One On One with Josh Briggs – Associate Director of Rock/Pop Membership at ASCAP in Los Angeles
There’s a lot of confusion about the different types of royalties available to artists. In this article, we’ll only be talking about performance royalties. This is one of the greatest income source areas for songwriters and publishers – independent or major.
Performance royalties include radio and TV performances of a song (i.e. radio play and live performances on radio and TV). They also cover the wide area of film/TV placements: underscore on feature films and film trailers; TV series, TV specials, theme songs, logos and promos. Jingles for ads fall into this area as well. Same goes for copyrighted arrangements of public-domain compositions - think of choirs and school orchestras performing “Amazing Grace” in an arrangement by, say, Kirk Franklin. Needless to say, performance royalties is a substantial income area for songwriters and publishers.
What about recording artists? Well, solo artists or bands that sing and play on a recording and front as the “stars” of the recording also receive performance royalties - but only if they’re listed as the writers of the song.
Performing Rights Organizations
Performance royalties are paid to songwriters and publishers by performing rights organizations around the world. They can also be called PRO’s for short, or performing rights societies. The PRO’s in the United States are ASCAP, BMI and SESAC. In Canada, the equivalent is SOCAN; in the UK, you have MCPS-PRS, and Japan has JASRAC, etc. Most countries have their own societies.
As a songwriter, you can only join one PRO in your home country; as a publisher on the other hand, you can join multiple organizations. Which one should you join? Good question. Each PRO works very hard at convincing people that they do their job a lot better than their competitors. The best thing to do is research their websites, attend their open events to see whose vibe and staff members you click with, and talk to other songwriters and ask about their PRO experiences.
How They Pay You
Where do PRO’s get the money to pay performance royalties to their members? By negotiating license-fee agreements with major music users like radio and TV stations, cable stations, nightclubs, concert halls, airlines, websites and other areas where music is publically performed. Once the user has paid their license fee, they get the right to perform the music and lyrics of any member of the PRO. The collected fees are distributed to the songwriters and publishers, whose works are performed in the licensed areas.
Establishing a Good Relationship
Since the music business is very much a relationship business, your performing rights society can be of great help in getting you connected with other songwriters, music supervisors and others who could help you get your songs heard – as long as you have the talent and work ethic it takes to be a professional. The reason for this is because PRO’s handle the requests of thousands of members of various career levels, and naturally have to attend to their higher-earning members first, because these primarily help them stay in business. But the business of course doesn’t want to miss out on new, upcoming talent. If you’re aspiring to be a professional songwriter and/or publisher, your PRO has plenty of resources to help you get educated about the music business, such as member conferences, seminars and songwriter workshops.
The Writer’s Rep
At the center of these networks, you’ll often find the PRO writer representatives. OnlineRock met Josh Briggs, Associate Director of Rock & Pop Membership at ASCAP’s offices in Los Angeles, to talk about his day-to-day job helping rock and pop bands and songwriters; discovering new talent; common misconceptions about PROs; how to establish a great relationship with a writer’s rep at your PRO, and what they can do to help you in your career.
How long have you worked with ASCAP?
- I have been at ASCAP since May of 2005, making it the longest amount of time that I've ever done anything in my life - assuming you subtract summers off from time spent in high school or college.
What's your background, and what drew you to the PRO/publishing area of the music business?
- To be totally honest, the thing that first drew me to ASCAP was a job interview. They happened to be hiring, and I had been temping at Capitol Records in A&R as an assistant and scout for about a year or so, and was becoming routinely restless. I didn't really know what ASCAP was, other than that they sort of dealt with copyrights or something, and that I had friends who were members. That interview was really life-changing in a lot of ways. That may sound extreme, but it's true. I didn't even know a position like that existed, and moreover, the company itself seemed like a breath of fresh air. "What's this? An altruistic company? in the MUSIC BUSINESS?" Suffice it to say, I was totally sold, and also - conveniently - got the job.
What does a writer’s rep at a PRO do?
- This is a big question, and one I'll try to give a concise answer to: We work in the membership department of ASCAP. My official title is "Associate Director of Pop/Rock Membership." Each genre has at least a couple of people who do what I do (Latin, Urban, Concert/Symphonic, Country, Gospel, Film & TV).
- Our job is multi-facetted, and one that doesn't come with a blanket job description, but we are really the “sherpas” of ASCAP - your trusty, sure-footed guides through the incredibly windy, perilous and unsexy world of Performing Rights. Those things most routinely consisting of: joining, title registration and helping you find your place in the wider music community - which can be anything from a showcase, to handing off your CD to a label or publisher, to helping you find co-writes or a manager or attorney, or just telling you where to find the best sandwich in LA. So much for "concise," but there you have it!
