Songwriter Splits – What are they and How Much to Give

Author: Tomas Morton | Updated: | This post may contain affiliate links.

Here’s a story that perfectly captures the necessity of fair and merit-based song credits, as opposed to bending under pressure.

Once upon a time, I had a studio session lined up with a hip-hop artist. Punctual and professional, he dove headfirst into the creative process with me.

Out of nowhere, about 15 minutes later, two women waltzed into our creative sanctuary. The artist introduced them as friends who were there to lend their voices for background vocals and sprinkle some inspiration.

While it’s always a joy to have friendly faces around, I was in no way prepared for what was about to unfold.

Half an hour later, three chaps came looking for the artist. They were introduced as his cousin and two best pals. Before we knew it, we were a group of seven, all grooving to a catchy beat.

The room was buzzing with impromptu performances and bursts of laughter.

The very next day, I polished the track and sent it back to the artist. The artist added some lyrics and pinged it back to me.

I completed the chord progression and wove in some of the girls’ background vocals. After a bit of mixing, we were delighted with our creation and sent it off to the label.

Imagine our surprise when, two days later, the label informed us that three individuals had claimed they had a hand in the song’s writing. I was baffled until they revealed the names and recounted the tales.

It was the very people who were there in the studio that night!

I reached out to the artist who, albeit acknowledging their contributions as minor, admitted to being inspired by them. He suggested we should give them a nod in the credits.

When it came to light that they were asking for a hefty 25% of the shares, leaving us with a mere 15% each, we had to think twice.

After some contemplation, we decided on an even split of credits, with each of the five contributors getting a generous (yet unfair to us) 20%.

This episode was an eye-opener about the intricacies of songwriting sessions. It’s astonishing how often such disputes crop up, even in superstar sessions when there’s a crowd during the creative process.

Hence, it’s essential to lay down clear rules for credit distribution, no matter how seemingly random the decisions may be.

One Song – Many Ways to Split It!

Melody

Usually, songwriting is a balanced act, like a 50-50 partnership between two creatives. Imagine one crafting the melody while the other spins the lyrics into being.

It’s as straightforward as the legendary duo of Elton John and Bernie Taupin, each contributing 50% to the melody and lyrics, respectively.

There’s also the way Hall & Oates or Lennon and McCartney did it, splitting both the melody and lyrics evenly between them. It’s quite a collaborative dance!

Now, what if the producer, being the musical genius they often are, is asked to add bits and pieces like a bridge, a breakdown, or an outro? Sometimes they may even shape the entire song structure!

If it’s understood that the song is a 50-50 partnership between the producer and the artist, then the producer should logically get half of these new sections, right?

But let’s not forget about our lyricist (usually the artist)! They should rightfully claim 100% of the lyrics over these new sections.

To keep things fair, a 55-45 split in favor of the producer might be a more equitable arrangement, especially if the lyrics are sparse and the melody takes the spotlight in these sections.

Lyrics

It’s not uncommon for artists to find it tricky to edit their own lyrics. Sometimes, they might need a producer to step in to help trim down some phrases or rephrase a few things. It’s all part of the creative process!

When it comes to copyright law, if you’re making substantial changes to the lyrics, you’re contributing to the songwriting too. If you’re just reducing the length of the lyrics, a 50-50 split might be fine.

But if you’re enhancing phrases, using more appealing words, or making the lyrics more compelling and you’ve rewritten a quarter of them, then a 60/40 split in your favor as the producer seems pretty fair to me.

Chord Progressions

In the good old days of songwriting, when everyone was gathered in the same room, chord progressions were often mingled with melody writing. The people kick-starting the song, usually the producer, might start strumming a guitar or playing a piano, dreaming up some nifty chords to write something over.

But let’s face it, times have changed. With cloud collaborations, chord progressions have taken on a whole new identity.

Some folks fire off MIDI chord progressions to artists to ignite their creativity. The artist then tweaks the chords, samples them, and tosses them wherever they feel the vibe.

It’s like having your very own personal Splice collection of tailor-made chords.

Now, what happens if someone uses about 1/3 of the chords you sent and then adds the rest? Well, it’s not exactly a 50-50 split on the chords anymore, it’s more of a 66-33 split.

Hang on a second, what if the artist sings a crucial melody over those chords after they’ve been added? Then your share gets a little bit smaller each time.

