Hit songs written by a lone songwriter are as rare as hen’s teeth in today’s pop music industry. So to be a successful professional songsmith you either have to write exceptional chart gold from the get go, or develop your skills in getting creative in a studio with another writer or producer.
SONGWRITER'S HANDBOOK … #2 Co-writing Sessions - Aug 16, 2013
For this edition of Songwriter’s Handbook an array of top songwriters and publishers offer valuable first-hand insight on the dos and don'ts of co-writing sessions and how the “cake” is split.
Click on the interviewee name for the original full interview.
What are some of the benefits of co-writing?
MICHAEL GARVIN (songwriter): “To this day every time I write with somebody I learn something I didn’t know before. I write with new writers as well as established ones that have had hits, because I want to stay on the cutting edge, stay fresh. I’ve had more hits with people who have never had a hit before than with people who have had strings of hits.”
FERNANDO GARIBAY (songwriter/producer for Lady Gaga): “When it comes to songwriting I prefer to collaborate. As a producer you have to collaborate otherwise it becomes too much of you and your focus is too much on the track as opposed to the lyric, for example.”
CHUCK LEONARD (songwriterJohn and Audrey Wiggins, Butch Baker, Greg Crowe): “Co-writing is a beneficial way to improve one's writing ability. It's like playing tennis with someone who is better than you. It will ultimately raise your game.”
JACK KNIGHT (songwriter for Usher, Christina Aguilera, P. Diddy): “When I write solo I write more personally and I love co-writing precisely because you don’t have to be so personal. You have other people in a room working with you who have different ideas.”
What are some of the turn-offs?
CLAUDE KELLY (songwriter for Britney, Christina Aguilera): “I’m not crazy about co-writing with other songwriters just because I like it to come from the one voice – otherwise it makes it muddy.”
JIM BRUNO (singer-songwriter):
“You are creating art by committee, which is often not the best way. While the instant editing that co-writing brings to the table can be a big plus, the downside is that you’ll have to be able to defend, usually on an intellectual level, your work. Sometimes art is felt and not thought and defending it intellectually can hinder reaching that inner core where great art is usually born. Great songs usually come more from the heart than the head.”
“If you're writing with someone, you want to make sure they are better at the bits that you're not so good at.”
): “I enjoy co-writing, but also like to write on my own. That means a greater percentage of money for my publisher when songs get cut. Combined with other skills, it gives me a competitive edge among all the other publishing companies fighting for the same Faith Hill or Martina McBride cut.”
How is a co-writing session set up?
): “My publisher sends out my songs to heavy hitters in the music industry and takes meetings with A&Rs at record labels to see if a song of mine or my writing style would fit for their artist/producer. Then we see who responds and set up collaborations. If the session goes well, I’ll keep in touch with the producer or songwriter and we’ll get in contact again if a project we’d both be good for comes up.”
: “Usually it goes through my manager or my publisher. My manager gives me a list with people who want to work with me and we will sort something out. If it’s somebody who hasn’t had hits yet, or someone I don’t already know, he’ll send me their material, some mp3s, and say: ‘This guy is interesting, he’s worth looking at’.
Or if a reference comes from somebody I trust a lot, I will do it without knowing anything about the writer. If it’s somebody I know I just call him up myself.”
What aspects should you be thinking about when you go into a co-writing situation?
(songwriter for Kylie, All Saints
): “To know what you're writing for and to be aware of what the other person brings to the party are the most important things.
If you're writing with someone, you want to make sure they are better at the bits that you're not so good at. So as someone very strong lyrically and melodically, I look for people that are strong in programming and tracks. I never work with another top line person. There are plenty of amazing ones out there - Wayne Hector, Cathy Dennis … - but I rarely end up working with them because we do the same thing.”
How do you prepare yourself for co-writing session?
: “Usually I just play and make comments and lyrical notes on the laptop to remind myself of the ideas I’ve been thinking about. It can be a title or even a working title, or a lyrical sketch that brings me to that moment, so that I can go, ‘How does this sound to you?’”
: “I spend a week creating sounds, building drum sounds, making a few loops – it's like an athlete working out. If you go into a situation with a co-writer, you want to make sure you bring everything to the table. And when you're creating something you don't want something technical to slow it down.
“What it’s really about is the hook. If they are not interested in the hook, you’ve wasted your time writing the rest of the song around it.”
Before I went on tour I would just have everything loaded up so I could sit with the writer, talk about ideas and play something off-the-cuff. Very rarely would I have whole tracks ready, because I think the tracks would have come from a different inspiration. I prefer playing something on the spot.”
