We put some frequently-asked questions on royalty splits and songwriters’ rights to The Damned bassist and Musicians’ Union regional officer
While the title ‘songwriter’ can often conjure images of a solitary writer-for-hire, it can be a collaborative process and we all know of the many famous partnerships such as Elton John & Bernie Taupin. But what about when the people you are writing with – and perhaps for – are also the people you will be spending cooped up in a tour van with for days, weeks or even months and years?
To help explore the do’s and don’ts of songwriting in a band, who better to share their insight than Paul Gray of the Musicians’ Union (MU). As the MU’s Regional Organiser for Wales and South West England, Paul advises musicians on all aspects of their career on a daily basis. Paul is also an accomplished musician in his own right having been a member (and writer) of legendary bands Eddie & The Hot Rods, UFO and The Damned…
Are there any particular pitfalls to watch out for when it comes to songs and bands?
Songs are really your babies so it’s easy to take negative comments personally. Most bands fall out because someone has earned more from writing or got more credits than someone else and unfortunately it can become pretty poisonous. It can also be down to “well if they’ve got x amount of songs going on the album, then I want x amount too”, irrespective of the fact that they might not be as good or suitable… that’s where strong characters can become damaging to band dynamics. There’s no easy answer to this other than trying to be as open and honest with each other in a constructive way. If things deteriorate to the point of arguments of ownership of band assets (merchandise, amps, branding) then the MU has trained Officials who can offer mediation provided you’re all members.
Should I always focus what I write on my current band’s sound?
I’ve always written for myself, sometimes taking into account the band I’ve been in at the time, but often not. Funnily enough songs I’ve written whilst in one band have often been used in another – for example, I wrote a song called Hit Or Miss whilst in Eddie & the Hot Rods that had a fairly loose bluesy Stones-type feel to it. When I later joined The Damned they took it, sped it up a considerably and put their own inimitable interpretation onto it which changed the feel completely. Likewise, songs I wrote with The Damned in mind – but were turned down or never used – subsequently ended up on a UFO album.
Is there a ‘right’ way for songwriting royalties to be split between bandmates?
Writer contributions can actually be one of the hardest areas to agree on in my experience and are often overlooked or not asserted at the time of writing.
In my period with The Damned we split every song four equal ways. We all had lots of ideas as writers, distributed songs we’d recorded on our four-track recorders to each other in advance of studio time, and made a pretty unique band sound between the four of us, so it made sense to share in the spoils and stopped those “he’s got more songs / making more money than me” arguments arising. That only really works if everyone is contributing and if you think you have something really special and of value going.
When should credits on a song be agreed?
Often bands will have little idea of the value of copyrights in the early days – it’s only if and when a song may later become successful, and possibly earn a considerable amount for the writer or writers credited, that someone else who may have contributed to the process realises that they’ve really lost out. I’d always strongly advise that as soon as a song has been written as a collaboration that the writers involved use one the MU’s free Songshare Agreements so that each writer’s contribution and share in that song is agreed at the time of writing. Those shares can later be used to register with PRS and MCPS and will avoid future contention over the far too common “who wrote what” scenario.
We’re recording an album, should the producer be entitled to a share of the writing royalties?
For artists starting off this can be a difficult area to understand and agree on, especially if the producer is also the studio owner, as is often the case, and there is a fall-out, and the producer demands a share of writing before releasing the WAV files or master tracks. You need to consider what exactly is the producer’s role in the process and what are they bringing to the table? I have a Jane’s Addiction album where Bob Ezrin is credited as co-writer on every track. Conversely, Steve Lillywhite is quoted as saying he’d never ask for songwriting points or credit, even though he’s a very energetic and hands-on producer – probably the most hands-on I’ve worked with in 40 years. These things need to be discussed and put clearly into writing at the outset of any relationship which is where the MU can assist.
How can I best protect my rights?
Musicians are great at the creative side but not great at the business stuff – that’s when trade union membership is crucial. If the services the MU offers had been available when I started out in the mid-1970s, I’d have been able to get free legal advice before signing all the terrible contracts myself and my bandmates ended up agreeing to without a clue what the implications were and would be considerably better off as a result. They’re often unaware of how all the bits of the music industry jigsaw fit together, and even that the copyright in your words and music lasts for your lifetime plus 70 years. Get that wrong at the start, and you’ve potentially signed away a fortune.