More than once in my career I have seen arguments occur among band members over who wrote the group’s songs. Is it the member or members who walked in the door one day with the melody and lyrics or is it everybody in the band who “played” the song the first time they learned it from the music and lyric writers? In the situation I just described I believe the answer is the creators of the melody and lyrics. And in fact that is the way it is normally handled – think “The Beatles”.
I realize there are different situations that might determine who the writer or writers are of an original song performed by a band. The genre of music might be a big factor. Or the actual collaboration process. I don’t argue that everybody might be a writer in the situation where an entire band collaborates. My problem is the situation where there is clearly one or two writers who do their writing away from the entire band. In effect, they “write” the song and then bring it in for the band to work it up – and probably to do some on the spot arranging.
So why is it then that the rest of the group feels “entitled” to ownership of those songs? In my experience band members do not make that kind of claim until there is money at stake. The band gets a record deal and there is also a publishing or co-publishing deal being offered – with an advance. The advance is to the “writers” – not to the artists – the players. Maybe the players who were not a part of the original collaboration or solo writing project do make musical contributions that change the “fundamental character of the work” (Copyright Act terminology). But I don’t think so in most situations. Perhaps they truly believe that the day they first heard the song and performed it means they are songwriters. But as one band member recently said to the true writer member and lead vocalist in the band: “I stuck by you all this time.” That musician was saying to the writer band member that since he had not quit the band during the hard times then he should now also be considered a writer and share in songwriter’s royalties and advances. The recording advance and all the other band sources of income were not enough. Maybe so – but the loyalty doesn’t make him a “writer”. Any sharing in the writer’s money will be a result of the generosity of the writer – not a matter of law.
In most situations it seems pretty clean cut. Some examples are: (1) Songwriter sits down with guitar or at keyboards and writes a song. Done. The next band practice he plays it for the other group members and they work up the song. (2) Two or more band members sit down with instruments and write the song. Same as number (1)—the band works it up. (3) Band Member writes the music and gives melody to another band member who writes the lyrics. The band learns to play the song.
In my opinion just because the band learns to play one of these songs it doesn’t make all of them writers of the songs. Sometimes jealousy and hurt feelings are assuaged by letting the entire band share in the publishing or co-publishing income.
I know some of you are going to disagree with my take on this so please post your comments. Tell me why I am wrong – or right.
Copyright © 2010 C. Stephen Weaver