File Under: Understanding Your Legal Rights, Getting Licensed and Generating Royalties

One of the hot topics at this year's SXSW was how to get placed in film, TV, video, and advertising. Music licensing deals like these can be lucrative. Plus, they create not one, but two types of income: licensing and royalties. That is, if you register things correctly and make sure you avoid some of the "gotchas" most musicians fall into.

Licensing original music for use in film trailers, movies, or any other video use -- as opposed to doing a work for hire -- generates synchronization, or "sync" royalties. In other words, the production company pays you a license fee for the use of your music in their work -- both for your sound recording and your composition. (If you need a refresher on this topic, see Here’s What You Own & What You Can Earn From Your Music.)

But that's not all you can make: having your music in a film, TV show, commercial, or video also generates performance royalties each time it's played publicly. These royalties come from the Performing Rights Organizations (PRO) -- ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC -- you’ve registered your song at. But, they'll only pay you if they know where your music has been used. That's where cue sheets come in.

Cue sheets are documents created by production houses to track the music used in the work. These sheets list the name of the song, the artist, the publisher, where exactly it was used in the work (including the start time and duration), and other related information. Most professional production house will fill these forms out and send them to the PROs. The PROs then use these sheets to track when your music was played so they can pay you performance royalties. However, some smaller production houses or independent filmmakers don't know how to create and submit the forms. So, to make sure you get the performance royalties cue sheets can bring in, do the following:

1. Ensure the Production House Creates and Submits Cue Sheets.

Make sure the production house or independent filmmaker you're licensing your music to creates and submits cue sheets. If they're unfamiliar with the cue sheet process, educate them how and why it's important to musicians. It's best to add a term to your license contract that puts the obligation on them to submit a cue sheet (covered below).

Don't be surprised if smaller or independent filmmakers who license your music don't know to do this and avoid it because they think that it will somehow cost them more money. Instead, you can explain that the royalties are collected from the TV stations irrespective of whether the cue sheet was submitted and all they're doing is cutting off income from the musicians that are making music for them. (In fact some musicians license their songs to them for free in order to generate these backend performance royalties.) In our own personal experience with less experienced production houses, we went out of our way to help the producer create, fill, and submit our PRO's cue sheet to make sure that it got done.

2. Register Your Licensed Song with Your PRO.

Make sure your song is registered with your PRO (and don’t forget to register the song as both a publisher and songwriter, two of the 7 registrations that you should do for every song). If you haven’t yet signed up with a PRO, but licensed a song for film, TV, or video, that would be a good time to join one. Waiting too long to sign up and register your licensed music can jeopardize what you make since PROs generally only pay out for music performed within the year.

3. Review the Cue Sheet to Make Sure Your Info is Correct.

Make sure the information in the cue sheet is accurate. Check the spelling and make sure the composer (songwriter) and publisher names are listed correctly. Each PRO has their own formats they prefer so check out the one your PRO uses to get an idea of what they need to track:

Note that a misspelled song title won’t match the original registration that we talked about in #2 above. It’s critical to make sure that the information is accurate or you won’t generate any royalties.

4. Submit the Cue Sheets to the PRO Correctly.

Each PRO has their own submission procedures. To learn more about how your PRO wants the cue sheet submitted and when, click the links below:

If you license your music for film, TV, advertising, or video, don't skip out on the cue sheet submission process -- otherwise you're leaving half the money on the table. One simple form can end up creating additional “mailbox money” for yourself, so it's well worth your time to get this process right.


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Photo credit: Kenneth Lu