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Written on April 16, 2009, and categorized as Business.
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A few times in my career it’s been made clear to me that should X star/band choose to record my song, he/she/they will of course be credited as co-writers despite the fact they lifted not a pen nor approached a keyboard nor strummed a ukelele in the composition of this potential hit.

This claim on publishing has become relatively commonplace. Whatever the merits of the work, the craft employed, or the song’s sweet completeness, stars (via their lawyers and managers) make a smash-and-grab raid on all earnings, including publishing, so that they will continue to benefit as long as the song is generating revenue.

This kind of thing has been going on since publishing began – the Berne Convention
for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works
dates back to 1886. Writers when they start out are usually desperate for any kind of success and largely ignorant of their rights, and this makes them easy targets.

I can understand the “get it while you can” mentality in the den of iniquity that is the music business. It’s as if artists are still haunted by the bad old days of tiny payments as the music industry grows fat by deducting endless amounts for spurious reasons, winnowing away at their hard-earned income. Believe it or not, CD royalties are still subject to “new technology” deduction brought in in the 1980s, and on what basis can downloads be subject to deductions for “breakages”?

Nonetheless, this particular form of artistic cannibalism fills me, as a writer, with genuine ire. From the elevated position of the star, their attitude is simple. We are your gateway to wealth, therefore we can insert our claim on the publishing revenue and if you don’t like it, we’ll use someone else’s song.

Now, I’m not naive enough to think that the world is going to be different from the way it is any time soon. But, the worst thing about this practise is that it is not being questioned or resisted, and the bigger the star, the more aggressive the lawyers, and the more certain that writers will be squeezed out of their fair share. If you’re an established writer nobody will attempt to extract part of the royalty due to you for your work, but if you’re less well known, then it’s almost guaranteed that the attempt will me made to deny you some percentage of your future earnings from your hard-won intellectual property.

I can make the distinction between an artist who picks up a song and develops it or alters it substantially enough to bring it to commercial success, by adding lyrics, or by including new melodies, for example. But, the job of making a song into a commercial recording is called Production, or Remixing, and these important activities have their own slices of the pie. Hands off mine!

It’s not enough to take a song, add beats and noises which suit your style, super-impose a rap and a three note riff, and then say,

Hey, I re-wrote it! I want 50%…

Have I ever given part of my publishing to an artist who had nothing to do with writing the song? Yes, but it was small enough not to be painful. Did I regret it? No. Did I think it was wrong? Yes. Would I do it again? It depends – not if I can avoid it!

In the end, it comes down to choice. Diminished revenue is one issue. Would you rather have 100% of a song which doesn’t sell, or a lesser amount of a big hit? But, there is also the important issue of authorship. If you give some part of your song publishing to the artist, then they are forever associated with the creation of the song. Is that going to help or harm your career? It’s a tough call, especially when the rewards are temptingly large.

Photo from here.

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