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Credit Where Credit is Due

I was recently asked why sometimes the entire band is listed in songwriting credits, yet, other times it might be one member or one member who writes the lyrics and another who writes the music. They also asked if the whole band played on the record, don’t they deserve songwriting credit?

Basically, a song is a song.

It is composed by one or two (or more) people, and it generally recognized as being complete. It can still be tweaked, but the door is closed on claiming credit. Changing a word or nixing a line doesn’t entitle anyone to writing credit (unless for some reason the actual writer grants them some).

After the song is written and it is brought to the band or session musicians, the band contributes to the song’s “arrangement.”

Usually, the arrangement (placement of verses, chourses, bridge, solos, riffs, and musical hooks) do not warrant songwriting credit. By the way, you can not copyright a chord progression or a solo. When rappers have used chucks of a recording sample of say, a rock record key riff, the deal was it was a violation of the sound recording copyright, not the song copyright.

When session players are hired, it is “work for hire” meaning they are paid the one-time fee and are not entitled to shares of the songs profit. Actually, this is not entirely true, it depends on the contract signed (usually the AFM contract if we’re talking about the professional arena), and there’s different criteria…such as the song being used in a TV commercial and other sync rights, among other things. So, actually they (the session musicians) are not entitled to the songwriter’s share of profits.

The sought after session cats, the ones making double and triple scale, are hired for the reason that they consistently contribute something (licks, solos, silence, or arrangement elements) that elevates the already composed song. That’s their role in the recording.

Typically, a band member would be thought of in the same way in the studio. But (ideally) this band member would also be a worthy road musician, witty or personable interviewee, etc., etc., to make themselves an irreplaceable element to the band.

The band sharing songwriting credit might be because the key lyricist brings lyrics to the studio without any music and the band brainstorms and creates (as a group) the music. Everyone is there, everyone is contributing: great and fair. Perhaps there’s an agreement that whoever writes the lyrics is good for 50% and the band splits the other 50%. This sounds like a fair arrangement.

Or maybe the band sharing songwriting credit is usually more of a courtesy thing and is a gracious sharing the money a song makes. Which is fine, and a slippery slope.

Say, for example, a band with four members write a song and share credit. After the record is released, the drummer (who’s “contribution” to the song was the drum part) decides touring isn’t for him and he quits the band. A new better drummer is hired as an equal member (the band is very democratic)…except, he does not get money from that record.

Perhaps a better solution would have been a more traditional paying each member of the band a flat rate for recording and an annual distribution of the record’s profit among current band members.

Or…

The more traditional definition of songwriters, where those who actually contributed to the songs composition (at the time the song is being composed). If someone brings a whole song into the studio or rehearsal, the others are contributing to the arrangement…not writing the song.

If one feels they are being slighted but not sharing in the songwriting credit, why not bring whole completed songs to the band to perform?

If you don’t feel like your songwriting skills match those of the composers of the band (and/or they are not interested in co-writing with you), you can co-write with someone outside your band. You can take classes to hone your songwriting skills.

The band doesn’t want to do your songs? Are you writing in the style of the band? Maybe your songs are not undeniable. Maybe you should start your own project or side project.

All this being said, personally, I would feel uncomfortable if one of my bandmates awoke at four in the morning and wrote, well anything, but let’s say a touching heart-felt, personal ballad, and I’m asking for songwriting credit because I contributed a finely constructed guitar solo to it, or a drum beat, or a bassline.

A band is a band (as opposed to a band being hired to back an artist), and there should be fairly contributed revenue: revenue from recordings, gigs and merchandise.

And an argument could be made that someone who recently joined the band is not as vested as founding members…and that is fodder for future conversation.

But if the conversation is about songwriting: it is fairly clear when a song is complete; after that it about arrangement. If the songwriter allows those who contribute to arrangement songwriting credit, they should consider themselves lucky and not rightful owners.

A final thought: There was a recent case where the plaintiff (the organist) won songwriting credit (and money, which is what he was after) for the riff that he played on the song “Whiter Shade of Pale.”

Granted, the organ part is iconic and made the song (very soulful playing!), however it isn’t what he signed up for…and only sued, what?, thirty or forty years later.

– Jake Kelly

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