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Where Credit is Due

There’s so much tension today over song credits. It’s practically started wars between people who were once as close as family.

Ego is poisonous, capable of destroying relationships. It’s a little devil on your shoulder with a very pervasive voice.

I ask the question: does true happiness come from holding credits?

The Devil’s Advocate

Look at cases like Robbie Robertson and The Band.

Robertson sneakily transferred all ownership and song credits over to himself. This seemed especially odd for a group where each member contributed so heavily. Also, many of the stories were based on Levon Helm’s life.

Banana Split

This brings me to songwriting splits, and nothing creates more tension in a room than talking about splits. People tend to hold on pretty tightly to credit even when others have contributed heavily to an arrangement.

It’s true there’s no real outline for what constitutes writing credit, and that’s a big part of the issue. It’s always left to interpretation.

Looking Glass

Here’s my view on credit — not that my view is right — but I think it’s fair.

If I’m hired to play on a session, then my work is for hire. The ideas I generate come from a hired professional.

There are some exceptions, though. If I’m hired as a guitarist, and I’m asked to help write lyrics or arrange the song, then my role has changed. I’ll need to discuss that before I move forward.

If I’m not hired as a session musician, then I have the mindset of a creative contributor. It’s kind of rude not to pay someone, and then not give them credit either when they’ve contributed ideas.

Ghost Writer

Things also get complicated with what people consider songwriting. For some, it’s only the moment of inception, and everything from that moment forward doesn’t actually count as writing.

For me, this is too narrow. There are many things that can altar the song after inception. I’ve rewritten bridges on a few occasions, and I think this counts for writing credit.

Some artists tried to argue that I didn’t deserve credit just because I didn’t write lyrics. But lyrics without music is a poem. If there’s music attached to your words, and I wrote that music, then I deserve credit.

I’ve also written melodies, which I also consider worthy of writing credit. These are particularly big alterations to a song.

Line in the Sand

Now, does that mean if you create a drum fill, you should get credit? Imagine if we started splitting up credit for every small detail — it would be a madhouse!

I don’t ask credit for a drum fill. If, as the drummer, I help shape the song, then I feel I deserve credit. How deep are you into the song? Did you create arrangement changes? Did you help adjust the form?

Tug of War

On one hand, I don’t believe the songwriter should be too stingy about sharing credits. On the other hand, I don’t believe musicians should be too greedy about asking for credit.

Just because you were in the room doesn’t mean you deserve songwriting credit. As an artist you have to be careful about where the “line” exists. Be aware when the situation changes to a collaboration.

The lack of communication can lead to bad feelings. So, it’s a good idea to chat before you work together. Discuss your interpretation of writing credit. Don’t wait to find out you have contrasting views later.

Make it Rain

Here’s the deal: if your song is a big hit, there will be enough money to spread around. Plus, you’ll have your team intact to write more successful songs.

Don’t fall into the trap of wanting to be the mastermind. You can be the mastermind, but that means you’re doing everything. Once you start bringing people in, you have to understand that each person’s influences will matter. (And you shouldn’t try to pretend they don’t.)

The Hidden

I once played a bunch of instruments in a session. The artist paid me for the session, but then claimed they were the sole performer on all instruments. I was upset.

Just because you paid a musician for a session, it doesn’t mean you can choose to do whatever you want with their credit.

Sometimes, you’re hired to be a ghost player on a session, but this usually means more pay and a signed gag order. Thing is, credit isn’t just about earning money through royalties. Your association with a project can bring you more work.

The Grown Up

I encourage you: don’t let your ego get in the way. If you do, you’re going to make more enemies than friends over time. There’s strength in numbers, and community matters more than you think.

Things got really bitter with Robbie Robertson and The Band. It never healed and caused great emotional and financial pain for the other members of The Band. This was all unnecessary, so be fair to your collaborators.

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Mark Marshall

Mark Marshall

Mark Marshall is a producer, songwriter, session musician and instructor based in NYC. More at guitaristmarkmarshall.com
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