Splitting up is hard to do

Imagine the scene. You’re at rehearsal with your band mates. Someone, maybe you, has brought their latest song to the table. Everyone is interested. They listen with rapt attention, then the excitement starts. The drummer ponders a slightly different groove, and the bassist adds a line to fit. The vocalist alters some phrasing, the lead guitarist/pianist/violinist adds a twirl to the riff. And before you’ve finished your rehearsal, the song has developed from one person’s idea into a fully-fledged number. Everyone wants to play it at the next gig. They love it.

So far so good. Your band have got a great new song to add to the catalogue. Or do they? Whose song is it really?

Ownership of songs is tricky, and it’s a business aspect of your career you can’t ignore. Because if you are in a band, or co-write with anyone, or get your songs arranged or remixed, then you should agree how to split any future royalties. And, if the worst comes to the worst, and your band breaks up, everyone needs to be clear on who can take the song onto their next project.

The percentages you use to divide the earnings from songs are known as ‘song splits’. And the best time to agree on them is as soon as you have completed writing or recording a song, so everybody is clear about their contribution and what to expect. Best of all – write down the splits per song and get every party to sign a contract – even if that contract is something you all draw up together on Word. A great article on how to do this is here: http://www.hevedburgmusic.com/article3.html

Why are song splits important? Let’s consider what happens if your song becomes commercially successful. If an advertising company wants to use the song, or someone else wants to cover or sample it, the royalties will be split 50/50 between the lyricist and the composer. And the law will recognise the person(s) who own the lyrical and composition copyrights of the song as the song’s copyright owner(s) for publishing purposes (sound recording copyrights and performer rights work slightly differently – check out www.prsformusic.com and www.ppluk.com for more info).

So if you added that flute solo that brought the piece alive, but aren’t included on any song split documentation, you will get precisely nada in songwriter royalties – unless you work out and agree a percentage of the song with the rest of the band, and put it in writing.

For example, eighties New Romantic pioneers Spandau Ballet had one main songwriter in the group, Gary Kemp. In 1999 lead singer Tony Hadley, drummer John Keeble and saxophonist Steve Norman sued Kemp for alleged unpaid royalties (Kemp’s brother Martin, the band’s bassist and another non-songwriter, declined to join court proceedings on either side). Kemp was alleged to have agreed to split his songwriting royalties with bandmates through several verbal agreements when they were at school, which he vigorously denied. There was nothing in writing to support Hadley et al’s claims, so they lost the case and had to pay hundreds of thousands in legal fees.

Was this fair? At the time, Kemp called the ruling a victory for songwriters everywhere. But without any songwriting splits to their name, this reduced members of the band – members who had contributed sax solos, distinctive vocals, and a ‘splashy snare drum sound…[that] would become known as the New Romantic sound’ (according to Wikipedia) to little more than session players. Did the band really sell records on the strength of the songwriting, or on the strength of their act?

Finally, a word on including non-writers in song splits. Consider the trials of recruiting and retaining members of your project. Would it make sense to offer an intra-band agreement – for example, offering band members a split on royalties of all songs while they remain in the band? This would encourage loyalty but keep the songs as the property of the main songwriter/band as entity.

Ultimately I’d argue it’s worth more to keep your outfit working together fruitfully rather than arguing over every per cent of a song – Lennon and McCartney split every song they worked on 50/50 and had a long and lucrative songwriting relationship that earns money to this day. Equally, you don’t want to give away your rights for nothing. Elvis Presley was ready to record ‘I Will Always Love You’ when his manager, Colonel Tom Parker phoned songwriter Dolly Parton and told her it was standard practice for any songwriter to hand over 50% of the rights to Elvis if he recorded their song. Parton refused, and Elvis left the building – a commercial decision that netted her millions of dollars.

Best thing for everyone? To be clear on what everyone should expect – and to get it in writing.

this post is by smart musician Hazel Jane MacLaurin
‘Hazel Jane MacLaurin is a piano poetess, singer-songwriter, lyrical obsessive, and one half of Paperbag Music Promotions, a music event company that puts on alternative acts in alternative venues.’

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