You handle rock and especially bands, right? What genres do you mostly cover?
- Yes. I exist under the impossibly broad umbrella of Pop-Rock. You find me a genre that hasn't at some point in history been considered "popular music," and I will buy you a cookie. So when it comes down to it, the stuff I work the most with falls in line with my personal tastes, which could most easily be described as "indie rock," as well as punk, post-punk, pop-punk, dance-punk, hardcore, post-hardcore, folk, freak-folk, emo, metal, etc, etc, etc. A broad umbrella to be sure, but I generally lean towards rock, and the more "underground" side of it.
- "Pop," in the Fergie-sense of the word, is a much different animal. I work with many artists or writers in that world, but most of my day-to-day work is with bands and DIY artists. But in my time at ASCAP, I've signed up everyone from Band of Horses to One Republic, to '80's punk icons Flipper to comedians Tim & Eric. But there's a through-line there if you know my own personal tastes.
Describe a typical day at your job. Also: who's part of your day-to-day team?
- You'll probably hate me for this answer, but there truly is no "typical" day at ASCAP. Everyday, I wake to a new batch of emails and phone calls that run the gamut. I work with different people, and exploit the myriad talents of different contacts/friends/associates everyday. And as a result, my day-to-day team at ASCAP could be any of the other 30 employees in the Los Angeles ASCAP office (an all-membership office), or any of about 20-or-so people out of the 400+ folks that work in our New York, Chicago, Nashville, or London offices. We're a pretty serious operation.
How can you as an ASCAP writer’s rep help songwriters and writing producers and artists to build relationships in the business and become earning members?
- A great question, and I think you've just done a better job at describing my job than I did! Because helping our members become earning members - that's the crux of it, to be sure.
- We have well over 300,000 members now (probably closer to 350,000), and everyone has different needs/personalities/ability levels, and we're here to help manage all of those - at a ratio of about one membership rep to every 7000 members. And so really, everyone's needs are different, and every one of our members who finds success could theoretically find it in a whole new and unique way from a previous member. That's a challenge for us, but we like that.
- And what we like most is exactly as you said: building relationships. We do it on a micro level: Setting a member up with other members to write and create, or setting them up on meetings with industry folk (or passing along music) where we think it might be mutually beneficial.
- And we do it on a macro level: things like our member benefits (travel & retail discounts, insurance, artist tools), our genre-specific songwriting workshops (I don't think there's ever been one that hasn't resulted in at least some kind of paying work or a publishing deal for at least one workshop attendee), and the ASCAP "I Create Music" Expo, which will be celebrating its 4th anniversary this spring.
- The idea is always for us to be providing our members with the tools to make a living as a songwriter, but it's up to the writers to have the drive and really the talent to put those tools to effective use.
Do you have a pet-peeve about some people's approach to you? Here's the chance to say it! What's a major no-no if members want to build a relationship with you and your colleagues at ASCAP Los Angeles?
- A-HA! Believe it or not, Nikki, I do. And believe it or not, that pet peeve is two-fold: Misuse and abuse of your performing rights organization (and oh, yes, faithful readers - the folks at BMI & SESAC will tell you the same thing). All that means is that we are not miracle workers. If you don't have good songs, or if you refuse to do the work necessary on your end to improve/grow/challenge yourself/put yourself out there/be open to criticism, then me putting you on a showcase or sending your CD to a major label isn't going to change that.
- There's also 349,999 other folks just like you, and thousands more every year, and we are but one not-for-profit organization. We can only spread our resources so thin before we become a disservice to our membership, so the bulk of the work falls to you as the music creator. We're here as a tool, or a gateway to the wider music community, and we can't be all things to all members. But if all that sounds too harsh, I can promise you this: If you hold up your end of the bargain, work hard and stay in touch, we will always do the same.
What goes behind prioritizing some of your higher-earning members?
- Every ASCAP member is on fairly equal footing, but we do a handful of events every year that cater specifically to our higher-earning members. Mainly, each genre has an awards show, honoring the top-earning songs of the genre, as well as additional honors for landmark achievements. And in pop/rock, these have gone to everyone from break-out acts like the Arcade Fire or Sara Bareilles, to established acts that we feel are saying something important with their music like Green Day, Melissa Etheridge, or Metallica, to more like lifetime achievement awards to the folks we feel are the cornerstones of our membership, like Elvis Costello, Lionel Ritchie or Joni Mitchell.
- We also have unique showcase opportunities for more established members at the Sundance & Tribeca Film Festivals, as well as other events like last year's Swerve Festival in Los Angeles, amongst others.
How do you look for the next "hotshot" writers/bands?
