Whenever you write a song you become the copyright holder. You have the exclusive right to publicly perform it. BMI defines a public performance as “any music played outside a normal circle of friends and family.” This includes song recordings played on radio, in restaurants, coffee shops, or anywhere else. Whenever a public performance occurs, a royalty is due.
Songwriters can sign up with Performing Rights Organizations who collect royalties on their behalf. Once you sign up with a PRO, you become a part of their catalog. When a business is looking to legally play some music, they get a blanket license with one of these organizations. They then have access to the entire catalog. The number of plays are ascertained by surveys done by the PRO and royalties are divided accordingly.
Royalties are always a 50/50 split between the writer and publisher. If you’re an indie artist, it’s common that you register twice: once as a writer and again as a publisher, thus ensuring you get all royalties due.
Self-publishing means keeping all the money, but it also means doing all the work. If you affiliate with a publisher, they will take over the administrative tasks involved, but it comes at a price. Deciding to partner with a publisher is a serious choice and deserves careful thought. Just because a publisher is interested doesn’t mean it’s a good deal.
When deciding to join a Performance Rights Organization, there are three names that come up: ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC. There’s a bit of debate over which is better but rather than take a side, I’m just going to give some general information. SESAC, unlike the other two, is invitation only. You need to be somewhat successful to be considered. Signing up as a writer under BMI is free, but there is a $150.00 fee to be a publisher. ASCAP charges $50.00 for either license, and is therefore cheaper than BMI for self-publishers.
I recommend doing more research on your own before committing. That being said, don’t stress about the decision. It’s not a life or death choice, and there are writers in every group that are happy with their affiliation.