Updated: Dec 14, 2019
Songwriters often have questions about song splits. At some point in any songwriter’s life, the question is bound to arise: “Who owns what part of the song we just wrote?”
The best time to ask about splits with co-writers is before you actually sit down to write a song. Be sure to have a frank conversation with collaborators before you get started to avoid confusion after the fact.
Here are a few common scenarios for co-writing and what the splits will be for the songwriters who are participating in the writing.
Scenario 1: Typical co-writing session
Co-writing can be a form of therapy, or it can make you feel like you need therapy depending on the co-writer.
When two or more people sit down to write a song, it’s called co-writing.
In general, the ownership splits for cowriters are divided equally among ever how many people are actually writing on the song.
So, as a general rule, you can figure out the song ownership splits by dividing the total number of songwriters by 100%.
For example, if you’ve got two people writing the song, you’ll end up with 100% divided by 2 writers equals 50% for each writer.
When you write a song with three people, you’ll have 100% divided by three writers, which will give you 33.3% for each writer.
You get the picture.
Now, there are a couple of finer points to understand to make sure you get the big picture.
If you’re in the room, you’re on the song
This is a touchy subject, but one worthy of addressing.
Let’s say you’re sitting down to write a song with your co-writing partner, and his or her significant other is also in the room. This other person could be anyone, mind you; we’re just saying significant other for the sake of the story. (Feel free to replace “significant other” with mom, roommate, manager, assistant, photographer, or salesman.)
Now, you’re writing along, you and the cowriter, when all of a sudden you come to a silent space. You and your cowriter are mulling something over between you, and here pipes in honey pie over there in the corner. She thought of a line! Great.
Maybe it is great. Maybe it’s not. But what has just happened is that now the bystander has entered the boxing ring. Now sweetie pie is on the song as a cowriter.
Seriously, from a copyright and ownership standpoint, you have an issue to resolve from the moment the other person who was only watching now starts being a cowriter. I don’t care who you are, if you’re in the room with some people writing a song, unless you explicitly know that you are not to be involved in the songwriting, you are going to be tempted to chime in when you get a great idea. That’s just human nature and further proof that everyone really is a songwriter deep down inside.
Regardless of that fact, when you’re writing songs professionally, you have to treat it like your profession and not just like a fun hobby. It is important to know who is actually being included as cowriters on the song you are writing.
Nobody wants to short change a potentially great cowriter, but a pro writer should not be asked to give up copyright interest to compensate honey pie for her two word epiphany.
Once, I had a writing appointment with Jeffrey Steele and my dad when this photographer followed us up to the suite saying he was going to take pictures of our co-writing session. It was one of those things at a songwriting conference where we thought he knew Jeff and Jeff thought he knew us. At any rate, at the end of the co-writing session, the guy tried to put his name on the song! He didn’t write a single word of it.
Unless you specify otherwise at the beginning of the co-writing session, you can assume that the co-writing splits will be divided equally among all the people writing.
Scenario 2: Collaboration between lyricist and melody writers
What do you call a co-writing session when no one can thing of anything to say? A co-stare.
Sometimes, a situation will arise where one person is a lyricist only, and the other person is responsible only for the melody.
In that case, the song would be divided fifty-fifty because there are only two writers.
But what if there is one lyric writer, and she gets a request by a four-piece ensemble write melody to her words? Does that mean her lyric is going to turn into a co-write split five ways?
Remember, songwriting and music business agreements are always negotiable. With that in mind, what is fair?
You could say it is fair that the lyricist gets half the song and the 4 piece ensemble splits the other half 4 ways. That works.
That way, you look at the song as being half lyric and the other half melody. Since she wrote the lyrics 100% by herself, she gets 100% of that half – in other words, 50% of the total song. And since the melody makes up the other half, the guys putting the music to the lyrics should split the melody half of the song among themselves equally. So, 50% divided by 4 people yields 12.5% per melody writer.
That’s one way to break up the ownership of the song, but it’s not the only fair way of splitting up the song.
For example, if the lyricist is just starting out and wants to entice the four-piece ensemble to write more songs with her, she might consider letting them share an equal piece of the pie, and not just one fourth of 50%.
Our lyricist’s share would drop down to 20% from 50% which is a big cut, but each of the melody writers would now also get 20%, a big improvement over 12.5%, and a bigger incentive to write more with our lyricist.
How much better is the song because of the contribution of this four-piece ensemble? How much more likely is that song to be heard with their contribution as opposed to without it?
There is no hard and fast answer to the question of songwriting splits, but there is always the question of fairness and what seems like the right thing to do in order to move forward in a mutually beneficial way.
The lyricist might choose to cut the quartet in on her songwriting credits, or she might choose to keep it as a 50/50 split, asking the ensemble members to split their melody half of the song.
Either way is right.
Scenario 3: Top Line and Track Writers
Relatively new to the Nashville songwriting terminology book is the concept of top line and track writers.
What is a top line writer?
The practice of top line writing came about when producers started collaborating with songwriters and wanted to share in the songwriting action.
Track writers start the ball rolling in this scenario. The track writer does just that, he or she writes a fully produced track with bass, drums, guitars, etc., everything but the vocals. This shell of a song has the chord progression and different sections marking the verse, chorus, break-down, bridge, and any other form or structure elements already in place.
The track writer then sends his finished track off to some of his favorite top line writer friends.
The top line writer listens to the finished track and writes a melody and lyrics to suit the mood and style of the track.
When they’re all done, the two songwriters split the song as 50% for the track writer and 50% for the top line writer, or according to their pre-agreed upon split if it is other than 50/50.
You copyright fanatics might have a few questions at this point.
According to the letter of the law, a song consists of the melody and lyrics only. You can’t copyright a chord progression.
Wait a minute! The melody and lyrics are what the top line writer writes. The chord progression can’t be protected by copyright. So how does the track writer claim half the copyright?
Because the top line writer agrees to let the track writer share the copyright, that’s how.
You see how important it is to understand how this stuff works so you can adapt to the changing times? In the traditional business model, the track writer wouldn’t be entitled to any copyright ownership for the composition at all, but would own part of the sound recording copyright instead.
But in the track writer – top line writer model, the collaborators agree that the contribution of the track writer is enough to warrant composition copyright credit.
This model can get tricky if the track writer is sending his track out to multiple writers at the same time. Again, from a letter of the law interpretation, it could be successfully argued that every time a new top line writer contributes his/her melody and lyrics to the tune, that the copyright of the whole composition gets split among all the writers.
For example, if the track writer sent his track to 10 people, regardless of which version he used, the copyright would have to be shared with all those contributors. Eric Beall wrote a prophetic article about this very subject predicting future problems with this top line/track writer model years ago when it was just becoming a popular method of collaboration. Here’s a link to his article in the Berklee Music Blog.
What About Publishers?
If one or more of your co-writers has a publishing deal, the publisher will split that co-writer’s share of the income slice, and will most likely control all the rights to your co-writer’s share.
So if you want to license the song later on, you’ll have to deal with the publisher in most cases, and not your co-writer.
Keep this in mind when you’re writing up or at retreats with signed writers. It gets a little bit more complicated when you have to clear multiple copyright ownership pieces, but not impossible by any means.
The splits above in the co-writing diagrams stay the same, but co-writers signed to publishers will be splitting their slice with their publishers.
So, as you can see, there are no hard and fast rules to co-writing splits. As with most of the new music business, you have to understand the fundamentals of copyright in order to wrap your head around the principles that are at play when you’re trying to navigate.
Want to learn more about co-writing? Come to a Retreat.
Reprinted from August 17, 2013