In my last column, I talked about my desire to see the ASCAP Board start instituting some practices that could help curb the abusive, exploitative practice of requiring composers to kick back a percentage of writer’s royalties as a condition of employment.
But beyond the issue of institutionalized kickback schemes, there are many other ways cue sheets can become inaccurate given how many hands have to touch them as they’re created and potentially re-inputted from one system to another to another. It is unrealistic to expect ASCAP to check every line on every cue sheet – they’re hardly in a position to know what’s accurate and what’s not. But composers are, and that’s a very, very good reason why composers ought to have online, secured access to the official cue sheets of their music that are on file at our performing rights organizations (PROs).
Here is an important question to consider: Do you really know what the final, official versions of your cue sheets on file with the PROs contain?
From innocent data input errors by clerks at production companies, to deliberately “inflating” cue sheets by increasing cue timings and even adding music onto cue sheets that isn’t even in the film or TV production, there are a myriad of ways that cue sheets can end up wrong. And let’s not forget that all three U.S. PROs reserve the right to alter cue sheets without notifying any of the affected writers or publishers listed on the cue sheet.
With online access, composers and songwriters can ensure that their music is properly and accurately recorded on the final, official versions of cue sheets – documents that are the basis for the payment by our PROs of hundreds of millions of dollars of royalties every year. If a problem is found on a cue sheet, those with a fiduciary interest in the royalties that are paid for that music – composers, songwriters and publishers – are the ones who are in the best and only practical position to spot the problems and get them resolved with the interested parties.
Once composers are allowed online access to the official, final copies of their cue sheets at the PROs, I expect there will be an initial flurry of activity as composers and songwriters identify potential issues with cue sheets. I don’t expect the PROs to bear the expense or burden of managing the workout of all these inquiries – the cost in time and money should be borne by those who have a fiduciary interest in the royalties at issue – the writers and publishers. But to make this work, it’s important that the PROs establish a basic framework by which any mistakes or errors on cue sheets can be documented and corrected. In the end, all parties – the PROs, writers and publishers, all have an interest in the final, official version of cue sheets on file at the PROs being accurate. And that also includes the “international versions” of cue sheets which originate at our domestic PROs but are separate documents used by PROs worldwide.
Some might argue that only copyright owners should have access to these official cue sheet files, however I strongly disagree with that. In fact, since publishing and copyright are not always owned by the same parties and copyright ownership is not recorded on cue sheets, the PROs really don’t have any way to accurately identify copyright owners of the music they represent other than making an undocumented assumption that whoever owns the publishing must own the copyright.
In a day and age when even the smallest local bank has a robust online banking service for its customers, there is no reason why composers and songwriters should have to deal with outdated computer systems that offer no online access to cue sheets. Music is no different than stocks, bonds, or other assets that are managed by brokerages or other financial institutions – these institutions have an obligation to provide easy to use, online access to customers for their assets. We have an obligation to ourselves and to our families to manage our music assets responsibly, and as long as cue sheets are locked away at the PROs with no online access, verifying that the final version of our cue sheets on file with the PROs is difficult at best.
Whether it’s cue sheets with no dotted line to sign that enable and facilitate cue sheet kickbacks or cue sheets that are maintained on computers by our PROs but members are denied online access to, there’s a lot of room for improvement in this area by our PROs. Left to their own, they have chosen not to provide these basic elements of accountability. That leaves it to us – composers, songwriters and publishers – to insist that our PROs do a better job in this area, even if we have to drag them kicking and screaming into implementing 21st century technology and provide comprehensive and complete online access to the musical assets we hire them to manage for us. And online access to cue sheets isn’t the only improvement we should expect – I can’t wait to see outdated practices like sampling only tiny amounts of music from certain broadcasters and PROs employing people listening to music on headphones trying to identify music by its melody (great for songs, but good luck trying that with background instrumental cues) eliminated by finally embracing technology that can and should render these outdated, costly practices obsolete.
Finally, let’s remember that ASCAP, BMI and SESAC work for us, not the other way around. We have every reason to expect accountability from them. We hire them to manage our royalty interests in music we write. They should be grateful for our business and not have to be pushed and prodded to provide basic services while they hide their actions behind secret board meetings and Soviet Union-style elections with secret vote counts and handpicked opponents. They can and must do better, or we as independent businesspeople need to consider better alternatives that embrace 21st century technology and the transparency and accountability that it can and does provide.