In the years I’ve been working in the music publishing world, I have heard several up-and-comers say that they are “signed” to ASCAP, BMI or SESAC. Usually I ignore it because I’m not a fan of confrontation with people I don’t know, but it’s almost always awkward.
There is a major difference between a music publisher and a performance rights organization. If you are unaware of the difference, please take notes.
A music publisher is a company responsible for exploiting the copyrights of its songwriters and composers. This means: pitching music to to potential licensees (artists, labels, TV/Film executives, etc.), taking care of all licenses and other paperwork on behalf of the songwriter, and ensuring they receive payment when their compositions are used.
In return for these services, the publisher is entitled to a piece of the revenue generated. You can’t just sign up for a music publisher; they have to sign you. Until then, you are your own publisher.
Examples of music publishers include Sony/ATV, BMG Chrysalis, Warner/Chappell, etc. To acquire a publishing deal with a company like this, you have to already be generating income from your music (or have someone really believe in you). You can’t just walk into their offices and asked to be signed. Most likely, you’ll be escorted off the premises.
Performance Rights Organization
There are 4 types of publishing income: mechanical, synchronization, print, and public performance. The last one is where PROs come in.
A Performance Rights Organization (PRO) is a company responsible for collecting the revenue from the broadcast of songs in a public medium for public consumption. This means that typically whenever a song is played on the radio, in a commercial, in a restaurant, etc., performance royalties are generated and paid to PROs, who then pay the writers and publishers of the songs.
The PROs in the US are ASCAP, BMI and SESAC. ASCAP and BMI are both nonprofit and open to the public. SESAC is for-profit and invite-only. As a songwriter of composer, you can only be affiliated with one at a time. Each has its pros and cons, so do your research.
There is also SoundExchange for digital performance royalties (i.e. Sirius/XM, Pandora, etc.). Performers and artists who own their own recordings can join this company in addition to the three above.
Moral of the Story
You can never have enough knowledge. If you are serious about a career in the music industry, you need to know every aspect that will affect you.
In short, please know the difference between a publishing company and a performance rights organization. It is a poor reflection on you (and really uncomfortable for me) if you don’t.