(Third in a series of blogs answering Frequently Asked Questions about songwriting, music production, arranging, and the business of music.)
Co-writing can be a delicate relationship, especially in the early going, when the writers may not know one another well. Plus, we writers are such fragile snowflakes, that any misstep can threaten the delicate writer-to-writer equilibrium. And there is no question more threatening to this ego detente than, “How are we going to split the rights to our new song?”
37/63? (Believe it or not, that happens.)
We all want to get our fair share of credit (and money) from the work we do. But what is fair? That can be a really hard question for a lot of reasons. But assuming the writers actually finish a song, the question of the split in ownership must be addressed. It cannot be avoided. And the writers must not avoid it, or worse, leave it up to their publisher to fight over later. The best time to determine the split of a co-write is the moment the song is finished. Or sooner. As in – before you even begin writing.
Whaaaat??? How can you determine a split before you’ve even written the song?
True Story: On one of my earliest writing sessions in Nashville, I was paired with a very successful writer. (So successful that his list of hits intimidated me.) The first words out his mouth, right after “nice to meet you,” were something along these lines: “No matter what either of us contributes to the song, the split will be 50/50. Are you okay with that?” (The implication was I’d better be okay with it, or he wasn’t going to write with me.)
It seemed rather abrupt and a little confrontational at the time. But I wasn’t about to argue with the guy. I needed him a lot more than he needed me. (And by the way – that is a legit determining factor in song splits.)
Later, I came to see it was the smart, professional way to deal with the uncomfortable subject of splits: Handle it up front. Why? Because once an artist records the song, suddenly the money is real, and with visions of actual royalty checks dancing in your head, you may start to think you deserve a bigger piece of the royalty pie. Better to decide the split when everything is fresh and the money is imaginary. So, don’t leave the co-write session without at least broaching the subject.
But that still leaves the question: What is a fair split? And the only correct answer is: It’s whatever the writers determine to be fair.
I have heard of writers who would literally count lines of lyrics, or portions of melodies, to determine what their fair share should be. (Those writers tend to be unpopular with other writers.) It’s not uncommon to break the song down into its parts (words & music) or sections (verses & chorus) to aid in determining a fair split. If one writer only helped to finish an almost complete song, that would be a reasonable consideration in the split. I’ve taken as little as 10% on a song, and as much as 90%. It is all up to the writers.
As a general rule of thumb, I’m a believer in an even split, regardless who wrote what. Why? Because in the long run, equal shares promote a healthy writing relationship, and acknowledge the importance of each writer’s contribution to the song. An even split also tends to foster a more giving attitude in the creative process, where neither writer is trying to gain a bigger piece of the credit. And most of the professional writers I collaborate with feel the same way. We assume a 50/50 split unless somebody suggests otherwise.
Two things to keep in mind:
- If you’re fair and even generous with your co-writer, you’re more likely to be asked to co-write again.
- When it says “Words & music by X and Y” on the sheet music or the CD label, they don’t spell out who wrote how much of what.
In the end, it’s all up to you to decide what is fair. Just don’t put it off till it’s to late.
(For more about songwriting collaboration, there is an entire chapter devoted to the subject in my book, The Craft of Christian Songwriting.)