How finished do the ideas need to be?
: “I tend to have little bits and pieces that are the defining moments of the song. Because to me, what it’s really about is the hook. If they are not interested in the hook, you’ve wasted your time writing the rest of the song around it.”
Do you have any tips for first time co-writers?
(songwriter for Marie Osmond, T.G. Shepard, Terri Gibbs
): “Say everything
that comes to your head, no matter how dumb it is. Don't censor anything. If you say something really dumb, you might give me an idea that's not quite as dumb. And then I might have a decent one that gives you a better one that gives me a great one. If you'd never said the dumb one, we would never get to the great one.”
What typically happens in a co-writing session?
(songwriter for James Blunt, Carrie Underwood
): “You just throw a few of these ideas out there and see whether any of them get liked or not.
We only had two days but we managed to write three songs. That comes from being prepared, but also how much you’re prepared to be flexible - you have to be able to move with your ideas, you cannot have them set in stone.
If they love your chorus, OK great but the majority of the time that isn’t the case - you’ll be there and going, “OK, that’s
great, but that’s
not so good.” And then between you, you’re all trying to refine it.
Sometimes you get to a thing whereby you say, “Shit, we have to scrap this. We’re not going anywhere. Take a 10 minute break.” And then come back in and say, “OK, how about this
(songwriter for Kelly Clarkson, Diplo
): "Writing with Jörgen [Elofsson], I have to come in with 10 different titles, and maybe of those 10 he’ll be okay with writing one. It’s a grueling process; he challenges me. The lyric has to be as good as his melody, and that’s hard to compete with.”
How do you get on with different personalities?
(songwriter for Pitbull, Kelly Clarkson, Avril Lavigne
): “When I write with new people, you have to adjust to their personalities and their way of writing. Sometimes I would write with two other people in the studio and one person would be outgoing, the other quiet and introverted. I would feel the subtle differences between the people in the room. I have to find the place of joy with my writing, regardless of what resistance or subtle factors there might be.”
): “The important thing with co-writing is to never shut anybody down because it can't be a collaboration if you can't learn from each other. It's hard, sometimes you have to fight for what you believe in and other times you have to stay open.”
When you do a co-write, how do you split the ‘cake’?
: “Ordinarily it’s 50/50, and if you write a little more on a song than the other person I still normally do 50/50 because the next time you write with that person, he may contribute more - especially if it’s an ongoing relationship.
“It’s better to have 50% of a release than 100% of nothing.”
The only time I will do it differently is when the majority of the song is already done. If another person doesn’t do lyrics at all, another kind of split is fair. But most of the people I work with are doing both.”
Do you talk about the publishing split before you sit in with somebody?
(songwriter for Monica
): “Usually, yes. But I don’t really have to worry about the publishing so much because I usually write everything myself with another writer which means, there will be somebody who comes in and they’ll get their 50% for the music and I get 50% for lyric and melody.
So it’s always understood that way. The only times there will have to be a split or discussion is when someone comes in and we’re co-writing the lyric and the melody together.
The only other thing that I make sure to get understood ahead of time before we go in there is how we split the production fees, whatever we’re gonna charge and stuff like that.”
How do you negotiate your share of publishing?
(songwriter for Tina Turner, Joana Zimmer
): 50/50. If there are two people in the room and the other person just contributed 10% of what you have it is still 50/50, because you would never have come up with that song if they had not been involved. If their contribution is nothing, but it’s a famous artist, hey, they get their 50 per cent, because they will get the song cut and out there.
It’s better to have 50% of a release than 100% of nothing. If you are so worried about holding on to your percentages then that means in the back of your mind you are worried you only have a limited number of songs in you and that you might not have another good idea in the next six months!”
: “After the song is finished and we go through and fill out our split sheets. If there are two professionals working together and they’re used to doing this, it’s usually not a problem.
You may say, ‘you came up with a really good concept’ or ‘you came up with the verse, so we might as well give you another 10-15% for that’. We talk about it and negotiate it and figure out whatever everybody’s comfortable with.”
(songwriter and publisher
): “The most common cause of problems for songwriters in terms of losing a portion of the income on their songs is not copyright issues but arguments between songwriters about splits or about who did what. They’re about when an engineer is brought in to mix it and he now wanting a piece, or an artist who’s going to cut the song and demands 25% in order to record it.”
Read On ...
* Songwriter's Handbook gives the lowdown on co-writing with the artist
* Artists claiming song credits is the subject of Songwriter's Handbook