I am not a big time songwriter by any means, but I do have songs that other people have used on their album.
I have written over 100 songs in the last seven years.
Some of these have been placed in TV and Film, some on albums. Some still lay on my computer waiting for the right time and place. I write songs because I enjoy the process and collaborating with other people, but mainly at the end of the day it is to make money as music is not a hobby for me or most people in Nashville who co-write regularly.
Co-Writing is a really helpful way to create a song. Co-Writing essentially is when multiple people come together to write a song. The song could start from a list of ideas or concepts, a rough demo, or just a melody.. heck even a stomp and a clap.
Regardless of how it starts, once it begins or hopefully before it begins, you need to know who the heck owns the song when it's done. Also, every deal and agreement is different. I will discuss what normally happens.
It is really important to figure out who is going to own the song when it is done.
In Nashville, usually it is assumed that everything is evenly split. This means if two people write a song together they split the song 50/50. If three people write the song it is split 33/33/33. The joke is that if you "write a word, you get a third"... as most co-writes seem to be between three people.
This can get tricky as younger writers or inexperienced people in the business don't understand the big overall picture. The goal of a co-write is to make a song that will eventually get cut or placed. A cut is when an artist uses the song that was written as their own. Getting something placed, means getting the song into TV, Film, Video Games, Commercials etc....
A lot of young writers will not think it is fair to give equal credit if someone technically didn't give as many lyrics or ideas, but they don't understand that its the quality over the quantity in songwriting and to hopefully make money collectively.
I have numerous stories of people writing a song, but nothing is discussed for months. Then an artist wants to cut it on their album and the people who were in the room all of sudden start to care about what happens to the song, who owns what and how much. At this point there is nothing documented anywhere. There may be some work tapes or demos or a session, but those are complicated to dissect as well months later.
It can get tricky as original demos can sound nothing like the final product. Melodies can change, keys can change, lyrics can be swapped in and out and all of a sudden you may technically have ten people involved.
The key to all of this is to document. I had a business teacher tell me to document everything. This has been the most beneficial thing to my life and career. Documenting who gets what and who has the rights to the song before any co-write happens is the best way to approach a co-write.
Before you start, make sure everyone in the room knows why you are writing a song and who gets what percentages. Are you writing for an artist, a pitch, a licensing brief etc. It also is helpful to state that if your an artist who may be interested in the song long term, what it would look like to buy out those writers as a "work for hire" situation. I have sold my percentages multiple times if I felt like it was a good option to make some money immediately and I didn't want to wait to see if the song would actually see the light of day.
All of these things need to be written down, dated, and signed ideally.
Super simple example before anything happens at a cowrite.
Song title: Pizza and Tears
Writers: Joe, Mark, Dan
Splitting all music and lyrics and ownership equally at 33.33 repeating.
Sign and Date
Obviously after the song is done it needs to be registered with your PRO etc.. but this simple contract can save hundreds of hours, friendships, lawsuits, time, and money.
If anyone in the room says, "its about the music man".. or "lets just figure it out later"... or "man, don't kill the creativity".... or "lets just see what we come up with first"....
DO NOT WRITE WITH THEM. This is a red flag of an amateur who literally knows nothing about the industry.
When money or even potential money is involved, everyone wants to chime in.. so it is better to sort that out before anything is ever composed.
If you have written songs with people that have no contract.. it is your responsibility to resolve that if someone wants to use the song. If you decide to drag your feet or not be proactive about it, it shows that you don't really care about making money and helping the industry as a whole. A song that dies on someones laptop is a shame. I have seen this happen multiple times when ego's and feelings get involved over who did what or when nothing can be settled.
I also know of artist's who just move forward with a song if the other parties are not being helpful. There is always a risk that it can come back to bite them, but chances are if the other party is not even willing to respond to percentages, that would make them money, they will probably never try to file a claim about the song down the road. Most likely at that point it will rule in the artists favor, unless there is hard documentation somewhere of who did what and when.. but then that situation wouldn't be there to begin with if there was documentation.
A simple contract can fix all of that and protect you.
I find once a contract is made or terms have been stated, the creativity actually is better. It takes the pressure off and shines light to the elephant in the room.
There can be a lot more that goes into a co-write if your writing with someone who has a publishing deal or if your at a writers camp etc... but all you have to do is ask questions. Don't be embarassed about questions.
Experienced writers are never scared or offended by those questions as they know thats the only way to actually make money. Anyone who writes for a living knows this.
Hopefully this helps with songwriting 101. I run into too many people who have learned it the hard way. There are many situations and legal cases that have ruled in crazy verdicts too, so you just never know what can happen, but you can at least start the write off correct by documenting the basics.
Now go write the next hit song.