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Q & A - Songwriting Credits?
By Mary Dawson - 01/19/2004 - 02:40 PM EST

I've started a local band in Chicago and we are in process of recording our first full length CD. All the songs and lyrics have been written by myself. What I mean by that is that I write the lyrics and the chords of the song, and then bring it to the band and let them add their respective instruments in any way they seem fit. Occasionally we will change a few chord progressions in the song based on feedback from all the band members. My question to you is should I receive the full copyright credits for the songs? Also, how should the credits be listed inside the cd as well as be filed legally. Thanks so much for your help. - Mark G.

Hi Mark:

Your question is a very good one, and you are wise to think about these kinds of matters BEFORE your song(s) ever start to make money. It has been my experience that when the money starts rolling in, everyone's memory becomes very fuzzy about their own contribution and how much they deserve of the whole. It is ALWAYS better to have these issues worked out on paper before the money comes. While many people avoid thinking about contracts and agreements because they fear the friendship with the other band members may be threatened, I always find that a clear and simple letter of agreement SAVES friendships. It simply refreshes everyone's memory about what part they played.

Now, about your songs. If you wrote the LYRICS and the MELODY, you are the sole writer of the songs. Words and Music are the two "non-negotiables" in any copyright. The other two elements of songs -- the HARMONY and RHYTHM -- are matters of arrangement. For example, think about how many arrangements of "Amazing Grace" you have heard -- everything from Country, to bagpipes, to symphonic performances -- but you still know that the song is "Amazing Grace" because the words and
melody are the same.

If your band members added some cool harmonies, rhythms or riffs to the songs in the studio, you may want to include them in the "points" (percentage points) of the song to acknowledge and reward their
contribution. Let's face it, sometimes a musical intro or riff will become the identifying mark for a great song. Think about the intro of Annie Lennox's great song, "Walking on Broken Glass." The syncopated
piano part sets up the whole idea for the hook/title and is unmistakable when you hear it.

My advice is to sit down with the other band members NOW and decide together who did what on the songs. Then draw up a simple letter of agreement for each song (you should probably be the one to draw it up since you are the writer of the songs) and simply outline what percentages of the "writers share" of the song each band member should get. Have everyone involved sign the document and make sure that each one gets a copy of the letter for their files. You don't really have to get a lawyer or engage in any long legaleze contracts since a simple letter of agreement that is signed by all parties is as binding as any contract in court.

I also would suggest that you become very familiar with the whole concept of music publishing. A great book that is very user-friendly is Randy Poe's book, "Music Publishing: a Songwriter's Guide" from Writers
Digest. You really need to understand clearly what is involved in the division of a song -- what is meant by the Writers Share and the Publishers Share etc.

I hope this is of help. Thanks for your question and good luck.

-- Mary Dawson

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