PRS, PPL, MU, How does Music Work in the UK?

Image credit: Roberta Sorge

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As soon as I started planning my move to the UK, I began collecting the more information possible about how music and music business work here. This is what I’ve found so far, but feel free to add your experiences and suggestions in the comments below.

Music in the UK is a business worth £4.4 billion (yes, four point four billion pounds), so it’s alive and well supported. There’s a lot of talent around, and a good amount of that comes from women, like my latest favourite band, the Rews.

What does a musician need to know or do to make music in the UK? First I want to share these are 3 things I’ve learned:

1. Keep calm and Make great music

There simply too much competition out there, you need to give the best of your possibilities to stand out. Obviously, all the talent around is also of great inspiration.

2. Show, don’t tell

There’s no room for talking here. In Italy, we’re used to talking a lot about what we do. That doesn’t work very much here in the UK. The most polite response you will hear would be “Oh, really? There’s a stage out there, can you show us your thing?”.

3. Make your gears portable

I’ve noticed a trend in portable equipment, at least in London. You may need to walk a lot and rely on public transport for your gigs, and I’ve seen lots of creative solutions. What I haven’t seen yet is a sort of LifeHacker collection of tips and portable gears, but it’s only a matter of time. I guess.

And now get in the ring

If you’re serious about your music, even if it’s a side project, it’s a good idea to start on the right foot and protect your work and your career. There are a lot of associations and institutions whose goal is to help music and musicians get it right with their craft and be treated fair. The most well known are PRS, PPL, Musician Union (MU) and BASCA. But there are many others, and there’s even an association of them called UK Music.

So what is the right for you? It depends on your situation, let’s start with a common example:

  • You’ve either moved to the UK from abroad or you’re born here and at a certain point, you decide that you want to make music.
  • You want to start small, write your own songs and perform them live along with some covers in pubs and clubs. You may want to perform solo or with a band.
  • You may also want to record your original songs and publish them on Spotify/SoundCloud/iTunes/YouTube or sell them through your website or a third party.
  • At a certain point, you may also want to sell CDs, vinyl and other merch.

PSR is about “the songs”

PRS members are songwriters, composers and publishers. If you write your own songs it’s a good idea to join PRS and register your works with them. As stated on their website, every time your music is performed, broadcast, streamed, downloaded, reproduced, played in public or used in film and TV, PRS will collect and send you your share of royalties.

Sidenote: Should you open your own publishing company?

In recent interviews, guitarist Steve Vai told that one of the smartest move he did, encouraged by Frank Zappa, was to open his own publishing company. This was necessary in order to receive a good portion of copyright royalties, that would otherwise be lost if he didn’t have a publishing deal. This was and still is a good idea if you are in the US because, as far as I know, if you don’t have a publishing deal you’ll lose the 50% publisher’s share of your royalties. This is the same for Italy by the way. In the UK, you don’t need to open a publishing company, unless you want to publish other people’s music. You can simply register with PRS as a self-published artist and get 100% of your royalties. Lovely.

Please note that registering your music with PSR does not mean copyright protection. In the UK, all original music is protected by copyright as soon as it is recorded or written down in some format, but it’s the creator that has to prove ownership.

PPL is about “the recording”

If you are a session musician, and you happen to play, for example, as a guest in the next Iron Maiden album (yes, sweet dreams are made of this…), the recording will be registered with PPL along with your name and the size of your share in it. So every time that album is bought, broadcasted, streamed or synced you will get your share of royalties.

Moreover, if you record your own album or EP, and register it with PPL, you will own the recording and the corresponding royalties. You will still have to give shares if any other people worked on the recording as a producer or musician.

BASCA is about “the art”

BASCA stands for British Academy of Songwriters, Composers and Author, and it’s a professional association for music makers. As they say on the about page, they are the independent professional association representing music writers in all genres, from songwriting to media and contemporary classical to jazz. BASCA supports the interests of British songwriters, lyricists and composers around the world, with a series of activities that go from news, events, community and consulting with lawmakers and other political institutions.

Musicians’ Union is about “you”

The Musicians’ Union is, plain and simple, a trade union for musicians. They provide a series of invaluable resources and support for people who work with music at all levels from music teachers, students, session musicians and bands of all sizes. Some benefits, like public liability insurance and legal advice, are available to paying members. Other resources like career advice, recommended rates and contract examples can be accessed for free.


Given the above starting point, these are my suggestions:

  1. If you have written your own material and want to perform it live, I would recommend joining PRS first and register your music. It’s a one-shot £100, totally worth it.
  2. As soon as you have recorded your material and want to publish it online (iTunes, Spotify or whatever) or sell your CDs and vinyl, then you may also want to join PPL. You don’t need to join MCPS (Mechanical Copyright Protection Society) unless your music is released by a record label which is not owned by you.
  3. At any point in between PRS and PPL, if you perform regularly, even for a side project, joining the Musicians’ Union it’s a good idea. The annual fee is over £200, but the sum of benefits worth the price.

Also, note that all these are the very basics, and don’t guarantee that your music will sky-rocket the UK or world charts. To go further you need marketing, publishing and distribution channels, but this is stuff for another article. In the meantime go back to making your music and have fun!