Guest post by Hugh McIntyre
Writing songs with other artists can be one of the most enjoyable experiences a musician can have, as it allows you to better your work and learn from different minds and talents. Whether it’s just one other person or a room full of those putting pen to paper, some of the biggest hits these days are churned out by teams, and songwriting collaborations have become the norm for most artists.
While it can be a creatively thrilling pursuit, monetarily, things can get sticky in no time when it comes down to splitting up the credit, which later translates to cash. There are many ways of thinking when it comes to deciding who can claim what percentage of a song, but I think the best way to go is to split things evenly between everyone involved. There are certainly pros and cons associated with that line of thinking, but in my opinion, the many positives outweigh the negatives, and here's why.
The act of splitting songwriting royalties evenly among everyone who was in the room when the track was penned comes with plenty of upsides. While this option doesn’t always line your pockets as much money as you’d like, there is a lot to be said for treating everyone who contributed well.
Typically, this is the fairest way of going about this sometimes-tricky process. It can be hard to connect a percentage to someone’s contribution, and after a song is done, it’s tough to decide who gets what. Are lyrics the most important part? What if someone came up with an awesome melody for the chorus, but didn’t write the words? What is valued the most, and what earns someone a greater share of the royalties? These discussions can quickly turn into arguments... unless everything is being split equally.
If you treat everyone who took part in the song making experience the same, you stand a better chance of forming strong, lasting relationships and of working with them again. If things went well while you and the other person (or people) were penning something you all ended up being proud of, don’t you want to do your best to recreate that magic? Ensuring they are happy about the money coming to them is a fantastic way to make sure they’ll say yes to your next writing invitation.
When people are trying to get as many notes, melodies, and lines as they can into a track in order to claim a higher percentage of the royalties, they don’t always act solely with artistic intentions. Often, they are more worried about their ideas being chosen so they make more money, when really, everyone should be focused on trying to craft the best tune possible. If they know what percentage they’ll make when they walk into the room, egos and paychecks won’t be top of mind.
Finally, splitting things equally among everyone who contributed is typically the standard when no other agreement has been specifically written, so if nobody wants to take the time and go out of their way to have the sometimes-awkward discussion about what numbers are connected to each writer, just leave it blank and let the publishers know you’re all taking a balanced share.
It might sound fair going into a songwriting session that everything will be split evenly, but what if not everyone contributes the same number of ideas that end up being used? Sometimes, another musician will rarely take part, or perhaps nothing they put forward makes sense and nothing is used. It can happen, and many have experienced this situation in other aspects of life... but in this case, it’s been pre-decided that everyone is receiving the same royalty share. It’s difficult to see so much money go to someone who wasn’t really involved, and that can lead to sore feelings on the part of those whose creativity is front and center.
Splitting things 50/50 (or identically between however many songwriters took part in the creation process) the first time you work with a group of artists is a great way to establish a relationship with them... though once you’ve done so, it can be difficult to change things later on. If you continue to work with those artists, but decide you do want to negotiate and give some writers less and others more, depending on what they contribute, it can be difficult to make it clear why things need to change now. You might hurt some of the people you were looking to remain closest to in a working capacity (or as friends), and it could potentially end something special.
Hugh McIntyre a music journalist based in New York City. He primarily writes for Forbes, where he covers everything related to the music industry, and his byline has also appeared in the Huffington Post, Billboard, Mashable, Mic, Noisey, The Hollywood Reporter, MTV, and dozens of others. When not writing about music, Hugh is...always writing about music.