A cue sheet is simply a document that lists out all of the production music that gets used in a film or television program.
So why is this sheet important? Every piece of production music is written by a composer. Under copyright law, these composers are entitled to compensation for the public broadcast of their work, called public performance royalties. These royalties are collected and distributed by the public performance organizations — You may have heard of these: ASCAP, BMI, SESAC, to name a few, and a lot of composers and songwriters are members of these organizations.
A lot of confusion arises out of the royalty payment part, and not enough is being done by the performance rights societies, film schools, and the professional community to make film producers aware of how these work.
First, filing a cue sheet is free. There are no fees to send ASCAP or BMI, and it’s as easy as sending an email.
Second, filing a cue sheet does not make you, a creator of a film, liable for any royalty payments or song usage tracking. All that is handled by ASCAP and BMI. THEY track usage, and THEY make the royalty payments to the composers whenever their music gets played on air.
Where does all the money come from to pay the composers royalties? The money comes, not from film makers and TV program producers, but from license agreements between the performance rights societies and the network or venue. Every TV network, movie theater, concert hall, church, restaurant (if they’re running their business on the up and up) has a license agreement with performance rights societies that allows them to, well, publicly perform any of the music in the ASCAP or BMI catalog. They pay a yearly or quarterly fee, and from those fees, the organizations pay the composers a few cents each time their music is played.
But in order to know who to pay, organizations like ASCAP and BMI need to know when and where the music was actually used. Cue sheets are one such tool that helps them track the usage across different networks, locations, and venues. So if you use production music, do your neighborhood composer a solid, and file a cue sheet. You help put some food on the table and compensate artists for their hard work and expertise, and you’ll be doing the right thing.