A co-writing session is like a game of tennis, it can be hard if you don’t get the rhythm of a good serve and volley flowing. Or, like pushing a rock downhill, if you can’t get it moving you’ll never get to the end. But once it starts picking up speed, it can be like the song is writing itself.
Lennon/McCartney, Rodgers & Hammerstein, Jagger & Richards, Elton John & Bernie Taupin, Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus…
It’s not news that many of the greatest songs ever written were the products of a stellar co-writing relationship. The benefits of co-writing is we naturally end up with a totally different product than we would have written as two separate songs by only one writer. This result is oftentimes a better song. That said, finding a co-writing relationship that works well AND produces quality songs is a very hard thing to find. So how can you and your bandmate(s) work together to create better songs without compromising the quality of the work you wanna create or getting into fights over the material?
START SMALL WITH TWO WRITERS:
Too many cooks spoil the soup
If you’re in a band with three or more people, it’s best to begin co-writing with just one other person. This can be a sensitive subject, but usually the singer and guitarist/pianist work together on songwriting because the singer needs to make sure the song is in their vocal range and style, and the guitarist/pianist, above anyone else, needs to be completely competent and confident in playing and working with the chosen chord progression/melodies. This is why we have Jagger/Richards or Lennon/McCartney. There are a few songs where the whole band contributed while the song was being written, but most songs begin as a seed the main “Writing duo” came up with, and then everything else (called the “Arrangement”) is hashed out later.
DECIDE WHO DOES WHAT
It’s super helpful to lay as much down from the beginning as possible, so creative or emotional roadblocks don’t interfere later. A very common arrangement is: Person A writes the music, Person B writes the lyrics and melody. This is so for Elton John/Bernie Taupin. Elton has never written one word of a song he has created with Bernie, and Bernie has never suggested as much as one melody or chord. They work in this walled-off way that has led to all of their hits.
In another example… Lennon/McCartney both played guitar, piano, and bass. They both wrote lyrics, melodies, and the chords, but took turns on who took the lead. This is another decision that can be made outright: Person A and B both write music and lyrics, but agree to allow one to take the lead based on who “started” the idea. Although Yesterday was begun and mainly created by “Lennon/McCartney”, their partnership agreement meant that they both got equal credit for anything they wrote as a team, no matter who did more work. Knowing these things in advance helps side-step territoriality that may come when the song is in a more final state.
MAKE A PLAN
Here is a list of things you can discuss as you sit down to work on the song:
- Are we starting from scratch today, or finishing an idea person A or B thought of already?
- What kind of song are we trying to write?
- Is the song a story or more about a feeling?
- Tone color: Major/minor, or balanced?
- Genre: rock n roll, top 40, hip hop, r&b? other styles? a mixture? a throwback?
- Tempo (speed)?
- Length?: brief (1-3 minutes), medium length (4-5 minutes), or long (6-endless [and yes some composers write song cycles that aren’t meant to end and could be played, in theory, until the end of time]).
While, admittedly, most times you can’t possibly answer all these questions in the beginning of creation, a lot of these variables will present themselves to your team in time and decisions will be made that will shape the work.
CREATE A LEAD SHEET AND SIGN THE SPLIT SHEET
A lead sheet is a document that contains the most essential information of the sons construction: the lyrics, the chord progression, (and usually) the melody lines. Everything else is considered secondary in Songwriter World. The lead sheet codifies the song as intellectual property and can be referenced when it comes to copyright, licensing rights, and registering with Performer’s Rights Organizations (BMI, ASCAP, SESAC, Etc).
Since its very common for strangers to be put into co-writing situations in the industry, it is also standard to sign what is called a “split sheet”. This details who wrote what and how much credit they get in case the song makes a boat load of money. It isn’t uncommon in Nashville for an artist to come to a writing session, meet with three professional, non-performing, songwriters and walk out with a potential hit. The lead sheet will have four writers sign and, depending on the artists contract, they will share percentages of the song in case it blows up.
With your bandmate, you’ll normally split songs 50/50, unless one song happens to have been created by the one person alone. This goes against the Lennon/McCartney theory, but hey not even that saved the Beatles.
Also, if write melody and chords and the singer just writes the words, for example, then you can negotiate a 66.6/33.3 split, but again… feelings come into play so act accordingly.
- Who has the ultimate say of when it’s done? The person who came up with the first idea, or when both of you can agree? This is why adding a 3rd and 4th person into the mix gets difficult, and it’s better to involve the rest of the group when the Lead Sheet is (more or less) set in stone.
- How many revisions? Some people believe their first thought is their best though. others like to write and rewrite many times. Make sure your opinion on this aligns with your co-writer
- Who will arrange the rest of the song? The instrumental writer, the whole band in rehearsal? Do the drummer and rest of the band feel left out, do they want to be included?
A FINAL WORD ON CO-WRITING
As you can see, co-writing music can be super rewarding and help to create songs we never would have alone, but is also rife with potential areas where emotions or power come into play. The most important thing is to try to be creative and have fun in a new way, not to get caught up in what the song could become if it’s done exactly perfectly. At its best you can explore a deeper artistic relationship with a friend, or even write a hit song.
Now, with instagram reel collaboration and Zoom, you can record over John Mayer’s new lick and he might see it! Or you can write with an artist in LA or NYC without having to sit in coach and sleep on that couch.
Either way, the ability to co-write with others is at our fingertips and more accessible than ever before in human history. Now go collaborate! When you are ready for the world to hear your work – call the expert music promoters at Planetary Group to help take your music to the next level. Give us a ring in LA office at (323) 952-5050!