SESAC at 80

SESAC has helped recording artists navigate the murky waters of the music industry for eight decades.

When Bryan-Michael Cox started writing songs as a teenager, he wanted to join a performance rights organization -- or PRO -- to receive payment for his works. After thinking of signing with ASCAP, the largest American PRO, fellow songwriter Greg Curtis steered him toward SESAC.

"SESAC was there for me when it wasn't cool," says Cox, who has written and produced songs for Mariah Carey, Usher and Mary J. Blige.

As SESAC (originally the Society of European Stage Authors & Composers, but now just known by its initials) celebrates its 80th anniversary this year, the Nashville-based organization, with its smaller roster and hands-on approach to helping writers, continues to separate itself from its much larger competitors, ASCAP and BMI, by presenting a more intimate business model.

SESAC's approximately 10,000 affiliates include veteran artists Bob Dylan and Neil Diamond as well as new stars like Lady Antebellum, MGMT and Nate "Danja" Hills. Unlike ASCAP and BMI, which represent 370,000 and 400,000 songwriters, composers and publishers respectively, SESAC's membership restrictions have bred a "quality over quantity" approach.

Pat Collins, SESAC president and COO since 2004, sees the organization's anniversary as proof that its approach has been working. "It's an even bigger accomplishment that SESAC has grown exponentially in the last 10 to 15 years," says Collins, who points to recent staff expansions and new offices in Los Angeles, Atlanta and Miami. "Even at 80 years old, we consider ourselves a growth company."

Collins describes SESAC as "the eye of the storm between creators of music and users of music." The organization represents songwriters and publishers by licensing their music in different media and tracking their works in order to issue royalties to the copyright owners. SESAC does retain a percentage of income -- in contrast to ASCAP and BMI, both not-for-profit organizations -- but it does not require any service fees or affiliation charge.

Following the creation of ASCAP, the first American PRO, in 1914, SESAC was founded in 1930 as a means of securing American royalties for European publishers. SESAC quickly expanded to include American music and began signing songwriters in 1970.

The organization now affiliates with artists in a wide variety of musical genres, as well as the composers of TV shows like "Grey's Anatomy." SESAC also introduces songwriters to publishers to spark business relationships, while allowing creative artists to work with talent in other organizations. "We have an environment where songwriters and publishers work very well together, because their goals are the same: get their songs out there and make money," says Trevor Gale, senior vp of Writer/Publisher Relations.

SESAC affiliate MGMT

SESAC is the country's fastest-growing PRO; still, its size is not always an advantage. Entertainment lawyer Peter Thall believes the organization "is not as transparent as ASCAP, and they don't have the clout of ASCAP and BMI -- just by virtue of the fact that they don't control as much talent."

But the company sees its small size as its greatest asset. While ASCAP and BMI offer open membership to affiliates, SESAC limits its roster by requiring songwriters to meet a certain standard, such as an indication of professionalism or recommendation.

Gale says that a high percentage of writers are accepted, and that SESAC's selective process is simply in place to make sure their songwriters are serious about their craft. "We just believe that we don't have to represent hundreds of thousands of writers to see a return, if they are quality songwriters," Gale says. "We don't want people to think that we're unapproachable. It's just an issue of quality control."

With offices located in six major cities and a smaller number of affiliates than their competitors, the company emphasizes far-reaching support to its writers and encourages office members to attend their clients' live shows.

Gale believes that this greater personal focus gives SESAC songwriters a better chance of scoring placements and reaches other writers through word-of-mouth. For songwriters like Cox, SESAC's smaller business model gives clients the assistance and accessibility they need to work.

"I know people with other (PROs) who don't know the reps in their own city," Cox says. "The fact that I can call any number of SESAC executives and get them on the phone immediately is incredible."

As the music industry went digital during the past decade, PROs have had to adjust the technology used for tracking music. Since becoming the first PRO to utilize Broadcast Data Systems in 1994, SESAC has tried to embrace emerging technology and avoid the dismissive attitude of record companies, which Gale believes "fell asleep in their chairs and didn't realize that the Internet was going to change music."

SESAC has committed a small percentage of its expenses to evaluating new tracking tools in multiple platforms, from satellite radio to ringtones. "When you think about the job we have as PROs, there's so much territory to cover that we have to keep pushing the envelope when it comes to new media," explains Hunter Williams, senior vp strategic development/distribution and research operations.

SESAC arrives at its 80th birthday when the U.S. economy is still slowly recovering, with budget cuts at radio stations having a ripple effect on the organization. Collins says that business has been steady, however, and foresees SESAC relying on its user-friendly business model and technological breakthroughs moving forward. SESAC hopes that watermarking technology will eventually become advanced enough to offer a census-like method of tracking and payment, enabling clients to receive their royalties even faster. "We invest in the future," Collins says, "because we want the best possible service for our customers."