A version of this article originally appeared on Cari Cole's Standing in the Spotlight blog.
As an artist who wrote most of my own songs during my solo career, co-writing always seemed like a cop-out. I was a child of the days of the great solo songwriters like Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Jackson Browne, Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, and Bruce Springsteen. I was more than hesitant to co-write, and when I did, the songs were never that good. But, what I didn’t realize is that I hadn’t found the right writers.
Right now, there's a trend of songwriters writing for and with artists, and a lack of emphasis on going solo. And it’s working. Many of the biggest hits have several names following the title.
Billboard says that according to Hit Songs Deconstructed‘s recent report, "Who’s Writing the Hits?," roughly 90 percent of Billboard Hot 100 top 10s in 2014 were written by two or more writers, and nearly half were written by at least four. "If you plan on writing a hit song, you’d better find a writing partner," Penn advises. "Preferably, four or more."
Songwriting collaboration, with the right writers, can be mightier than a well-penned solo effort, pulling the strengths from each making the sum greater than its parts. That’s what happens when you start finishing each other’s sentences – literally. It can be magic (more fun and faster too! Hell yes!)!
Once I started writing with other artists for their careers, I came to cherish the power of a great co-write. My company currently co-writes anywhere from 100-150 songs per year with our artists and we plan on doubling that next year. I love to match up an artist with the right writer who can help bring out their unique voice and shine a little brighter.
So, before you head out for your next co-write, don’t underestimate finding the right co-writers for you. Finding the right songwriter match is somewhat like landing a great new friend – you have to get each other.
Here are my top dos and don’ts to help you navigate your co-writing terrain.
Do prepare ahead
Especially when you’re the artist, or you’re not used to co-writes. Bring your journals, song concepts, and ideas. Be ready to share your ideas. Go with the best idea whether it is yours or your co-writer's. Best song idea wins. If you're writing for you as an artist, make sure the theme applies to you.
Don't write a generic song
Don’t just write a generic song without deciding who or what it is for. Decide who you're writing for (you as artist, or another artist, or a project like a TV show or film for licensing, etc.).
Plan for volume
Do push yourself to co-write with a lot of writers
It’s kind of like speed dating or matchmaking. You have to work with a lot of writers to find the special ones.
Don't give up after a few sessions
Don’t give up after a few co-writes gone wrong. Give yourself a chance to find your matches! Look for two to four of those magical, awe-inspiring co-writers. You’ll be so glad you stuck it out.
Protect your work
Do sign a split sheet
The best way to agree on copyright percentages is to fill out a split sheet once the song is done. It’s easy to forget this stuff and better to do it right after writing. If you’ve got a ton of co-writes, fill one out at (or just following) each session. It’s easy to skip this and it’s important because when you go to copyright, you’ve got all the info and have already agreed on percentages.
Don't put off song administration
It’s a funny thing, but even the best writers are a bit sloppy with their song administration. Be sure to follow through with:
- Signing split sheets
- Registering each song copyright and sending a copy to each writer. (Don’t register songs in collections, register each one to protect its copyright.)
- Adding your song registration once the song is "published" or "recorded" and released with your PRO (performing rights organization). It’s how you get paid for public performance (venues, radio etc.)
- Register your songs with SoundExchange to collect online royalties.
Don’t. Put. This. Off. Get organized.
Do write with unexpected matchups
Don’t judge a book by its cover. You never know who is going to be a great match. Sometimes it’s the most unexpected partners.
Don't write off writers who don’t write in your genre
A great song defies genre. Think "I Will Always Love You" written by country artist Dolly Parton, made famous by R&B artist Whitney Houston. Stay open; you never know.
Personalize what you bring to your co-write
Do be prepared to get personal
The best songs are written from real experiences (with a dash of drama and exaggeration). Be prepared to write from personal experience. The song could be a blend of several peoples' experience – all the better as long as you stay focused on the point.
Don't hold back information
As mentioned above, the best songs are written from real life experience. Be prepared to get comfortable with other writers, as you’ll want to share the details of your experiences. Holding back information that a writer may need to paint a picture holds back the impact of your song.
Ego, percentages, and professionalism
Do leave your ego at the door
The dearly beloved Marilyn Bergman, past president of ASCAP, often said that when you enter a songwriting co-write session, you should be sure to check your ego at the door. A great songwriting session is a collaboration, not a solo write clothed in collaboration.
Don't be too selfish
It’s important to get credit where credit is due, however I don’t recommend nitpicking over percentages. It causes bad blood. Most pro writers split evenly when a song is written from scratch at the session. Sometimes one person only adds a line or two, but their influence was in the room from the start. Plus, you can’t quantify songwriting by quantity of lines – think quality, baby! Besides, that one line might be the best one or make the song come together. Most professional writers are the most generous in spirit and attitude, and are the ones everyone loves to work with.
Cari Cole is a celebrity vocal coach, artist development expert, and new music business mentor. She helps artists and musicians find their voice, build their brand, and create successful careers in music. Grab a free copy of her Vocal Road Warrior three-part series: how to keep your voice healthy while you're out conquering your tour!