Co-Writing Etiquette For The Songwriter

Mark with Sarah Buxton Franklin, Tennessee

Mark with Sarah Buxton Franklin, Tennessee

In the past week I’ve had two different friends ask about co-writing etiquette. In fact I’ve devoted whole sessions to this topic with some of my coaching clients. It’s one of those things that you can learn the hard way but most of the pitfalls can be avoided pretty easily. Are there any hard and fast rules? Some kind of unwritten etiquette?

A little background first. Working with publishers over the years I did a ton of co-writing. Some with great writers, not so great writers, artists and wannabes. If I can suggest one thing it’s to meet them first, have a cup of coffee or a drink. It’s a bit like dating, see if you have anything in common before you spend a long day in a room together. It’s not foolproof. I’ve made some great friends this way who didn’t turn out to be great co-writers and I’ve also written some of my favorite songs with writers who, on paper, didn’t seem like a match. If you’re booking these yourself, or you’re having a publisher set you up, you’re looking for magic. Ok, the publisher is also looking for connections, two people working the song is always better than one. You want to be compatible but you don’t want someone who only does what you do. You’re each hoping the other brings something to the table. Again, kinda like dating and marriage, looking to compliment each other, sum is better than the parts, all that stuff.

A couple of givens . . . You want to know going in the credit is split evenly between the people in the room. No matter who does what in the end. That’s a hard one for new writers to swallow but hey, do it long enough and it evens out I promise. Some days you feel like you wrote a song on your own and the other writer watched. Other days you’re buying lunch and  encouraging them to “keep at it, you’re on fire”!

Nashville is known for being fair, other markets can get trickier. I’ve written in the UK and other countries and had someone call later to approve the split, 21 1/3 % for me, 23 2/3 % for the other guy and the rest for the artist who was on the phone for most of the good stuff:-) I even have a dear friend who had the co-writer’s assistant call them after reviewing an audio tape of the day and breaking it down to who’s ideas ended up where. It can get ugly unless you decide upfront. If there are no publishers involved, it’s best to just work it out in that coffee conversation before you actually write. God forbid the song gets some action before everybody is on the same page.

What happens if you throw out that million dollar title or melody you’ve been saving and your co-writer turns it into small change? Can you go write it with someone else? No. I know it’s hurts but …NO. You could call them and ask but the reality is your reputation is built around your integrity and creativity. If your co-writer thinks you’re gonna write the same idea with 3 other writers it won’t be long before you’re one lonely co-writer. Back to the coffee meeting, try your best to put your ideas in the right hands. Pretend you’re picking a babysitter for little Dylan. Would you leave him with just anybody?

I know writers like to say thier songs are thier children. I have children, they’re not songs. (I’m gonna stop ’cause I just sounded like Andy Rooney.) So do your homework on co-witers, don’t be too precious, trust your gut and hope for a little magic. Make sure you can laugh with ‘em. Pick up the tab and show up on time. Writers like that.

Photo taken at a writing session with Sarah Buxton

Sarah is a co-writer on Keith Urbans current hit ” Put You In A Song” as well as “Stupid Boy” and… the coolest!