Songwriting – Who Gets the Credit?

My friend John Ripley, drummer for the band Generation Letter, recently emailed me some questions about how to figure out song writing credits. This is an area that can be sticky business because of miscommunication, no communication, ignorance, and indwelling sin.

After writing songs for 30+ years, I’ve seen songwriting from all sides. I’ve written by myself, written songs that others have edited, and edited songs written by others. I’ve also served as a songwriter and a publisher. To my shame, I used to be much more concerned about who got the credit on a song. I remember working on a project for GLAD years ago and writing up the song credits. I gave myself all the music credits and only shared the lyric credits. When one of the band members asked me about it, I felt justified in what I had done. I’d see it much differently now. At least I hope I would…

If you’re a song writer that has never had a song published, the decision about who gets the credit may not concern you. Then again, it might. It’s curious how our perspective might change when we realize that being listed as a song writer can result in financial benefits, however meager they are at first.

I thought John asked some good questions. Here they are along with my answers. Hope they’re helpful.

1. What is the overall “right way” of doing things when it come to songwriting credits?
There’s no “right way” of figuring out songwriting credits. The three best things to remember are: talk about it beforehand, be humble, and be generous. But don’t include someone as a writer when everyone knows that they really contributed nothing to the final song. Your conscience won’t leave you alone.

2. What amount of credit is given to the person with the original idea or concept?
It depends on what the writers have agreed to. If the person who came up with the idea did nothing to actually write the song, they generally don’t get a writing credit. But if it happens frequently that one person has a song idea, then it might be wise to consider giving them a percentage of the songwriting credits. If I never would have written a song without someone giving me an idea and talking it through with me, I generally like to give them some credit for that.

3. Is there a difference for a “band” versus individuals songwriters?
When a “band” writes a song the royalties are usually split between everyone, go into a band “kitty”, or a combination of both.

4. How would you treat members of the band that are no longer involved but were a part of a song in its original developmental stage?
If someone helped write a song, but is not in the band any more, they should be included as a co-writer. If there’s a question, go ahead and be generous.

5. What else are we not thinking about that we need to know going forward in the area of songwriting credits and or publishing rights?
See my answer to #1. Be more concerned about writing a great song, regardless of who gets the credit. Write for the glory of Jesus Christ, not your own. Write to serve, not to impress. Remember that every word we write, every lyric we craft, every tune we compose, every chord progression we come up with, has been made possible by the giver of all good gifts, who deserves all the credit and all the glory. Of course, if the song is bad, then we get the credit.

Any more thoughts?

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16 Responses to Songwriting – Who Gets the Credit?

  1. John Ripley June 24, 2009 at 5:04 PM #

    Thank you Bob!

    Thank you for insight, but more importantly, thank you for godly character. I have watched you from a far for years and have observed God shaping and molding an incredibly “gifted” musician into a profoundly humble, servant hearted leader. Many younger readers may not remember the cowbell infused grooves of GLAD, nor the big hair of its members, but one can hardly miss the consistent and ever growing theme of grace and the pursuit of God’s glory in your music.

    As a young band we are so appreciative of the kindness and willingness of folks like you and Steve and Vikki Cook and Mark Altrogge to lend your skills to our efforts. Your guidelines will serve Generation Letter and others for years to come.

    May God continue to grant you favor and fruitfulness in the pursuit of well crafted, monster tom and snare drum laden songs for the Glory of the ultimate song writer… Jesus Christ!

    John

  2. giancarlo June 24, 2009 at 5:06 PM #

    Great thoughts brother Bob. Hope you keep writing songs profoundly Biblical.

    God bless you

    Giancarlo
    Monterrey, Mex

  3. Aaron June 24, 2009 at 5:36 PM #

    This is a helpful post. What comments could you include about arranging and orchestrating credits?

    • Bob Kauflin June 24, 2009 at 5:50 PM #

      Aaron, I’m not sure what you’re asking. For printed music, the arranger or orchestrator is typically listed. Arranging/orchestration royalties vary depending on the agreement. Sometimes the work is a work-for-hire, other times the arranger receives a royalty.

  4. Mark@DR June 24, 2009 at 9:14 PM #

    Hi Bob,

    Funny that you posted this today. I don’t know if you saw the Sola Panel post (http://solapanel.org/article/rightly_handling_the_words/) on a related theme two weeks ago? I sent a link to you and Pat S, but it bounced back because I misspelled something and I never ended up doing anything else with it. :)

    Mark

  5. Ben June 24, 2009 at 10:41 PM #

    I wish I had that problem. I find song writing very difficult. Have you ever posted about songwriting, or more specifically tips on how to do it better?

  6. Aaron June 25, 2009 at 9:59 AM #

    If I want to orchestrate a song that I only have a leadsheet for and only make minor “road map” changes am I simply orchestrating or am I also doing some arranging?

  7. Michael Seifert June 25, 2009 at 11:46 AM #

    I am an aspiring song writer right now and this post sure talks about our need for humility when it comes to writing songs. One could write the “greatest ” worship song in the world and yet be humble and say “This song is for God’s glory alone.” God is the one who made us and gave us the talent to write songs for his glory. Thanks for the post, it’s sure a blessing to have men like you Bob who do things to serve the body of Christ.

  8. Jared June 26, 2009 at 10:48 PM #

    Thank you Bob,

    This has answered a number floating questions I’ve had.

    Thank you for yet another intensely practical post.

  9. Brian Moss June 27, 2009 at 4:20 AM #

    Thanks for the post.

    After having worked on “Sweet Sacrifice” (available for free at byfor.org) I can say that this is one place where going with a creative commons license diffuses a lot of this tension. There was nothing like being in a studio with some amazing writers and not feeling any kind of pressure about who had more songs on the project or not, or what percentages we were working with. Attribution is important. But when money is removed from the equation (nobody made a cent from the record and everything was paid for by churches) it is amazing to see how easy going things get. (Plus I got to co-write a song with Michael Card!) All of this really brings us back to #1 above…talk about it beforehand. In our case a creative commons license was the way to go.

    • Bob Kauflin June 27, 2009 at 8:15 AM #

      Brian,

      Thanks for adding the valuable perspective that we can write music without any financial expectations. I’ve talked to numerous people about the pros and cons of the way the existence of music royalties in the church and can see the benefits of both views. I hope to post on that topic at some point.

  10. Mikes Sumondong June 29, 2009 at 6:22 PM #

    The main key to this is humility and going back to the reason why they’ve written a song in the first place. Humility to share yet just enough to give to those who so deserve according to the wisdom of God. Most importantly no matter how many names are written for “credits”, the writers as Christians as they are must be credit to whom it is due and to the one who gave the talent in the first place.

  11. bruce March 1, 2013 at 2:43 PM #

    if person A records chord changes, drums , bass, guitars, etc. and they give it to person B who writes and records lyrics and a melody line, who copyrights the song?

    and when i have a band perform it, we film it, and make a dvd, how do i write the credits?

    i’m “person B”

    • Bob Kauflin March 1, 2013 at 5:11 PM #

      Bruce, interesting question. Since the foundation for the song was laid before you put melody and lyrics to it, I’d probably credit it: “Words by B. Music by A and B.”

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    […] justified in what I had done. I’d see it much differently now. At least I hope I would… (visit his blog to read the […]

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