At the time this article was written every song in the top-10 on Billboard’s Pop, Country, Christian, and R & B/Hip-Hip charts was the result of collaboration. Out of forty top-10 hits, zero were created by a solo writer. I’m not insinuating that successful songs are never written by one writer; BMI Icon Dolly Parton wrote the majority of her songs by herself, Michael Jackson was the sole writer of “Beat It” and Billie Jean,” and more recently Hozier was the sole writer of his GRAMMY-nominated “Take Me to Church.” But these are not typical.
Some of the most successful songs of the modern era were the result of collaborations. Husband and wife writing team Felice and Boudleaux Bryant’s songs include Tennessee’s state song “Rocky Top,” and the hits “Bye, Bye Love,” “Wake Up Little Susie,” and “All I Have to Do is Dream” (recorded by the Everly Brothers), and resulted in a total of an astounding half billion copies sold. It was a collaboration between Mae Axton and Tommy Durden (with Elvis listed as a cowriter) that led to “Heartbreak Hotel,” and 3-way collaborations between Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland resulted in twenty-five #1 singles for artists including the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, the Four Tops, and Martha and the Vandellas.
Hits aside, there’s work to be done behind the scenes to make the most out of your writing collaboration. Here are some of the basics to keep in mind.
Why Do So Many Writers Choose to Collaborate?
There are both creative and business considerations when co-writing. Some writers collaborate because their expertise is limited to composing melodies, producing backing tracks, or writing lyrics. Therefore, they need a co-writer to contribute the other element(s). Other writers, who are capable of writing both melodies and lyrics, subscribe to the adage that “two heads are better than one.”
In ideal collaborations, writers bring out the very best in each other, sparking concepts, melodies and lyrics that neither writer would generate on their own. They bounce ideas off each other, stimulate each other creatively, and receive instant feedback. Those who co-write are often rewarded with the added benefit of expanding their network of musicians, vocalists, studios, and other writers.
Many writers like the discipline of having designated writing appointments. Knowing they are expected to show up at a specific time and place increases their creative output. For non-performing songwriters, collaboration also increases the number of people who are pitching their material.
There are obvious advantages to writing with a recording artist or record producer. In addition to the financial incentive for artists to record songs they co-wrote, being involved in the creative process allows them to produce material that reflects and expresses their unique artistic identity. Obviously, it’s easier to get an up-and-coming artist to agree to co-write than it is to get an appointment with an established superstar. So many nonperforming songwriters seek out aspiring recording artists whom they believe have potential for success.
Liz Rose states that when she began writing songs with an unknown 14-year-old, her job was primarily to help her young co-writer to express herself. Liz envisioned her primary task as editing—moving things around and suggesting different ways for her young co-writer to say things. Their collaborations resulted in twenty Taylor Swift cuts including the hit singles “Tim McGraw,” “Teardrops on My Guitar,” “White Horse,” and “You Belong With Me” (GRAMMY nominated for Song of the Year).
Liz, who does not play an instrument, has also written for artists including Little Big Town (including their #1 “Girl Crush”), the Eli Young Band, Gary Allan, and Bonnie Raitt.
What Constitutes Collaboration?
It might seem obvious that two or more individuals contributing to a song constitutes collaboration. But what if one of those writers’ sole contribution consists of suggesting a different chord, altering the groove, revising the arrangement, or playing a hooky bass line or guitar lick that becomes an integral part of the song?
Whether these scenarios are deemed collaboration depends on the writers’ agreements with the musicians, the genre of music, and the location where the song is written and recorded. When a demo is recorded in Nashville with professional musicians and vocalists, the players typically listen to a rough recording (guitar/vocal or keyboard/vocal), read a chord chart, and create their own parts. In this milieu, the radio-friendly licks and grooves the musicians contribute—and the harmonies and background vocal parts the singers add to demos and master recordings—are not deemed part of the underlying songs. They are considered part of the arrangement, and while these elements might become integral parts of hit records, the Nashville session musicians and vocalists are not credited as writers and do not share in ownership of the copyright.
However, when songs are recorded outside of Nashville, this typically is not the case. In Los Angeles, New York, Atlanta, and other music centers, it is not unusual for musicians to be credited as writers when they contribute licks, chord changes, and/or grooves in R&B/Hip-Hop and pop songs. The key—regardless of the location where you are recording or the particular style of music being produced—is communication. It is crucial to clarify whether your musicians’ contributions constitute collaboration or a work for hire. If the understanding is that the musicians are “hired guns,” it is best to state this in writing and have it signed by the players and singers.
Determining Percentages of Ownership
In Nashville it is customary for each writer to receive an equal share of the writer’s credit and ownership of the copyright. For example, if two writers sit down to write a song in Music City, the expectation is that each writer will own 50% of the resulting song—50% of the writer’s share and 50% of the publisher’s share (unless they have assigned the publisher’s portion to a publisher). Similarly, three writers split ownership three ways.
Splits are not based on the writers’ contributions. It is not appropriate to say, “I wrote 80% of the lyric (including the best lines) and half the melody so I get 65% of the song.”
Outside of Nashville, when a song is written to an existing music track (sometimes referred to as a “bed” or a “backing track”), the producer(s) of the track typically own 50% of the writers’ share. The writer(s) of the topline (the melody and words the vocalist sings) earn the remaining 50%. In the event that multiple writers contribute to the track they split the 50% allotted for creation of the track. A guitarist might be granted 5% ownership as compensation for creating a hooky lick; a bass player might be given the same amount. These percentages would be carved out of the 50% percent allotted to the track producer because the guitar lick is considered part of the backing track.
