I think a lot of people have tried their hand at writing a song at one point. Perhaps it was a little ditty on the piano in the living room of their family, or a small song of complaint in the attic of their house, with a beat-up guitar. The point is, the threshold to songwriting is quite low, so a lot of people call themselves ‘songwriters’.
However, as people grow older they often grow out of their songwriting phase and move on to a job at, say, a bank or something. Luckily for a special few, they’ll persevere and become bona fide songwriters. This means that their regular job will consist of writing songs and lyrics for other people, and occasionally for themselves, if they are a performing artist as well.
But nowadays songs are rarely written by one person alone. No one raises an eyebrow at a single with 10 writers or more, and it has become a very competitive market. Songwriters hang around in the studio all day just to get that chance. To keep things fair and transparant, people often work with a split sheet to establish the writing splits, either beforehand or after the song has been written.
Wait, what? What are they dividing?
So when we’re talking about songwriting we’re almost always talking about composition copyright, so the publishing side of the industry. It’s possible to divide this up however you see fit, although the general rule is always 50% for the composer and 50% for the lyricist. However, once you are both and you are writing with multiple people who are both, it becomes a little muddied. Bear in mind that his has no influence on any publishing deals any of the writers have with their publisher. The more people share in on the pie, the smaller the piece of the pie gets, but what percentage the publisher gets from your share stays the same. Of course, for this very reason publishers prefer if all the songwriters on any of the songs they represent are all signed to them.
So how do you divide it?
It’s immensely hard to decide what everyone’s input is in a songwriting session. Even if you just change one chord, or switch around a verse, that could eventually be the change that makes the song a hit. But the problem is you don’t know. So the most common division is to share the composition right between however is involved with the writing process. So with 3 people in the room everyone would get 33,33% etc.
Especially if you want to keep working with these people this is the best route to take. Additionally, if you do want to base it on ideas or input, people will start championing their ideas, which might not be the best thing for the song.
When do you bring up the songwriting splits?
This is an important question. I’ve worked with and known artists that didn’t check this off until the very end. Imagine the day before release you still need to figure out who is entitled to what in the composition right. The best way to approach this, in my opinion, is to discuss this beforehand. If you make a simple agreement beforehand it will save you a lot of headaches. It could be as simple as just agreeing on a 50/50 split, regardless of what happens during the session.
However, in some situations an artist will want composition rights, even though they haven’t added anything to the song. This is a practice that originated in the ’60s with Elvis Presley, but is still happening nowadays. Of course, you can stand your ground and demand your full share, but of course having a small credit on what you know will be a #1 hit as opposed to an obscure album deep cut is quite the difference, so make your choice accordingly.
One word, one third
This is an (in)famous saying in Nashville, the idiom basically means that if you are present and you contribute something, anything, you are entitled to an equal share of the song. The reasoning behind this is that the energy you brought to the room, or the vibe, has influenced and altered the session. So even if you only contributed to one song, perhaps you did a lot more than that. Or so you can claim. Whether this is always necessarily the case is questionable, but the thought does follow some logic. However, make sure there aren’t any studio snakes hanging around, trying to take advantage of this to get a cut.
I’m a producer, should I get compositional copyright?
If you are a producer things get a little murkier for you. Traditionally producers would work with finished songs, and their role was mainly to make sure the recording process flowed optimally, and perhaps to make sure the sound and performance were top notch.
Nowadays, however, producers are far more involved in the songs themselves, sometimes building the entire song together with an artist. If a producer has contributed to the song, in the form of melody or lyrics, I believe they should be entitled to a fair share of the compositional copyrights. If they only polished the sound and helped with recording (or did the recording themselves), then not so much. This might sound harsh but you have to remember that producers always get a fee/royalty points on the master side as well, so it’s not like they are walking away with nothing. Often they can get a flat fee ranging from 500-3000 and a master royalty percentage ranging from 3%-30%. As you can see, a lot is possible with producers regarding deals, so it’s important to hash this out with them beforehand as well.
Partnerships / band splits
What do you do if you are the songwriter in a band of 4? Or perhaps you and one other band member write everything? One option is to form a partnership with that band member, like Jagger/Richards or Lennon/McCartney, whereby everything you write, together and alone for that band, will fall under that partnership. Just make sure that everything that is written outside of the band remains fully yours, no need (or use for yourself) in sharing that.
Another option with a band is to split everything between all members fairly, regardless of who wrote what. This does promote creativity a lot, since everyone is incentivized to create the best songs together. However, if one of those songs does become a megahit, it can turn sour if someone tries to reclaim (the majority) ownership.
All in all, the most important lessons I hope you draw from this little piece is the necessity to communicate. As long as you are open and honest about what you want, what you feel you deserve and what others deserve, everything should work out great. Make sure to have that conversation before the writing session though, so you won’t have to have an awkward conversation afterwards in which it turns out everyone wants something else.
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What Are Songwriting Splits and Why You Need to Agree on Them Now