Join Tony's Mailing List

Get notified about songwriting events and gigs.

At What Point Does It Become A Co-Write?

When I work with songwriters as a producer or musician, in a workshop or class, or as a one-on-one songwriting coach, any suggestions I make for their song are included. There’s no question of co-writing. I’m trying to help the writer find their own way with their song. If in the process I suggest a line that they end up using, or a chord, that comes with the job.

I used to belong to a Producers’ group and the question, ‘At what point does helping someone with their song become a co-write?’ was a frequent topic of discussion. Of course there’s no one answer. It did help me figure out what my answer is, though.

Before I get to that, one interesting thing about this question is that the answer is often directly related to the genre of the music. For example, in most Rock, Country, and Singer-Songwriter recordings, there’s a very clear line between the songwriter and the people who help him or her record their song, including the artist. The producer rarely gets a writing credit, neither does the singer/artist, musicians, etc.

In Hip Hop and Rap, the Producer almost always gets a writing credit, as does the person who makes the beat (these are often often the same person), and it’s common for other people involved in making the track to get writing credit too.

In much mainstream  Contemporary Pop music, the different aspects of the song are often written by different people, at times creating co-writers numbering in the double digits. This approach includes separate individuals or teams who each create the melody, the words, the drum/rhythm track, the chords, the rap (if there is one), etc., of a single song.

Basically, here’s the deal: If you can negotiate your way into getting a writing credit for your contribution, you’re a writer on the track. If you don’t or can’t, you’re not.

These arrangements are usually made before the writing and/or recording session. Everybody knows going in if they’re a writer or not. That’s a lot easier than trying to figure out, with hindsight, who did what (human beings have a tendency to remember their own contributions as a lot more significant than that of others’).

But what happens when, as sometimes arises, the normal back and forth of working together starts to feel like it’s turning into co-writing? How does one draw that line?

Strangely enough, as a longtime producer, musician, and song wrangler, for me this has rarely come up. My job in those roles is to offer whatever good ideas I can that, under the circumstances, might improve the song/recording. So I don’t really think about it.

If I’ve worked out a prior deal as a co-writer – as discussed above – then I’m covered. Otherwise, I’m the producer, musician, or song coach/teacher and that’s that. Your song is your song and I don’t go anyplace that’ll challenge that.

There have been a few exceptions though and, for me, they’ve mostly gone like this: I’m working on a songwriter’s song with them  (as a producer or musician, not as a coach or teacher), maybe playing bass or guitar, and I suggest a chord change or pattern. That’s fine, common. They take my suggestion… and it moves them, let’s say, to change their melody… which leads me to throw in the next phrase of melody… which leads them to change another chord…

That’s when I’ll stop. If we’re going back and forth in the room like that – and it’s not just me offering suggestions – and the song is changing as we do so, then, in my book, we’re starting to co-write.

I hit the pause button. I tell the songwriter I’m fine with everything that’s gone down, and they’re welcome to use it freely. But… if we’re going to continue, I need it be as co-writers. This doesn’t mean 50/50. They’ve usually already completed much of the song, so my part would be relatively small.

(Remember, over decades, for me this has only happened a handful of times).

I do this as respectfully as I can, making clear that I’m absolutely fine (and I am) with them declining the option and continuing on their own.

But if we’re going back and forth, and the song is changing… to me we’ve crossed that line and we’re co-writing.

I know there are a lot of different approaches to this question. What are yours? What kinds of situations have come up for you and how have you dealt with them?

Thanks for reading! Let me know your thoughts, additions, disagreements in the Comments section below:

co-write 1

And please share on facebook etc. by clicking these tabs

5 responses to “At What Point Does It Become A Co-Write?”

  • Hey Tony,

    A very thoughtful commentary. As a fellow producer/engineer/songwriter/session singer, I sometimes find myself in similar situations. My only suggestion is that you never know what bit of brilliance anyone adds to a song makes the difference and puts that song over the top. Something that is almost there… is not there. Consequently, I am a big fan of equal splits on songs. In the grand scheme of things, I think it is a very fair minded way to approach this. This is pretty much the standard in Nashville.

  • Michael

    Very interesting essay. When one submits a copyright form, it asks for who wrote “words and music”. That’s what I go by. If someone’s input changes the words or music in a significant way, they are a writer. If I had suggested a chord change, or a lyrical phrase change, or if I had created the beat / drum / percussion track, I would not expect a writing credit.

    The exception would be if the song made a ton of money – then I would demand credit! :)

Leave a comment