- Just by using my ears and eyes. I go and see a lot of shows, and listen to a lot of MySpace music through bad speakers, and demos through better ones. As I said earlier, I tend to work the most on bands that speak to me right out of the gate.
What's the most common misconceptions you hear about performance royalties in your day-to-day work?
- The most common has got to be that we are a publisher. We are not. Also, that all you have to do to get paid is have your singer sign up. You need to have every writer on a given song join as both a writer and publisher, and then you need to REGISTER YOUR TITLES at ascap.com. If you didn't write the song, you don't get paid. Also, no managers or lawyers should commission this income, and no one should EVER take a piece of your writer income. There's probably a top-100 list, but I'll leave it there.
How do you resolve split disputes?
- We don't. As ASCAP, we can't say "he's right, she's wrong," or anything like that. We will help facilitate the change, but it takes a letter signed by all interested parties to resolve a split dispute. Luckily for me, unluckily for those who hold stock in Tylenol, we are neither mediators nor intellectual property lawyers.
How does the money break down work? Also: can you explain how your credits system works? Is it unique to ASCAP, or does BMI and SESAC have this system too?
- PRO money is paid to the writer and publisher of a work - if someone covers a song you wrote, you still get paid, not them. As a writer, you are, in most cases, also the publisher of your own works. That’s unless you sign a publishing deal - then you are giving up a percentage of publishing - not writing - income, in exchange for the services of that publisher. Works-for-hire tend to result in you giving away 100% of your publishing, but maintaining your writer share. For every dollar that comes in for the writer, a dollar comes in for the publisher.
- All that stuff is not unique to ASCAP, but the way we pay that money works like this: ASCAP's Board of Directors consists of 12 ASCAP writers and 12 ASCAP publishers. The President (currently the lovely and talented Marilyn Bergman) is always a writer. All of our members get the same payment for the same performance, which, strangely enough, is unique to ASCAP, but it’s directly related to our organization being run by members.
- As part of our not-for-profit status, and our consent decree with the US government, our finances are kept open. We publish our year-end reports in our member magazine Playback and on our website. This way, you can see exactly how much money we make, how much we spend, and how much goes back to our members. We have the lowest overhead costs of any PRO in the world (an operating ratio of about 11.9% and dropping - that means for every dollar we collect, 11.9 cents goes to ASCAP, the other 88.1 cents goes right back to our members).
- We also have the largest active repertory of any PRO in the US, which means we collect the most money every year, and we pay out at a better rate than our competitors. That means more money to our members. We also have the most sophisticated tracking system for radio of any PRO (MediaGuide), which means more accurate radio performance data, and more accurate payments.
- We just won a massive court decision against AOL/Yahoo/Real Networks, which should result in about $100,000,000 in back-paid royalties, once all is said and done. It also sets a precedent for future negotiations with other new media outlets. BMI settled out of court for a fraction of that. And all of this amounts to a really bright looking future for ASCAP's membership. It's pretty exciting to be a part of.
How has online technology - like the ability to hear writers through MySpace and YouTube - affected your job?
- I love it! It saves me time, and saves potential members money on postage. They can just send me their link, we can communicate right through whichever website or via email, I can pass that link along, find it when I'm on the road, and I hear things that never would've come across my desk otherwise. We're all based regionally, but we're always emailing each other, saying "Hey, ASCAP New York! Have you heard this band from Brooklyn?" or Boston or whatever the case may be. And I've set up writers across continents via MySpace, et al. Pretty amazing, and invaluable stuff.
Final question: what advice do you have for the talent out there who want to get a break, want to get heard and get song placements, etc?
- WORK. Get out there and write, and collaborate with everyone you can. Think about your work like a business, and look towards music as a sustainable future. You'll only do that with a quality product (which doesn't mean lots of $$ - it means "good"). Music supervisors will find you when you're ready.
- Otherwise, just take your chances - find contacts online, and submit! And when you submit, submit appropriately: Don't send in your new death metal album to Grey's Anatomy. Give notes on who you sound like (and I hate to say it, but you don't sound like nothing anyone's ever heard before), and what kinds of scenes you'd be good for.
- Also, send instrumental mixes in addition to your vocal mixes. The point is to make it easy on them, and if you do, and if your songs are good, you'll find success.
Links to the Performing Rights Organizations of The United States:
Nikki O’Neill is a singer, songwriter and guitar player in Los Angeles. She fronts the Nikki O’Neill Band – a soul, blues and rock band gigging frequently at clubs and festivals in LA and Chicago. Her song “Starting Over” was featured on NBC’s The Today Show, and she has written songs with Sly & Robbie. You’ll also find her in Sue Foley’s upcoming book, “Guitar Woman.”