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Sunday, June 10, 2012

How To Sort Out Band Writing Credits

Reader Damian Graham sent me a request last week asking a comment on how to split up songwriting credits between band members. This is a loaded question in that there are multiple ways to do it, and most of the time someone feels shortchanged. That said, let's give it a go.

Unfortunately songwriting credits with a young band are usually left until after a number of songs are written and recorded and the possibility of publishing money appears. Then the weeping and gnashing of teeth begin. Usually it's pretty hard to unravel who wrote exactly what in retrospect, thanks to everyone's selective memory on the subject. That's when some really intense band discussions start to take place; sometimes intense enough to break up the band. So what are the ways it's done? Here are the two ways I've seen.

The Percentage Deal. This is where a certain percentage of a song is assigned depending upon the player's involvement. This usually results in lopsided percentages ("I get 75%, you get 20% and you get 5,") that leaves everyone unhappy except the one with the largest percentage. There is a way to handle this though. To most publishers, the music is worth 50% and the lyrics are worth 50%. That at least gives you a basis from where to start to assign credits. If someone contributed a single lyric line, they'd get a smaller percentage than someone who contributed a whole verse or chorus. I hate it when someone is sitting there with a calculator figure out percentages, but that's the way it goes sometimes.

The downside of this method is that the drummer, and to a lesser extent, the bass player, usually gets left out in the cold. But what if the drummer's beat was just the thing that caused the idea to spring forth in the first place? What if the bass riff drives the song (Queen's "Another One Bites The Dust" comes to mind)? Or what if the song was written by the singer, but the guitar player comes up with the riff that sells the song (Would "Satisfaction" be the same song without the guitar riff?). I'm told that it would be difficult to argue any of these and court and expect to win . The judge is going to rule for the one who wrote the melody and lyrics, because that's how the law currently assigned songwriting credit.

The "We're all in this together" Method. This method can work two ways. First, everyone in the band gets an equal share, regardless of who's idea it was. We've seen this in the past with bands like The Doors (guitarist Robbie Krieger wrote all of their huge hit "Light My Fire" except for one line, yet only gets a quarter of the publishing), Guns n' Roses, and most recently Foo Fighters. This also works for songwriting teams as well, most famously Lennon and McCartney (they wrote separately after the early albums) and Mick Jagger/Keith Richards. This way has the least amount of hassles, even though it may not be the fairest contribution-wise.

A modification on this is that whoever is in the room when the song was created gets an equal share. If you're not there, you get no credit. Another is that whoever has the original idea gets a larger percentage and the rest is split. Another way is to make sure that at least one song on the album includes everyone in the band so there's at least some publishing money going to everyone, although this method leaves a lot to be desired in these days of singles being the primary source of royalties.

As you can see, it's messy regardless of which way you do it, so the best thing is to avoid any of these problems in the first place. Make sure that you hash this out with your bandmates as soon as possible, because it only gets messier as time goes on.


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Alloy said...

This is a huge bone of contention in bands, and I've never seen anyone write about it. Thanks, Bobby, for bringing it to the light of day. Both of my original bands broke up before it every became a serious issue, and I was not looking forward to the negotiations on it.

Rand Bliss said...

Absolutely a knife-edged 'damned if you do damned if you don't' type decision, especially if you're the primary songwriter in the band (or even the only one).

Regardless of the circumstances, I believe the most magnanimous and noble thing to do is be generous with the songwriting credits evenly distributed amongst all band members.

Think about it, you are a team set to take over the world. Granted, it may be your song, but you're really the spark plug that ignites the engine of the entire vehicle forward. What's a spark plug on its own without the rest of the engine?

This not only creates a fair and far smoother, less contentious working relationship that facilitates the success gauntlet, but also endears you even more to your bandmate brothers and sisters, plus develops an even stronger bond of loyalty and camaraderie.

Anyone worth their salt knows if a band (or any worthwhile business organization) isn't truly 'all for one and one for all' with a 'win-win' attitude and motivation, there's no true chance of success, or at least any lasting one.

Life's too'll get what you give.


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