The Top Ten FAQs On The Business Of Songwriting #5
by Mary DawsonQUESTION 5: What Are the Advantages/Disadvantages of Co-Writing?
Their names are etched on the Walls of the Songwriting Hall of Fame: Holland-Dozier-Holland; Mann & Weill; Bacharach & David; Ashford & Simpson; Jagger & Richard; and of course -- Rogers & Hammerstein -- songwriting teams that have changed the landscape of American Music! What ingredients go into a successful songwriting collaboration? How do you know if and when you should try to write with another songwriter?
Most of us begin our songwriting career writing alone! We start by wondering if we are even able to write a song...so when no one else is around to make fun of us, we try to put some word and notes together. And then, very cautiously, we unveil our creation to a listener -- usually a spouse or a very good friend. To our amazement, we discover that some of our listeners actually like our songs and we decide that maybe we "ain't half bad!" We try another song... and then another... and before you know it... we start to believe that we really are songwriters!
That's exactly what happened to me! I loved writing songs whenever the Muse visited me with an inspiration. I had found a comfortable method of letting the melody and words "evolve" together and songwriting became my own private passion! And then... I went to a songwriting seminar and heard the word co-write. Apparently, there seemed to be some sort of value in including another person in the songwriting process. Frankly, the whole idea scared me to death! I couldn't imagine letting my ideas "all hang out" in front of another person. What if they thought I was an idiot? Turtle that I am, I decided to retreat back into my shell and keep writing by myself!
But, the co-writing concept would not leave me alone. The more exposure I had to the craft and business of songwriting, the more I realized that most of the greatest songs ever written were composed by more than one songwriter. So, at length, I swallowed my fears and made the attempt to co-write with a friend of mine. It was not the most positive experience, but at least it allowed me to overcome my fears and try again with another writer some time later. Over the years since then, I have come to value the co-writing experience as one of the great "perks" of the craft and today most of my writing is done in collaboration with others. Let's take a look at some of the advantages -- and then, some of the possible pitfalls -- of co-writing.
Advantages of Co-Writing
- Two Heads are Better Than One -- The first advantage of
co-writing is simply that two creative minds working together are
usually able to come up with twice as many ideas as one writer
working alone. Most solo writers only write songs when they are
"inspired" by a visit from the Songwriting Muse -- in other words,
when they feel like writing! But the simple presence of another
person with different perspectives and ideas can turn on the
creative juices for both writers and increase both the quality and
quantity of the songs they write.
- Instant Feedback -- As co-writers work together on a
song, they have the advantage of instant feedback on the ideas
they are sharing. If one writer gets a bit unfocused and starts
down the wrong road, the other writer can immediately help to pull
the effort back on track. Of course, this presumes that the
collaborators are working to establish an honest and friendly
relationship built on mutual respect and receptivity to the other's
point of view. If you are a thin-skinned, easily offended songwriter,
you may not be ready to take advantage of this benefit of
- Growth through Stretching -- The kiss of death for
creativity is monotony and predictability. No matter how gifted
a songwriter may be, if he/she continues to write all alone --
all the time -- the chances are that his/her songs will eventually
begin to sound much the same. While it may be comfortable to
continue following a familiar writing method or using melodic
and lyrical techniques that we personally happen to enjoy, a
writing partner with different strengths and perspectives can
help us to reach out beyond the parameters of the familiar into
new creative territory. Each new co-writing experience introduces
us to ideas and thoughts that are different than our own and that
increase our own arsenal of creative techniques.
This is especially true if you are collaborating with a songwriter who has strengths where you have deficits. When I interviewed Songwriting Hall of Famer, Paul Williams, for my radio show, I Write the Songs, Paul admitted that when he first started writing songs, he didn't know one note from the other on the piano. In fact, he had to actually number the keys so he could remember which ones to hit when he composed melodies. Needless to say, he felt more than a little inadequate as a musician and considered himself more of a lyricist. But rather than limping along alone, Paul aggressively sought to co-write with composers who not only complemented his deficits, but in the process also taught him a great deal about music composition. Although Paul had little formal musical training himself, his collaborations with genius musicians like Roger Nichols, Jimmy Webb and many others, have given Paul a music education that has made him a stronger writer overall.
