My ASCAP Election Wish: Stop Enabling Cue Sheet Kickbacks

By • January 27, 2009

One of the biggest exploitations that composers face today is when their employer, whether it be a music library, production company, or someone else, demands writer royalties as a condition of employment. What makes matters worse is when those we trust and pay to maintain an honest, accurate, fair system of royalty distribution become facilitators and enablers of this immoral, unethical, but technically legal practice.

Those most victimized by these schemes are composers in the early parts of their careers working under work-for-hire agreements where they end up owning no copyright or publishing interest in the music they compose. Their compensation becomes whatever minimal up-front composing fees they can negotiate, and their writers royalties. Not content to already be receiving all of the publishing share of performance royalties not to mention owning the copyright, a growing number of greedy executives and others are attacking writer’s royalties on these deals. They do this by demanding kickbacks in the form of partial writer’s credit with royalties payable usually to a phony name that is listed on the cue sheets as a co-writer. This phony name is registered with the performing rights societies an “alias” for the executive, who is paid the royalties personally.

It is impossible to estimate the losses to composers and their families due to this unethical business practice. One thing is certain – the losses may continue for the composers’ entire lifetimes plus 70 years after – that’s the length of the US copyright on this music.

Since ASCAP operates the system that rewards these cue sheet robbers so handsomely, ASCAP has the ability to institute rules that would help to curb this practice. One that I’ve suggested for years now is adding a signature line on cue sheets so someone would have to take legal responsibility for the accuracy of the information submitted on cue sheets, which form the basis for the distribution of hundreds of millions of dollars annually. ASCAP’s current “no signature required” situation regarding cue sheets is literally a blank check to cue sheet kickback artists, and represents what in my opinion is an appalling lack of accountability in their distribution system. It’s no different than operating a bank where nobody has to sign the checks – people send them in with a payee and no signature, and the bank pays them, no signature required. I have to wonder exactly who benefits from operating such a loose accounting system.

I was told by a high ranking ASCAP source that some years ago, a proposal was made at the ASCAP board that would have ASCAP take a public stand against cue sheet kickbacks. The ASCAP Board refused to pass the proposal, and the exploitation of composers in this way continued unabated with ASCAP as a willing partner, as ASCAP writes the kickback checks every quarter. The message this sends to the entire industry – that ASCAP is fine with enabling and facilitating cue sheet kickbacks – is chilling and only makes things for composers worse as ASCAP’s inactions only further legitimize these schemes.

My question for our incumbent ASCAP Board members who are now asking us to re-elect them to continue their work in secret is, “Why should composers vote for you, given ASCAP’s chronic and continuing failure to effectively address this blatant rip-off of composers?”

While our incumbent board members haven’t had the time or inclination to effectively address composer cue sheet kickbacks, they certainly have had the time, in recent years, to make sure they get re-elected with the outrageous 1,330 signature rule that has eliminated any practical chance of independent candidates to get a place on the ballot through nominating signatures. Of course, our incumbent board members themselves and the “opponents” handpicked by the board’s nomination committee don’t have to submit even 1 signature to get on the ballot. One wonders who they are so afraid of that they must pass and maintain such an oppressive, un-democratic election obstacle.

However, if things repeat themselves, the incumbent board will be re-elected and the handpicked opponents will be defeated, the board will go back to their secret work, nothing will be done about cue sheet kickbacks, and composers will continue to get ripped off while ASCAP writes the kickback checks every quarter. Does it really have to continue this way?

America has made history this year by rejecting the status quo and embracing change. It’s a shining testimonial that the objectionable actions of the past, even as institutionalized as they may appear, can be changed if people are willing to take positive action and reject those whose actions (and inactions) are the source of the problem. We have only one opportunity every 2 years as ASCAP members to choose our leaders, and I urge you to ask those who ask for your vote some hard questions about what they’ve done, the actual changes and improvements they’ve been directly responsible for, and what they’re ready to commit to do about ASCAP’s continued facilitation or cue sheet kickbacks.

You have a precious opportunity to vote in the upcoming ASCAP election – use it wisely. And give the handpicked opponents a chance – these guys historically get creamed at the elections. This year’s opponents feature a much wider diversity in many ways than we see on the current ASCAP board, and they might just be able to bring about the kind of changes that the incumbent board members are unable to.


By Eric Goetz on January 28th, 2009 at 9:27 am


As always, thanks for writing about these important issues. I know you’ve been fighting for them for along time, and your work is really appreciated.


By Dan on January 28th, 2009 at 9:59 am

You have open the eyes of many composers like me. You are source of inspiration for all musicians. Keep up the good work. It may take some time, but eventually justice will prevail.


By Tom on January 28th, 2009 at 1:17 pm

I seems to me, even though Film Music is such a great resource, if you could get this information to the right parties in the mainstream media and get an article published about this practice, the American public at large would be outraged at this practice. This is such a current topic – the fleecing of the little guy by the big corporate bully. Unfortunately, the bully in this case is enabled by just the ones who are supposed to be protecting the underdog. Seems like a perfect news item. If ASCAP has to explain it’s actions to a larger audience, perhaps change WILL be in the air.

By Scott on January 28th, 2009 at 3:28 pm

I had a friend recently worked in LA for two years under a work-for-hire scenario, and with an employer who continually tried to negotiate my rights to royalties right out from under me. Needless to say, he left.

I’d love to see scenarios like this as a thing of the past – but alot of things have to change for the corrupt immoral peeps to get out of the industry!

By Scott on January 28th, 2009 at 3:33 pm

Hehe… I guess my last post didn’t make a great bit of sense…

By Old-Fiddle on January 29th, 2009 at 10:47 am

The whole system of license fees, writers royalties, publishers royalties etc., seems to have totally degenerated in to a feeding frenzy in the same way that the banks have. Fat cats getting rich on other peoples sweat.
I know this is probably a long way from happening but I believe a composer is like any other tradesman. He offers a service for which he expects to get paid. If he needs help he hires the help and HE decides how much to pay them. I think the current system should be scrapped totally. Composers, musicians etc., should agree a price for a piece of work with the client and should be paid directly by the client. So the use of a cue in a film score would be licensed for a term of months or years for a fixed price. The price to be agreed between composer and client (or their representatives). The number of plays is not relevant so nobody needs to monitor it. Cue sheets would not be required and the opportunity to rip off the composer is minimized.
If the composer needs to hire an agent to do the selling for him, then they agree a commission between themselves. This would be simple to administer and wouldn’t need policing.
The way the market is going, especially with online distribution, this is the only way musicians and composers will ever get paid in the future. Pay per play is becoming impossible to achieve in the modern world. So, Get used to it and change the system now!
I’m 63 so I’m not holding my breath but I hope the next generation grasp the nettle and stamp out this antique, secretive system forever.

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