Questions About ‘Writing Tracks First’

By Lis Lewis

After I read John Braheny’s great article on writing to tracks, I had a lot of questions which I wrote to him. Here are my questions and his answers.

Why would the split be 50/50 if one person writes both the melody and the lyric and the other the track. The music would be half and the lyric half so wouldn’t the singer get 3/4? (half for the lyric and 1/4 for the melody?)

It would seem logical, which is what gets people into trouble. It would be 50/50 because there are 2 people writing it, and in the event that they had NOT agreed on paper beforehand, by law, it’s automatically split that way. If a track writer asks a singer/melody writer/lyricist to write with him/her and he/she agrees, it’s 50/50 UNLESS, before they agree, they work out a different split. If the track writer initiates the collaboration it’s understandable that it wouldn’t be in their interest to negotiate the split beforehand and receive less than a 50/50 split. That’s a problem if the singer/etc. agrees, does the work, then later decides they should have a bigger split. Lots of great work is abandoned in limbo because bad feelings and intransigence stop it in its tracks. So don’t ASSUME you know what the split is.

Also what happens when you are in the studio with a producer who you are paying and the producer rewrites the song? Do you stop paying him for his producing at that point because he’s getting songwriting credit? Or does he not get songwriting credit?

You don’t encourage or allow the producer to re-write your song unless you’re willing to split
ownership. If you go into the session saying “I’d like some help with this melody”, you are, in effect, requesting a co-write. It’s at that point that you should say, “I’ll offer you 20% (for example) to work on (specific part of the song) this if I’m satisfied with what you contribute.” Otherwise, in the absence of an agreement to the contrary, it will automatically be 50/50. If you’re going to be co-writers, also agree to deduct whatever percentage of his/her demo production bill you’ve agreed on. Co-writers should share demo costs unless they’ve worked out other trades (pitching, Web-site maintenance, singing or playing on the co-writers other projects etc.).

Remember that if you agree to pay someone for demo production/arranging services, you are in
control and it’s up to you to decide whether anyone changes any part of your song. There are many individual situations where this gets dicey. Unscrupulous or (giving them the benefit of the doubt) inexperienced, unprofessional demo producers may say after the fact, “What I contributed, that great guitar riff or keyboard figure really made this song work and without my contribution nobody would be interested in it.” The words of a bully and the beginning of an “intimidation ritual.” You can tell him, “I hired you because I expected you to use your talent and expertise to contribute that. Otherwise, I would have hired someone else. If you wanted writer credit for doing what I agreed to pay you for, you should have said so before we started working on it so we could both decide whether it was worth it for you not to get paid and for me to share my copyright.

It’s common for young, inexperienced singers to be intimidated by someone they feel is much more experienced and allow themselves to be talked into something they’ll feel conflicted about later. Always have the producer tell you before you start working, and in writing, what they will agree to do for you. Have someone check it out first. When in doubt, or if you don’t feel right about the person, don’t agree. Say you need to speak to your advisors first. I’ve played that role many times as a consultant. Don’t let anything they say cause you to agree to or sign anything on the spot before you do this. I just talked to a new writer who felt he had to have a demo and let someone talk him into agreeing in advance to pay for several demos (that he hadn’t even written the songs for). The producer didn’t listen to the writer’s musical requests, then, when the writer didn’t like the results and refused to pay for them, the producer sued him for the work still not done. The writer could barely afford to pay for the first demo, let along pay for attorney fees to defend himself. I asked why he hadn’t called the Songwriters Guild (SGA) or L.A. Lawyers for the Arts or someone else who could give him feedback. Unfortunately, he didn’t know they existed. Learn about your resources before you get into trouble.

Maybe I’ve been getting this wrong all this time. Are you telling me that the music/lyric split doesn’t exist anymore? And now it’s a 50/50 split if there’s two people no matter who did what?

That’s correct. What if two people collaborate and both write both lyric and music? What if it’s three people? Whole bands collaborate and split it five ways. One might write the chorus lyric and two others collaborate on the rest of the lyric etc.

How do you know what the split should be until after you’ve written it?

It doesn’t matter. If there are two of you writing, it doesn’t matter. Once you start getting into arguing about who should get what because their contribution was more important, you don’t have a collaboration, you have a war. One writer will fight for a line not because it’s the best line but because he can make a bigger percentage if it stays in.

The only way it works other than that is if you need to have someone finish a song, write a bridge etc. and you offer them a specific percentage to do it and they accept. It’s negotiated beforehand in that case.