April 1st, 1914 was a momentous day. On that day the Performing Right Society was born. The PRS exists to collect money for the publication and recording of music in the UK, and to pay the composers and lyricists who write what we listen to and play. Prior to the founding of the Performing Right Society it was often down to a composer’s relationship with his publisher whether he was able to negotiate a decent “cut” of the proceeds. Astute composers such as Haydn could negotiate hard bargains with their publishers, while others, Sousa for example, were not afraid to complain vociferously to The Times about piracy in the UK. Others however were less fortunate. Samuel Coleridge-Taylor notoriously sold the rights to the hugely popular Hiawatha cycle outright, and died in poverty making very little money from the sheet music sold, or the concerts which would later be staged at the height of “Hiawathamania”.
Many publishers were not convinced that the PRS was a good idea. Some of them had benefitted from arranging disadvantageous contracts with musicians. Others felt that they treated their composers and performers fairly. Many a Victorian song has an illustration of a music hall artist, often in costume, on its cover, with the words underneath “As sung by….”. Most of the “As sung by…..” artists were paid by the publisher to advertise the latest songs, in return the artist got some free publicity by appearing on a jaunty sheet music cover; while the composer would benefit to some extent from any music sold.
By 1914 how music was performed was changing. Amateur music making was becoming less popular, but there was an increasing enthusiasm for background music in restaurants and hotels. As Liza Lehmann, the first member of the Performing Right Society, explained the case for the PRS was based “not on cupidity, but on bare justice”. Life continued to be difficult for composers, Eric Coates joined in August 1914, and then resigned swiftly (only to rejoin later) after receiving threats from band masters “artists will not perform my works if a fee is demanded…” Coates would go on to become the Society’s highest earner.
By the 1960s PRS was attracting musicians from a wide variety of musical traditions. There were the avant-garde and the populists, the traditionalists and the pop-stars. New recruits in 1968 included Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, John Tavener and Pete Townshend, along with the proprietors of Hymns Ancient and Modern; a truly eclectic mix.
An organization that started life with just 199 members, now has 100,000+, and has helped to establish like minded societies throughout the Commonwealth. The Indian Performing Right Society was established in 1969, followed by societies in Kenya, Zimbabwe, Trinidad, Nigeria and Singapore.
To mark the end of the Performing Right Society’s centenary year there will be a celebration exhibition in the Anderson Room opening on October 2nd, and running until 2015. For more about the PRS’ fascinating history see Harmonious Alliance by Cyril Ehrlich (9003.c.794).