What is a cue sheet and why and when do you need to use it? Essentially, it has to do with using copyrighted music in any production that will go public. It can be a concert, a theatre production, or a video. Say, you want to give a video you are making that cinematic feel. One of the ways to do that is to add some exciting and fitting music. But to use such music you have to secure all the copyright obligations. To do that, the author or the producer, freelance or otherwise, would have to fill out a proper cue sheet.

So what exactly is a cue sheet? BMI, one of the official organizations that secures music copyrights defines cue sheets as follows:

Cue sheets are the primary means by which performing rights organizations track the use of music in films and TV. Without cue sheets, it would be nearly impossible for such composers and publishers to get proper compensation for their work.

Each country has its set of official organizations that secure music copyrights. In the U.S. there are about 20 such organizations, like the American Federation of Musicians (AFM). The full list of these organizations is available at the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) site.

As BMI (above) points out, “keeping track of all the music used in films and on television shows is a formidable task.” At the same time, it is one that all these organizations undertake “to ensure its writers and publishers receive the royalties due them.”

When do you need a cue sheet?

One of the specialist sites involved in presenting copyrighted music for public productions adds that “a music cue sheet lists theme music and background cues associated specifically with those productions, as well as independent songs which are also included in the soundtrack.”

It adds that you require one only when there is a public broadcast. “It does not concern corporate videos, corporate websites, student projects, personal videos, youtube videos, etc.” On the other hand, a cue sheet is required when copyrighted music is used for commercial purposes, like in video ads.

This site also notes that is important that there is no additional cost to the producer. “Filling in the cue sheet does not imply that the production company owes any additional fees or royalties. Thus the often-used term Royalty-Free Music.” Broadcasters pay these royalties.

What is the actual use of a cue sheet? These forms go to Performing Right Societies. They collect money for public use, so artists will get their public broadcast/performance royalties. To provide details about the music used in the production, performing right societies rely on the information provided on the audio-visual cue sheet.

ASCAP (above) is the organization that licenses television stations and others the right to broadcast the music contained in their programming. ASCAP collects the license fees from networks, cable, PBS, and local stations and distributes royalties to the composer and publisher members based on these performances. You require cue sheets in order to determine what music has been performed and which members to pay for these performances. Such cue sheets list all the music contained in any particular program. These cue sheets are then matched to broadcast schedules and performances are processed so that members can receive royalties from the use of their music.

The history of cue sheets

Cue.Tools notes that in the early years of cinema, a type of cue sheet was sent to theatres along with silent movies, so that the local musicians providing musical accompaniment would know what kind of music to play, for how long, at what times. Radio stations have long used a type of cue sheet to log what they play and when. They report this to collection/rights societies. Another type of cue sheet explains how you need to arrange sound recordings into a single multi-part program, such as for professional CD authoring. When an artist wants to put together an album, they might supply a CD mastering engineer with a stack of CD-Rs or DATs containing the songs. This along with a cue sheet telling the engineer, at a minimum, the intended order of the songs on the album. When assembling the album, the engineer then makes his own, more detailed cue sheet indicating specific track and sub-track boundaries.

ASCAP (above) also explains that the creation of cue sheets often stems from the composer or music editor’s spotting notes or edit decision list (EDL). Then you send a rough draft of a cue sheet to the music department at the production company for verification of accuracy and the inclusion of additional information. The production company then distributes the finished cue sheet to all interested parties. These include publishers, composers, attorneys, and performing rights organizations like ASCAP.

Due to the rapidly changing landscape of television and film production, there are a growing number of independent production companies that may not be aware of the importance of filing a music cue sheet. It has become increasingly important for composers, publishers, and other music professionals to educate the production companies they work on what a cue sheet is.

cue sheet

CD’s and CD-ROM’s

Yet, there exists another set of cue sheets. According to Cue.Tools, in the realm of audio CD & CD-ROM authoring on home computers, a cue sheet is a specially-formatted text file which relates an accompanying disc “image” (audio data file) with track boundaries and other non-audio data to be written to CD-R. Although it’s possible to manually create a cue sheet in a text editor, CD ripping software typically generates a cue sheet as part of the ripping process. Then, you use the cue sheet of the CD burning software with no need for the user to ever see its contents.

“Although these forms are intended for CD-R burning, you can also use them as playlists by some audio playing software and devices. You can also use them for mounting a ripped CD’s files in a virtual (simulated) CD-ROM drive.”

Generally speaking, you can print a cue sheet or handwritten list or schedule. This denotes how you divide a performance or block of media programming. The times at which events or changes occur are typical “cues” for someone to invoke the intended event or change. There are different types of these forms for different purposes. These include radio programming, stage lighting, and professional authoring of optical discs (CD/DVD/Blu-Ray). (CueTools)

Filling out a cue sheet

According to BMI (above), an accurate cue sheet is a log of all the music used in production. This information includes:

  • Series/Film Title
  • Series/Film Title AKA
  • Episode Title
  • Episode Title AKA
  • The Number of the episode
  • Air Date
  • Show Length
  • Music Length
  • Production Company Information
  • Song/Cue Title
  • Composer
  • Publisher
  • Performing rights society
  • Timing
  • Usage

It is also possible that one composer for an individual piece of music, or if the writer and publisher split their royalties on other than a 50/50 basis. Then you also must indicate this on the cue sheet. These become important factors in BMI’s payment calculations.

With the increase in independent producers and cable operations, the filing of accurate cue sheets has become even more crucial to tracking the use of music in film and television productions. Newcomers to the industry are sometimes unfamiliar with or unaware of the legal and professional responsibilities. This includes using the music of composers and publishers when performing rights societies are representing their rights.

 BMI’s calculation of royalties depends upon a detailed and accurate cue sheet. It is in the composers’ and publishers’ best interests to make sure that the production company properly prepares and submits one of these forms. It is not uncommon for a composer to prepare one of those him/herself for comparison purposes. Also, to ask to see those filled out by the production company before they submit it to the publisher and/or the performing rights organization. (All above, BMI)

According to ASCAP, it now uses a standardized cue sheet in cooperation with RapidCue®. This standardized form enables you to submit data once through a single point of entry. This goes to cuesheets@rapidcue.com, instead of separately to each PRO.

Getting it right with copyrights

There are situations where when using copyrighted music you don’t and you do need to have a proper cue sheet.

If you are making a home or a corporate video with personal or limited internal use, you may not require one.

But what if you are preparing a video or a film for public broadcasting or commercial use? Then, you will need a cue sheet. This also includes situations like a local DJ show or a school theater production. Also, a burned CD that you will use in a public performance.

In most cases, it is the author of the production or more commonly the producer that takes care to secure and fill out one of those properly.

So what should you do in such situations? You are already investing in making sure that everything is done as it should be. And that your investment gives you a good return. You need to, say, make sure that your video ad campaign really works.

These are usually the cases when you engage professionals to work on such projects. It could be a professional PR agency. Or, it could be one or more freelance professionals to whom you allocate work on such projects.

If the latter is the case, then Bunny Studio might be exactly the place to enlist one or more of such freelance professionals. We carefully pre-select all our freelancers, including producers. They will probably be able to cover all your production needs, including the cover the cue sheet question.