points awarded also varies according to the duration of the work and the type of usage it received.

Let's take an example. Suppose you had a 2½ minute song played on a magazine programme on BBC TV in Scotland. This (in 1986) is worth 3.52 points. Suppose it goes on to receive a broadcast on Top Of The Pops covering the entire BBC network. This is worth 40 points. If these were the only times your song was played on TV you would have a total of 43.52 points. (I must stress that these are 1986 figures, and will vary from year to year.) At the end of the accounting period, this will be divided into the total number of points awarded for BBC TV and a payment will be made to you which is the fraction of the total revenue claimed from BBC TV (less PRS expenses). A similar system applies to the other categories of revenue.

You might find your points reduced, however, if your music was not used as the main item of interest while it was broadcast. Background music receives only three-quarters of the normal number of points. Those unfortunate composers who have been relegated to test-card accompanists only get 1/20th of the full scale of points, so although a TOTP performance in 1986 was worth around £180 in total, other usage would not be worth quite so much.

Royalties are distributed four times a year, but if you have had foreign performances you will have to wait for your money. Your Barclaycard bill for a riotous night out in Bangkok can be waiting for you on your return home, but your performance royalties may be a year or more behind.

There is also a payment for unlogged performances ranging from £30 to £250 according to how many performances of your works have actually been reported to the Society. One credit in the preceding two years is enough to qualify you for the lower amount (£30).

(Although I have taken my figures from PRS information, my calculator needs a new battery so my examples might not be as spot on as the PRS computer could get them. They are OK as a guide though.)


Now that we have had a brief glimpse of the collection and distribution activities of the PRS, let us look at what else they do.

For some thirty years, the PRS has had a policy of giving financial help to a wide range of musical causes, especially to organisations concerned with the performance and recording of contemporary British music and with the commission of new works. Recent donations have been made to BASCA (the former Songwriters' Guild), the Composers' Guild, the British Music Information Centre, and the Association of Professional Composers. These donations are not large, but they are obviously a help to British music in general.

There are also several scholarships supported by the PRS including the PRS Arthur Bliss Memorial Scholarship, for composition at the Royal College of Music, and the PRS John Lennon Award.

Among other good causes too numerous to mention, in 1985 PRS contributions valuing over £75,000 were made to disaster relief, including the Mexican earthquake appeal and the Band Aid Trust. Needless to say, it is the earnings of the composer and publisher members of the PRS that make this possible and I doubt if anyone begrudges a penny spent.

The Society's computer room.


This is the section for the would-be PRS member. You can become a member if you fulfill certain criteria. You must have at least three works which each have been either commercially recorded, or broadcast within the last two years, or performed in public on twelve occasions within the last two years and commercially published.

You may slot into other categories which I don't have space to go into, but if you reckon you might qualify it costs you £25 to join (refunded if your application is unsuccessful) and you will then be a member for the rest of your natural life - or as long as you want to be. Four times a year a cheque will appear through your letterbox which can vary in 'fatness' from nil to a good deal. Just to give you confidence, the following lists where the money went in 1985.

Of the PRS members who received money in distributions:

4% got more than £10,000
2% between £5,000 and £10,000
8% between £1000 and £5000
13% between £250 and £1000
73% received less than £250

To © or not to ©?

There are two major International Copyright Treaties, both of which have been signed by the UK. In this and most other countries, no formality is necessary to secure copyright. The exception is that countries that are party only to the Universal Copyright Convention are permitted to impose a condition in the case of published works that they carry the © symbol followed by the name of the copyright owner and the year of first publication, eg. © David Mellor 1987.

Compare that with the price of a DX7!

These are purely performance payments for the music and do not include any payment for use of a recording, in which a separate copyright exists, or royalties on records sold. Such money comes from other sources which I hope to tell you about in the near future.

As far as the PRS is concerned, you can see that there are rich pickings for the successful few and slim pickings for the many. Perhaps I'll stick to writing magazine articles!!

Thanks to the Public Relations Department of the Performing Right Society for help and information.

The Performing Right Society Ltd, (Contact Details)

(David Mellor is a composer member of the PRS.)

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Behind The Synthesizer Experience

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Sound On Sound - Copyright: SOS Publications Ltd.
The contents of this magazine are re-published here with the kind permission of SOS Publications Ltd.


Sound On Sound - Mar 1987

Feature by David Mellor

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