So, in reality, chord progressions should come with a flat rate fee instead of any songwriting splits or about 20% of the song, even if they’re used throughout the whole piece. There’s just too much other stuff layered on top of it to argue that it’s half the melody or half the song.

Drums and Beats

Let’s talk about how important electronic music and hip-hop drum beats are in creating a hit song. Now, drum programming isn’t technically songwriting – it’s more on the production side of things.

So, when it comes to payment, it’s usually done in cash or a mix of a fee and perhaps some backend royalties. But handing out Publishing Royalties or a piece of the song just for making a beat? I wouldn’t go there.

Now, I’m not talking about the modern take where people call loops with chords and basslines a beat. I’m referring to a straight-up drum beat.

Some producers may ask for a part of the song if they give you one of their beats. They believe their beat could be the magic touch that turns your song into a hit.

Well, that’s something you’ll need to negotiate then and there. But honestly, even for a superstar, I wouldn’t give away more than 15% just for that.

Hooks and Licks

You know, oftentimes, just like the story I shared at the start of this piece, songs are born from people simply having a blast and jamming in the studio. And that’s a truly wonderful thing!

It happens all the time, but it can also get a tad tricky.

Why, you ask? Well, imagine if someone comes up with a catchy bassline. They might start thinking, “Hey, this song wouldn’t be the same without my bassline, so don’t I deserve a piece of the songwriting credit?”

Or perhaps there was a player in the session who created a really nifty sax line, looping it into a dance track. They might feel that their hook is so integral, it’s almost like a chorus in itself.

While that may be true, as a musician, they would typically receive a session fee, not a portion of the song.

Now, there are exceptions. For instance, if someone adds a vocal hook that I end up using as the main chorus or in combination with other new parts to form a chorus, then I might consider giving them 10 to 15% of the song.

But remember, that’s only if it’s a line that crops up often in the chorus.

Rap

I bet you’re quite familiar with songs that have an original version and then another featuring a popular hip-hop artist. Take for example, how DaBaby did a version of Dua Lipa’s ‘Levitate’, where he added his rap into several sections of the song.

In many ways, these could be seen as alternate versions, deserving to be treated as a separate song from the original. Perhaps the guest rapper gets, say, 20% of the remix version that’s named differently from the original version, ensuring they’re recognized as two different copyrights.

And if the original version already has a rap segment in it, which you specifically asked someone to write almost like a bridge, then it seems fair to give that person a share equivalent to the duration of the rap. For instance, if the song is three minutes long and the rap is 20 seconds, that rap is about 10% of the song. So, why not?

Bands

Have you ever wondered about the dynamics in your favorite rock bands? Let’s take the iconic band The Police, for instance. One of the reasons behind their split was the unequal division of songwriting.

Unlike bands like U2, where songwriting was a shared task, Sting took it upon himself to be the primary songwriter, occasionally allowing his bandmates to contribute if their work was up to par.

Now, imagine being the drummer in this scenario. They’re often seen as the ones with lesser melodic skills.

Take Stewart Copeland from The Police, for example, who didn’t get much credit for their songs.

And it’s not just him, Ringo Starr from The Beatles had a similar experience.

The revenue generated from these songs can easily stir up trouble within the band. So here’s a friendly suggestion for all you band members out there – consider dividing songwriting equally or have an open conversation about it before signing any contract.

It can save you a lot of potential heartache!

Sample Usage

Hip-hop artists got pretty creative when they began using samples from vinyl records, adding catchy hooks or even melodic chord progressions from any artist they fancied, and then just rapping over it. But this sparked a big discussion in the music world.

Getting permission from the original artists is key, and in return, they get a piece of the new song. Ever notice at the Grammy Awards when a major rap artist is up for Record of the Year, there’s a long list of songwriters credited?

That’s because they had to nominate and credit anyone whose sample they used for their track. It can get quite long and quite amusing!

My advice? If you’re using a sample, make sure to clear it before you release your song. Alternatively, you could create a sound-alike version.

This method captures the vibe of the original sample but is different enough to avoid infringement. Remember, sorting out a split for sample usage can be a complex process and should be handled correctly with a publisher.

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About Tomas Morton

Tomas is a record producer, engineer, and synthesizer enthusiast based in Pasadena, CA. He received training at Berklee College of Music in Boston and the Musicians Institute in Hollywood, CA. When not in his studio, he can often be found scouring garage sales or Craigslist ads for vintage gear treasures.

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