PRS For DJs: a dummies guide to electronic music copyright collection

The majority of DJs write their own music these days, but how many of them consider themselves ‘songwriters’? In electronic music, an artist is nearly always referred to as a DJ and a producer, but rarely a songwriter.

The issue is much bigger than just a question of industry vernacular. It goes to the very heart of DJ culture. It is about DJ self-image: electronic music producers scarcely think of themselves as songwriters because they have been indoctrinated to believe that dance music is not real music.

What caused this encroachment? Perhaps it came about because electronic music does not come from traditional instruments or classical music theory. Or quite simply, it might have been an imbued sense of music snobbery that first drove electronic music producers to refer to their completed works as ‘tracks’ and not ‘songs’.

Indeed, even musique concrète’s godfather Pierre Schaeffer famously announced his growing disillusionment for his groundbreaking work in a 1967 essay entitled, ‘Music Concrète: What Do I know?’. (His style of avante-garde composition in the 1940s and 1950s is often cited as a precursor to electronic music).

At the time he wrote, “I felt extremely guilty…it’s not that I disown everything I did – it was a lot of hard work. But each time I was to experience the disappointment of not arriving at music. I couldn’t get to music – what I call music.”

Fast forward several decades, past 1980’s acid house raves, beyond the emergence of Ibiza as dance music’s Mecca, past superclubs, superstar DJs, and enormous dance music festivals in Europe, through to today’s consumer friendly American ‘EDM’ pop culture, and electronic music artists are culturally in a very different place.

Electronic music is now played in clubs, bars and in the elevators of trendy hotels the world over. Dance music is played on the radio and on TV. It’s used in films and commercials. DJs open the Olympic Games. Dance music artists win Grammys – they have finally been given the respect they deserve.

And yet, electronic music producers still don’t think of themselves as ‘songwriters’. Why is that a problem? Because only songwriters can join a copyright collection society like PRS for Music in the UK. And that is costing dance music a huge amount of money in unpaid royalties: in just the UK alone last year, £25m worth of potential royalties for electronic music artists went unpaid. They would have got that money had they joined PRS for Music.

So how do DJ producers get their hands on that money? To help us understand the rather complicated world of copyright collection, we interviewed Mark Lawrence, Director of Membership for PRS for Music.

How does PRS for Music work for DJs and producers?

We collect reporting wherever the song is used, whether that is online, clubs, TV, radio or overseas, to make sure we can pay the people whose music is played. It works in exactly the same way for electronic music artists, as it does for jazz or any other genre.

All an electronic music writer has to do is join PRS for Music and register their songs. It takes just a few minutes! We also issue music licenses to venues and nightclubs for music use which we match to writers so we can pay royalties. The success of this system hinges on artists becoming part of the process in the first place and registering what they have written.

What’s the benefit of an electronic music producer joining PRS for Music?

First and foremost, money. I think artists should think of PRS for Music as like a pension scheme in a way: it is the gift that keeps on giving. Every play earns you money. Your DJ career might only last a few years, however 10 years after you’ve written a track you could still be receiving royalty payments for it. It all adds up. Joining PRS for Music should be part of the portfolio of things that artists do to look after themselves in the long term.

You said every play earns money. What plays count exactly?

Tracks on CD, downloads, streams, and radio and television plays are all easily tracked so every play will get registered. The live environment is harder to track, and of course this is primarily where dance music is being played.

There are hundreds of nightclubs in the UK alone, and thousands of songs are played every night, so it would be impractical to send people to every venue to collect every track every night. Not to mention that expense would wipe out any royalties generated.

How it works currently is, every year we send out a company to make 500 random visits to venues across the UK. They compile every track that is played during those visits into one giant set list and if your song appears more than three times in that list, we will pay you royalties.

We are currently working on a technology solution with a number of hardware and fingerprinting organisations. There is something of an arms race on at the moment to try and achieve that nirvana position of being able to report in real-time from every nightclub the music that is played. That will happen at some point, and much sooner than we might think.

How much money does a single play of a track in a club generate for a producer? 

We calculated that the average gig generates £8.40 per event. If 50 tracks are played over an event, that’s roughly 17p per track.

That doesn’t sound like much now, however when you think about every gig across the country, that will soon add up.

Radio plays generate a lot more money: a play on BBC Radio 1 generates £13.94 a minute. So if you are lucky enough to have a radio plugger get your track to Annie Mac and she plays your track on her show once a week for four weeks, then that could bring you in some decent money.

If you get your track onto the C, B or A list at a radio station, that can generate a lot more money.

How did you calculate that each event generates £8.40?

Every single venue has to pay a different license fee to us, based on its size and general admission fee. However we can broadly speaking, take that fee and work out how much each event generates. It is the full year, divided by the total number of possible events.

Where does the law stand on the collection of royalties?