- Maximum Exposure by Sharing the Workload -- The creative
part of songwriting is only the first chapter in the saga of
making a song into a hit. After the song is finished, it has to
be demoed (See FAQ# 8 on the Demo), registered with the US
Copyright Office (See FAQ #9 on the Copyright), and professionally
pitched to publishers, producers and artists who can "take the
song to the world." All of this takes time and effort and if
there are two or more writers involved in the creation of the
song, they also can share the work and expense involved in getting
exposure for the song. One of the co-writers may have a home
studio and be very good in producing professional quality demos,
while the other co-writer's forte may be in making the contacts
necessary to "pitch" the song. As with the songwriting process
itself, the co-writers can each contribute their own expertise
and skills to see that the song receives maximum exposure and
opportunity for success.
Incidentally, if the co-writers are members of different performing rights organizations (ASCAP, BMI or SESAC) they will each register the song with their respective organizations. Now, instead of only one P.R.O. tracking the performances of the song, there may be two or more organizations tracking the same song and increasing the potential for maximum performance royalty payments.
Cautions for Co-Writers
- Overcome the Jitters -- In many ways, developing
co-writing relationships is a lot like dating. You remember those
days, right? Butterflies in your stomach at the first meeting;
fear that you will say or do the wrong thing and look stupid; and
the cold hard reality that not all dates will be successful. All
of these emotions accompany new co-writing experience as well, but
as with dating...the rewards and fun far outweigh the jitters we
all have to overcome. Don't let fear keep you from seeking out
co-writing relationships. Remember...your co-writer is probably
- Be Tactful but Honest -- As with any new relationship,
you have to get to know each other gradually. The comfort level
will increase the closer the relationship becomes. If your
co-writer shares a thought, suggestion or song idea that you
think is totally nuts...be honest and truthful, but remember to
be kind at the same time. There is a big difference between:
- That's the stupidest thing I ever heard!" -and-
- "I can see your point, but what about this…..?"
- Agree to Give Credit Where It's Due -- Almost every week I receive emails from writers asking my opinion on how to divide credits in the songwriting process. If there are only two writers (one writing the lyric and the other composing the music) the division will be very simple -- 50%-50%! But what happens if three or four band members start jamming one day and the end result is a song that's bound to be a blockbuster hit? What if all the writers contribute some of the lyric and some of the music? Or what if the bass player only contributes the opening riff that identifies the song and inspires the others to write it? Should he be given more credit because of the importance of the riff? How do you figure these things out so the percentages of ownership are fair for all concerned?
The experience of co-writing a wonderful song with another person is one of songwriting's truly great blessings! The assets definitely outweigh the liabilities, so don't miss out! Start where you are -- in your music community -- to find other writers who might be interested in collaborating. Your local songwriter's association is a great resource. Or you might visit a college or university music department; introduce yourself to the director and tell him/her that you are a songwriter looking for a co-writer. Even a large church music department will have musicians skilled in more than Gospel Music. It may take several "dates" before you find the perfect songwriting partner, but don't give up. There are great songs out there just waiting to be written by you and ____?____.
**From her earliest childhood years writing simple songs and poems with her father, through her twelve years as an overseas missionary, to her present, multi-faceted career as an author, lyricist/songwriter and conference speaker, Mary has always been adept at using words to communicate her heart to others. She is the President of CQK Records & Music of Dallas, Texas, a company which creates and produces songs in a panorama of musical styles for a variety of audiences, She is the host of "I Write the Songs," a nationally syndicated radio talk show, especially created to inspire and instruct the more than 40 million aspiring songwriters in the U.S. Mary is a frequent public speaker and seminar lecturer and teacher of songwriting in her popular Living Room Seminars. She is a Contributing Editor for The Internet Writing Journal ®.