Similarly, if several writers contribute to the topline, they split 50%. For example, if one composer creates the track, two writers collaborate on the lyric, and two different writers compose the vocal melody, the split would typically be:
- Track producer: 50 %
- Lyric writer #1: 12.5%
- Lyric writer #2: 12.5%
- Melody writer #1: 12.5%
- Melody writer #2: 12.5%
While these numbers are typical, they are not carved in stone. Co-writers need to discuss and agree upon percentages of ownership. Some writers sign a collaborators’ agreement. This agreement establishes the song’s title, each writer’s contribution (i.e., music, lyrics, music and lyrics, musical backing track), the percentages of ownership, the titles of any sampled works (and if applicable, the artist, label and publishing company of each sampled work), as well as each writer’s publishing information and PRO affiliation.
As previously stated, it is customary for each writer to retain a percentage of the publishing income equal to the percentage of their writers’ share. For example, if a writer is granted 25% of the writing credit he or she will typically also own 25% of the publishers’ share. However, it is always best to clarify this with your co-writers.
Show up on time and have fun. Be someone people look forward to writing with. It’s a good idea to come armed with ideas—“song starts.” Song starts might be titles, lyric phrases, concepts, chord progressions, grooves, melodies, or a backing track.
Create an environment where your collaborators feel safe to share their melodies and lyrics without fear of ridicule. Encourage your collaborators not to censor themselves because a line that doesn’t work might spark one that does.
Discuss how the song will be demoed and be sure all writers are in agreement. One writer might assume that a guitar/vocal demo, produced in his or her home studio, will be sufficient. The other writer might expect that they will spend $1,000 on a recording that will be fully produced in a professional studio. Be sure you are on the same proverbial page.
The term “writing up” refers to collaborating with a writer who is higher up the professional ladder. The best way to entice someone who is more successful to work with you is to let him or her know that you have something terrific to bring to the writing session. It is customary when writing up for the writer on the lower rung of the ladder to bring in a strong idea. If you have not yet achieved significant success it is not realistic to expect someone with hits to bring their best ideas to someone who does not yet have a track record.
When collaborators throw titles and concepts back and forth it is understood that any ideas not used in a song they co-write, revert solely to the writer who suggested them. Respect that, and if a writer suggests a title or a concept that you have previously written, let them know so there can be no accusation later that you took their idea. While titles and concepts cannot be copyrighted, you don’t want to earn a reputation as someone who steals from other writers.
What if one co-writer is unhappy with the resulting song and wants to take his or her contribution back? A commonly used analogy is that you can’t unscramble the egg once it’s been scrambled—meaning that in the eyes of copyright law, unless all writers have agreed in writing prior to the creation of the song, the resulting work cannot be disassembled.
In some instances the producer of a musical backing track might send that recording to several topliners, with the understanding that only one of the resulting songs will be used. In these situations it is critical to clarify upfront what rights the topliner retains. For example, if the track producer does not choose your melody and lyric, and you want to create a new, original track to accompany your topline, will the creator of the original track be credited as a co-writer?
Track creators might contend that the vocal melody was inspired by their chord changes, melodic lines, bass lines, and rhythms, and that they have earned a percentage of ownership—even if a new track is created to accompany the melody and lyric the topliner created. There is no standard way that this is handled, so it is important to establish how this eventuality will be addressed before writing to a track that will be sent to multiple topliners.
After working through these details, co-writing can provide many creative and business benefits. You might need to kiss a lot of frogs before you find the collaborator who brings out the very best in you, but when you find that chemistry, it can be magic.
Jason Blume is the author of This Business of Songwriting and 6 Steps to Songwriting Success (Billboard Books). His songs are on three Grammy-nominated albums and have sold more than 50,000,000 copies. One of only a few writers to ever have singles on the pop, country, and R&B charts, all at the same time—his songs have been recorded by artists including Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys, the Gipsy Kings, Jesse McCartney, and country stars including Collin Raye (6 cuts), the Oak Ridge Boys, Steve Azar, and John Berry (“Change My Mind,” a top 5 single that earned a BMI “Million-Aire” Award for garnering more than one million airplays). Jason’s song “Can’t Take Back the Bullet” is on Hey Violet’s new EP that debuted in the top-10 in twenty-two countries and reached #1 throughout Scandinavia and Asia. He’s had three top-10 singles in the past two years and a “Gold” record in Europe by Dutch star, BYentl, including a #1 on the Dutch R&B iTunes chart.
Jason’s songs have been included in films and TV shows including “Scrubs,” “Friday Night Lights,” “Assassination Games,” Disney’s “Kim Possible” “Dangerous Minds,” “Kickin’ it Old Skool,” “The Guiding Light,” “The Miss America Pageant,” and many more. Jason is in his nineteenth year of teaching the BMI Nashville Songwriters workshops. A regular contributor to BMI’s MusicWorld magazine, he presented a master class at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts (founded by Sir Paul McCartney) and teaches songwriting throughout the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, Norway, Ireland, the U.K., Canada, Bermuda, and Jamaica.
After twelve years as a staff-writer for Zomba Music, Blume now runs Moondream Music Group. For additional information about Jason’s latest books, online classes, instructional audio CDs, and workshops visit www.jasonblume.com.