It is a legal requirement that every venue should have a license with PRS for Music. It is not however, a requirement that venues submit set lists. DJs should submit more set lists however I totally get the challenge. Let’s imagine that you are Mark Knight. You have your Toolroom Knights residency on at Ministry of Sound. The last thing that you want to do after finishing your four hour marathon DJ set is to sit down and write your set list. The manager might do it, or should do it, however a lot of time they don’t do it.

This is generally the main problem for dance music royalty collections. At the dance festival Creamfields for instance, less than 20% of the DJs submitted set lists.

Well DJs might think, what’s in it for me?

Yes that is probably the issue, but DJs need to think, what’s in it for the dance music community? After all, it is one big family. If every DJ submitted set lists then there would be a lot more money in the pot for dance music songwriters. So you should submit set lists, because you want everyone else to.

How much money are we talking about?

We estimate approximately £25m of our royalty revenue is for electronic dance music. We did some research at the beginning of the year on this and discovered that about 20% of radio output a year was electronic dance music, however we couldn’t pay out about 50% of those plays because not enough dance music producers had joined and registered their songs with us.

This suggests that if the producers of all these tracks joined PRS for Music it would represent a significant increase in royalties for the dance music community as a whole.

How many electronic music tracks are currently in PRS for Music’s repertoire?

We used to have genre splits in our database and different types of music got different weighting. Now however we’ve moved to a system called Music Is Music where every track is given the same weighting.

There is no judge on quality now. We have 13 million songs in our database and I’d estimate 5 to 10% of it is dance music. There would be a lot more in the database if more DJs and producers joined – electronic music is one of the most popular genres of music in the world right now, and the nightlife industry is mostly driven by electronic music.

What does PRS for Music do with all of the money that it collects for tracks that are not in its repertoire?

There are two main aspects to PRS for Music – we license businesses to use music (e.g. nightclubs, pubs, shops, the BBC, iTunes) and we collect and pay royalties for our songwriter members. The licences we issue only cover music that is in the repertoire we represent, so all the money that is collected is distributed to our members.

A technological solution seems like the most obvious solution for ensuring that dance music producers get paid for every play of a track in nightclubs, especially considering that now the majority of DJs perform off laptops and digital DJing software.

Yes. The irony of this problem is that in the data-driven era, the hardest part of collecting royalties is getting all of the data back together again. I say ironic, because nearly all electronic music is data driven.

In the studio the majority of electronic music producers use software, and the minute a track is mastered it is digital data. Then it will disappear into a number of different digital databases, like the PPL database or the PRS for Music database and by the time it gets played in a nightclub it is sitting on a number of different databases.

And then when you consider that a track might have three or four songwriters listed, plus a number of samples, with each sample having a songwriter that needs paying, you can understand how it can quickly get very complicated.

In the future, it could be even trickier for PRS for Music to collect royalties for tracks played in live performances, as DJ culture is slowly moving towards loop-based DJ sets. Like for instance, DJ Luciano will play four loops at once throughout his entire set.

That could become a problem when loops are combined together to a point where they are unrecognisable, and they become an entirely new song that the DJ created in that moment. That’s why technology needs to come in.

We actually did an experiment not too long ago, where we placed digital ears in a nightclub and it picked up every loop that was played all night, across its three rooms. It was impressive.

If we can develop a system that is foolproof, then we can start rewarding the use of loops and small sections of music that DJs play. Tech can solve this problem. 

If a track features a sample and that track is played in a club, is the songwriter of the original sample owed royalties?

Yes, generally. For instance, Rhythm Masters ‘Come On Y’all’ has six songwriters listed because of all of the samples in the track.

Electronic music producers have to be really careful about the samples that they include in their songs. Make sure that you get any samples cleared, otherwise you could end up losing all songwriting royalties from a track.

This famously happened to the band The Verve, with their hit song ‘Bittersweet Symphony’. That track featured a sample from The Rolling Stones which they used without clearance.

As soon as they started to make money from that track, the right holders of the sample came along and claimed ownership. So The Verve received nothing from royalties of that track, and it was a huge record.

How long does a producer have to wait, before receiving payment on tracks that they register with PRS for Music?

It can be very quick. If you register a song today, and we invoice iTunes monthly, you could get your first payment in three months. CD licensing happens almost constantly as well.

And registering a song with us is very quick. It only takes 30 seconds to let us know what you’ve written. You can even register a song before you have a label deal or an artist name.

Finally, is there anything else you’d like to say to electronic music producers?

Everyone is welcome to the family of songwriters. If you produce your own dance music, you are a songwriter. Register with PRS for Music and let us know what songs you write. Then you can start receiving royalties for your music. It might be a complicated business, but for artists, it’s actually rather simple.

Words: Terry Church

Terry Church

Terry Church is co-founder of JustGo Music, a social media management platform that helps musicians grow their fanbase. Terry has done social media comms for some of the biggest names in dance music including David Guetta, Dubfire, Eric Prydz and Luciano. He is the former Editor of Beatport and a former DJ Magazine editor.