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Knowledge Base Article: KB1834
Topic: FAQ - Cue Sheet Issues

Title: How should music usage be classified on a cue sheet?

Last Reviewed: Oct 30, 2008


Composers and publishers affiliate with one of several performing rights organizations (ASCAP, BMI or others throughout the world), which collect and disperse royalties when musical works that they represent are performed or aired, in this case as part of a motion picture or television show. These royalties are generated when the show appears on network, syndicated, cable or foreign television. Performance royalties are calculated as a dollar amount based on how the music is used, multiplied by the number of stations that broadcast the show. Primetime network airings pay the most. ABC, NBC and CBS are calculated to have approximately 200 stations representing all of the local affiliates. Syndicated networks, including Fox, are calculated on a per station basis. Cable stations often air nationally, but are considered to be only one station. Performance royalties are also generated when a motion picture is presented in theaters outside the United States, but due to some unfortunate negotiations that took place in the 1950s, there are no royalties paid for music played in theatrical performances of motion pictures in the U.S.

The issue of performance rights, royalties and administration is very complex, and performing rights organizations such as BMI and ASCAP are attempting to keep up with changing technologies in negotiating agreements on behalf of their affiliated composers and publishers.

AudioSparx has seen over and over that the music cue sheet is the defining factor in how performance royalties are calculated. Because the dollar amount for royalties is derived from how the music is used in a show, the key issue is the usage category that the music or production editor assigns to each piece of music. The list of usage categories for music in a film or television show is as follows:

• Visual Vocal — On-camera vocal performance
• Visual Instrumental — On-camera instrumental performance 
• Visual Dance — On-camera dance
• Opening Theme — Opening title theme
• Closing Theme — End title theme
• Featured Vocal — Music with vocal that plays with a visual montage (for example)
• Featured Instrumental — An instrumental cue featured in some specific way other than visual. (This is a rarely utilized usage category.)
• Background Instrumental — Underscore and non-visual (off-camera) source
• Background Vocal — Underscore with vocal or non-visual vocal source

The first seven categories (Visual Vocal, Visual Instrumental, Visual Dance, Opening Theme, Closing Theme, Featured Vocal and Featured Instrumental) are considered “featured performances,” during which music is the prime focus of the scene.

Featured performances generate much higher royalties than background performances. BMI royalties for a feature performance of 45 seconds or more on network primetime can be as much as $2,400, which is divided between the composer and publisher. (Featured performances less than 45 seconds are prorated.) BMI background performance royalties on network primetime are much less — approximately $340 per minute, which is again shared between the composer and publisher. ASCAP rates are slightly different, but comparable.

Sometimes a cue may start out as a featured performance and then become background as the scene progresses. In this case, it may be appropriate to list the composition as two separate cues that reflect the actual usage and associated times.

There are also some situations where the music editor must make a judgment call on whether a music cue should be considered to be a featured performance. In a montage where there is no dialogue, vocal music could be considered to be featured — for example, in a scene where a couple walks romantically on a beach and Roberta Flack’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” is heard. Instrumental music is not generally considered to be featured unless the performer can be seen on camera. If an instrumental composition is well known, and its title or recognition factor strongly relates to the scene, it might be argued that this is a featured usage of an instrumental cue — if the Ventures song “Pipeline” plays during a surfing scene, for instance.

Source music, which is music that the characters themselves are able to hear, can be either featured or background. It is considered featured when it is the heart of the scene. Often, even if we hear music and see a music-producing device such as a radio or CD player on camera it may not be considered a featured performance. Sometimes we see people dancing to music in the background of a scene without any on-camera indication of the source of the music. In a strict sense, these are not featured performances because the music is not considered the prime focus of the scene. Another special case is the Visual Dance category, which is usually reserved for choreographed dance routines such as ballets or cheerleading displays. Someone shaking their booty does not usually qualify as a choreographed routine.

Before you fill out that cue sheet, be sure to consider the ramifications of your usage category choices. When in doubt, please take a minute to email us at and we'll be happy to help clarify the appropriate usage classification for a particular track's use in your production. The composer and the publisher of the tracks you use in your productions will be tremendously grateful for your accuracy.

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