Lennon and McCartney, Ira & George , Peaches & Herb. The list goes on of all of the people who have co-penned tunes. Today it’s one of the best ways to double your reach, stretch your imagination and expand your catalog fast.
But there are some things you need to know before you go on the co-writing journey.
I’ve put together the seven most important things you should BE whenever you co-write, especially when you’re going to a first-time co-writing session or are co-writing for the first time.
1. BE PREPARED
Come to the party with a few ideas. This involves either bringing in a melody or two, a verse lyric, a chorus idea, or a few titles. I compare it to arriving for a dinner party with a nice bottle of wine or a fresh bouquet.
If you play guitar, make sure your guitar is strung, tuned and ready to be played.
If you write lyrics on in spiral notebook, bring that and a pen or pencil. If you write on a computer, bring that and fire it up with your go-to songwriting software at the ready.
What any co-writer hates is a blank stare from across the couch and an assumption that they should have all the ideas and do all of the transcribing.
Keep a working copy on one computer but then make sure you get all copies of ideas, lyrics, and mp3’s via e-mail or Dropbox. That way you don’t have to chase it down later.
Preparation is particularly important if you are writing with someone who has a proven track record. If you aren’t prepared and they know it, you’ll never get another shot at a co-writing session with them. Even if you’re prepared and they still think your ideas suck, at least you’ll come away with some sense that you put your best efforts forward and you can move on with a sense of pride.
2. BE TOGETHER
Dentists know appointments from billing. House painters know walls from trim. Landscapers know weeds from flowers. Songwriters know how royalties flow? Not so much.
I can’t count the times when I’ve gotten into co-writing situations where I’ve been asked questions about the business of songwriting that I just assumed any songwriter would know. Taking the time to understand the business behind the craft is essential to succeeding AT IT. Find out how the pie is formed and how it’s sliced before you go putting one into the oven. Don’t ever expect or count on a publisher or a co-writer to tell you what it is your job to understand, particularly these days. It’s a sign of a novice and not a good start to a collaboration.
There are boatloads of books that teach the business. I have used and still refer back to these:
|This Business of Songwriting
|All You Need to Know
About the Music Business
|This Business of Music
(Krasilovsky, M. and Shemel, S.)
Make sure the copy you own is up-to-date.
It’s also important to start and/or maintain an affiliation with a PRO (Performance Rights Organization). These are the people that collect performance royalties on your behalf when your songs get aired on radio, used in film or TV, or performed live.
If you don’t have an affiliation number, get one. There are 3 in the U.S. to choose from: ACAP, BMI or SESAC. All have pros and cons. Ultimately, find someone that gets excited about your work.
3. BE WILLING AND ABLE TO PITCH IN $$$
Nothing is a bigger pain than writing a great tune and wanting to demo it, only to have your co-writer admit they can’t afford it.
Without a demo recording, you have no way to pitch your song. And without the ability to pitch, you have no way to make money.
Unless you don’t intend to make money from your songwriting, it’s important to have a sense of how much capital is available to bring a song to the market.
Is your co-writing session merely for pleasure, or will you be pursuing commercial opportunities? Get clear on this before you start. If you decide to cover the expenses of the co-writer, know how to be a bank.
The songwriting business is mostly a highly speculative one. You come up with the song, demo it and then you pitch it. Then maybe you get some money for it. There are advances made by publishers and record labels which are basically loans deductible from royalties, but you will still pay upfront in the way of publishing rights.
You have to spend money in order to make money.
That said, it’s also important that a co-writer allows you to pay your share for the master recording, as masters are an avenue for earning additional money from film and TV. There was an occasion where I had spent time with a co-writer and even sang the background vocals on a demo, only to find out that I wasn’t given the opportunity to participate in owning the master. I won’t be writing with that person ever again.
4. BE COMMITTED
I have written with literally dozens of people who came into town one year and left town the next. The competition is fierce and the attrition is high. While there is no way to know about someone’s long term interest and commitment to a chosen profession, there is some hedging you can do should a co-writer decide to ditch songwriting in favor of a more regular paycheck before you have finished your song(s).
One is to make sure you have that person’s up-to-date contact information. Whatever you start with that co-writer is going to be like a marriage, should that song reach it’s money-making potential. If the song remains unfinished (I have about 50 of those in my catalog), you can contact the co-writer and tell them that you’d like to finish the song without them. You’ll have to make clear that any participation on their part, creatively or otherwise, is not necessary unless of course they’d be willing to share the financial burden. I have found this to be a very rare case once someone has left the business. By the way – unless the other person agrees otherwise, you still have to credit that songwriter as a co-writer and they still own their share of the publishing.
I liken songwriting partnerships to a marriage with children. You own these children in perpetuity and you’re still a co-parent of them together, divorced or not.
5. BE OPEN
That’s the beauty of co-writing… the notion that two heads are better than one. But this is another way that co-writing is like a marriage. Sometimes you’ll have differing opinions as to the direction that a song should take. This could lead to butting heads. Being open to the other person’s opinion will go a long way in creating what could be a very long-lasting and fulfilling writing partnership. Easier said than done – as Lennon and McCartney will attest to – but it’s good to maintain perspective. If things just aren’t flowing, it may be best to part company on a business level and maintain friendship on a personal one.
6. BE PRESENT
Turn off your cell phones and PDAs. Turn off your life drama. Turn off your “to do” lists. Give your writing session your full attention. If stuff comes up that you can’t ignore for a few hours, then re-book the session. You collaborator will appreciate that you didn’t waste his/her time.
7. BE YOURSELF
A lot of people think that getting a co-write with a huge hit-writer is the coup de grace. Actually, that’s not necessarily the case. Sometimes that kind of pressure makes it impossible to be on “equal footing” creatively and can stop the creative juices from flowing. Your ability to contribute may become muffled by insecurities or lack of comfort. I have been told by many successful songwriters that it’s best to work with people “in your graduating class”. Meaning, work with your peers – the people with whom you are comfortable and can express yourself with ease. People who are on your side of the mountain may make for better climbing partners, versus someones who’s cruising down the backside.
Case in Point: I know of a few “hit songwriters” who behave like assholes just because they can. Those sessions aren’t going to be fun. Not because the person isn’t a phenomenal songwriter, but because an a-hole is still an a-hole, no matter how many awards you slap on them.
Writing with peers works because you can be yourself and not be inhibited during the creative process.
So, those are my top on the list.
With all that said, go forth boldly into the collaborating venture. More often than not, it can be an extremely fun, rewarding and productive.