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How the MCPS Benefits Songwriters and Composers

Sign up to the MCPS to ensure you get the royalties that you’re owed.

Last updated: 12 October 2020

It all began with the arrival of the player-piano at the start of the 20th century. With songwriters’ income from traditional sheet music facing a threat from a new and disruptive technology, law-makers in the US ruled that piano-roll producers would have to pay composers for the use of their works on the upstart medium. Mechanical copyright – so-called ‘mechanicals’ – was born.

Fast-forward more than a century, and the recorded music ecosystem has evolved almost beyond recognition, from wax cylinders, through vinyl, tape, CD, download and now streaming. But mechanicals, and the principle they represent – that composers must be properly remunerated for the sales of their intellectual property – have survived and thrived. Mechanical royalties are due to the copyright holder every time a piece of recorded music is reproduced and sold, via any technology. Crucially, mechanical royalties are payable on streamed music.

Don’t miss out on mechanical royalties

In the UK, mechanical royalties are collected and distributed by the Mechanical Copyright Protection Society, or MCPS. It is part of PRS for Music, which is an umbrella group incorporating the better-known performing rights collecting agency, PRS. On streaming services such as Spotify, Apple and Deezer the mechanicals generate as much as the PRS rights. It’s a 50-50 split. Miss out on the mechanicals, and you can miss out on a hefty proportion of your potential royalty income. For permanent downloads, the weighting is even more in favour of mechanicals, with three quarters going that way and a quarter channelled through PRS. For physical sales, the current rate is 8.5% of the price paid per unit by a retailer to a record label. Other routes to earning mechanicals include ringtones, covers, soundtracks and karaoke tracks.

It’s no accident that many musicians are more familiar with the performing aspect of royalties, says MU Live and Music Writers Official, Kelly Wood. “A lot of people start off in the live arena, doing small gigs and that’s how they come across PRS, and they understand the royalties generated in that context. But mechanical royalties are often introduced when you get a publisher or a team around you, so it’s not as common as understanding that you need to sign up for PRS,” she says.

How much songwriters and composers can make 

Paul Clements is chief executive officer of the Music Publishers’ Association group, which runs MCPS. He agrees that mechanicals haven’t enjoyed the same recognition as the more high-profile performance-linked royalties. “Because PRS as an acronym is the only word you hear, you associate all royalty flow with performing rights,” he says. “But mechanical rights are extremely important and deliver significant revenues to creators of music, and that’s something we take both pride in, and lobby hard for with government.”

It costs £100 to sign up for MCPS as a writer. For a budding singer-songwriter scratching a living from gigs and DIY CD sales, it may seem an expense too far. However, if a track suddenly takes off it will be money well spent, because mechanical royalties can be hard to claim retrospectively. The MCPS has produced a helpful guide to show how relatively few plays can reap the cost of a lifetime membership. For instance a single play on a BBC1 show, six on Sky 1, or five on Radio 1, will all bring in more than £100.

Catering for a wide range of writers

With more than 27,000 members on its books, the society aims to cater for the full range of composers and writers in a fast-changing industry. “The vast majority of writers still sign up to publishing deals,” explains Paul Clements. “But we have a growing subset in the UK who are signing up to us directly for administration services.”

One of them is Anna Neale, a singer and songwriter who also lectures about the music business at the University of Kent and Brighton’s BIMM Institute. She says that, for DIY-ers like herself, some of the eligibility criteria for MCPS membership can be obstacles to joining. Those rules require would-be members to be commercially released by a record company that doesn’t belong to them. And those whose music is reproduced online or on film and television, must provide cue sheets confirming that their music has been used in a production.

Calls to simplify the process

Anna, who has been campaigning for a simplification of the process, complains it’s

a “glass ceiling” that can stop independent artists and writers who want to remain true to their grassroots from joining. “For instance, I did radio jingles, and I do library music, and they never, ever give you a cue sheet. It’s like trying to get blood out of a stone. There are all these barriers in place, and I don’t think writers understand how important those mechanical royalties are. They are the thing that generates more money than anything else at the moment. They are where the money is. And they can make the difference between a sustainable career and an unsustainable one.”

Why musicians need access to mechanicals

The MU’s Kelly Wood has another take on the importance of mechanicals to the industry as a whole. She says the cultural significance of musicians having access to the full range of royalties cannot be underestimated. “Missing out on mechanicals income makes it harder for people to sustain a career. We don’t want to end up with just wealthy people making music, people to whom it doesn’t matter whether they pick up their royalties or not. You’d end up with quite a different culture – a completely different scene.”