This one simple mistake will lose you a third of your songwriting royalties - with video

David Mellor

David Mellor is CEO and Course Director of Audio Masterclass. David has designed courses in audio education and training since 1986 and is the publisher and principal writer of

Wednesday March 8, 2017

Success is hard to come by, but when it does come you probably don't want to have a third of your money taken away from you.

So you're in a band and you're the writer. Great, you'll get all those lovely songwriting royalties on top of your money for being a member of the band. Your band mates will eventually hate you for it, but for now it's best to be 'all in it together', even if you're the one who is going to come out on top later on in the band's career.

Songwriting royalties are a sure and certain source of income. Write a song that is successful, and rights organizations all around the world will collect royalties for you without you having to lift a finger. This is really true.

But who actually wrote the song? You did of course. You know you did and everyone who knows you knows you did. In your publishing contract (if you have one) and in your song's registration with your local rights organization, you are listed as the only writer, of both music and lyrics.

But... When you wrote the song, were you alone in your writing room with your guitar and keyboard? Or was someone else there?

Here is a video clip that neatly illustrates the situation. It's from Riverdale on The CW network based on characters from Archie Comics, which is recommended as a high-school drama that is a lot darker than you might expect. Apart from what you see in the clip, I'm not going to spoil anything that may or may not happen subsequently in the drama.

To recap what you just saw, the band is Josie and the Pussycats, consisting of Josie McCoy on lead vocal and guitar, Melody Valentine on drums and Valerie Brown on bass. In previous incarnations of Archie Comics characters, Valerie has been stated to be the songwriter of the band.

In the clip, you see the Pussycats in the throes of a rehearsal where one of Valerie's songs isn't working out too well.

As luck would have it, aspiring songwriter Archie Andrews is sitting in on the rehearsal, at Josie's invitation. When the Pussycats have difficulty getting one of the song's lines to work, in steps Archie with a suggestion that consists of just three words. The line is changed and now, effectively, Archie is a co-writer. Songwriter Valerie may not agree with this and Archie might struggle to get a credit. But if the song becomes a mega-hit, then Archie will surely want his day in court to receive what is rightfully his. And, if they are willing to cooperate, perhaps for a bribe of some kind (but let's call it a 'consultation fee'), Archie has two witnesses - Josie and Melody, who will confirm that the words 'on her skin' are really his contribution. And, as we see in the clip, Melody has contributed to the song, and Josie has probably contributed to others, so they should be due some money too.

Now, one could argue endlessly whether one, two or three words can make the difference between the monumental success or dismal failure of a song, but that's what courts are for - making arguments for and against.

This is where a time-honoured phrase from the music industry comes in...

Change a word, get a third

"Change a word, get a third", or sometimes written as "Write a word, get a third". I invite you to look up this phrase with your favourite search engine.

Usually this phrase applies when an artist wants a share of the writing royalties on a song they are covering. A top artist could just ask for what they want and get it, because songs are in abundant supply and top artists are not. For the actual writer or writers, two thirds of a lifetime's royalties (plus 70 additional years post mortem) is always better than all three thirds of squat.

But if the artist didn't contribute, there is always the chance that the writer(s) could go to court at some later date. So the artist gets to change a word. He or she genuinely becomes part of the writing team, and in return gets their third share of the royalties. Even if they haven't really done much at all.

But Archie Andrews - could he do this? Well yes he could. He has actually changed three words and Valerie agrees that the line works better. Valerie ought to offer Archie a reasonable share of the writing credit, say a twelfth, and get the deal down in writing and checked by a music business lawyer. Otherwise Archie might come back later asking for more. And for the lawyers it will most definitely be payday, at Valerie's expense if she loses.

So a word of advice, and you don't need to pay me a third or even anything at all for it...

When you are writing a song, write it yourself or with your writing partner (with whom you already have a written agreement). Hone it and polish it to perfection so that changing even one word could not make the song better. And if at some point a band member comes up with a word that really does make the song better, agree their share and get that down in writing.

P.S. Some interesting search links for your further reading pleasure. These situations are not quite the same, but they demonstrate how contentious songwriting credits can be...

Ed Sheeran / Martin Harrington Thomas Leonard

Led Zeppelin / Spirit

The Beatles Come Together / Chuck Berry You Can't Catch Me

Rod Stewart / Jorge Ben

Albert Hammond / Radiohead

Jay Z / Abdel Halim Hafez and Baligh Hamdy

The New Seekers / Oasis

Huey Lewis / Ray Parker Jr.

The Rolling Stones / The Verve

Pharrell Williams Robin Thicke / Marvin Gaye

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