If you’re in a band or some other type of collaborative musical relationship, the way you approach songwriting credits should be something you take seriously. Ambiguity is a natural state of mind when it comes to musical creativity, but it’s not at all what you want when it comes time to decide who gets credit for writing your songs.
We often think that mismanaging songwriting credits will result in some musicians reaping all the financial and critical benefits for a piece of work while others get none. This definitely happens, but more often than not the situation is far more complicated. Not putting serious thought into who writes your songs and how much credit you and your collaborators deserve could result in the outright breakdown of your collaborative relationships, you not getting compensated enough for your work, and/or the ugliness of resentment creeping in and sapping your creativity and enthusiasm without you even realizing it. Before you split credits for your next song, ask these questions:
Does a one-size-fits-all agreement really work for this particular song?
The agreement you and your bandmates struck four years ago can’t possibly apply to the song you’re working on now. And yet so many issues crop up because artists don’t want to do the work of deciding who did what for each of their songs. We often avoid these conversations because we see them as uncomfortable confrontations. But unless each of you writes the same sort of parts the same ways each time for your music, sticking to one agreement isn’t typically a good idea. By having the tough conversations now about song credits, you’ll save yourself a world of stress later. If you know what you’re getting yourself into and still want to stick to a one-size-fits-all agreement, you’ll need to accept the repercussions down the line if your song takes off and you feel like you gave away too much ownership.
How much creative value did each musician bring to the song?
This can be a complicated and tricky question to ask, which is why so many musicians refuse to before releasing and distributing their music. Does a drummer bring as much creative value to a song as someone who writes lyrics? Is a baseline as important as an acoustic guitar part, or an electronic beat as a rap vocal? The answer is that there are no concrete answers here. It’s always a negotiation between the musicians, performers, and producers involved. And if you don’t do the difficult task of figuring it out before your music is shared, you might be setting yourselves up for huge problems down the line that could’ve been avoided, especially if your music ends up being successful. This is the kind of hard work that might expose problems with your project, but that’s actually a good thing. Figuring it out now means avoiding big issues later, whether it’s arguing about money or helping to give a member of your band the creative credit they deserve before they get frustrated and call it quits.
Is there open communication and is everyone on the same page about expectations?
This might be the most important question on this list. If there’s any uncertainty as to whether you and your writing partners are on the same page with credits, don’t move forward until you all know exactly what you’re getting into. When you divvy out credits through a PRO (performing rights organization), you are creating a contract between you and other musicians. These contracts are extremely hard to break, and the majority of the time they can’t be. Not knowing what you’re actually signing up for can cause problems with your songs for as long as you want to keep performing and earning money with them. Ideally, each musician should be accurately represented during conversations about songwriting credits. However, this often doesn’t happen, whether it’s because of a fundamental misunderstanding of how song crediting works or because one band member takes on administrative duties while other musicians blissfully sit them out.
If you’re passionate about making music and want your songs to pay your bills, this is a topic you need to pay attention to. Every song is different and needs its own unique negotiation when multiple musicians are involved. This is a situation where being timid and distracted could hurt you and your music badly over the long run, so pay attention and rise to the challenge.
Patrick McGuire is a writer, musician, and human man. He lives nowhere in particular, creates music under the name Straight White Teeth, and has a great affinity for dogs and putting his hands in his pockets.