You are packed into your seat at the Upright Citizens Brigade theater in Hollywood for a special show in which alums who hit the big time are getting back to their improv roots. In the first act, Amy Poehler exclaims to Tina Fey, “I’m going to drive my Kia to the moon!” Imagine if Tina fires back, “No, stupid. You can’t drive a car to the moon.” By denying the suggestion, the creator and star of 30 Rock has killed the scene, the moment, its potential outcomes, and perhaps even the confidence and trust of her collaborator. If instead she Yes-Ands, what comes next did not exist seconds before and might delight all of us in the room: “Not without my Frampton Comes Alive 8-track you don’t!” Now we imagine not only a car trip to the moon with those two, but the notion that Kias might come with 8-tracks standard. And that Tina Fey listens to Peter Frampton in important moments.
Co-writing works in similar ways. The collaborators make a pact that what comes of the collaboration might be more wonderful, unique, or at least different from what would have come from writing alone. And that we cannot know where a great idea will come from. Often a great idea comes as a response to a ridiculous idea–because the need to accept and add to the ridiculous gets the second person to think of things in a fresh way. There are countless stories of amazing breakthroughs that came about in this way. My favorite of late has to be the story Nashville co-writers Chris Tomkins and Josh Kear recounted. The two had written before and were set up again by their publishers. Tomkins arrived early and was kicking around an idea, a break-up song about an angry ex. Kear arrives and asks the inevitable question in a co-write: ”You got anything?” The two begin amusing each other by trying to top one other with extreme statements. Maybe she bashes the headlights out on his car, one offers. Yeah, like she takes “a Louisville Slugger to both headlights…” the other adds. Yeah! Imagine them cracking themselves up, topping one detail with the next as she turns to “carve my name into his leather seats….” And then one turns to the other jokingly and remarks “Maybe next time he’ll think before he cheats!” They look at each other like Eddie Murphy in Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood, mouths making a giant “O”. There it was: the line, the hook, the title, the concept! The magic to transform what was just a vignette of rage into a mainstream statement in pop country culture. Carrie Underwood would carry “Before He Cheats” to the top of the charts, earning the co-writers multiple CMAs and Grammys and enough royalty checks to buy a few Louisville Sluggers. But if the co-writers in the room had not recognized the moment for what it was, the rest of us outside of the room might have never gotten to hear that song.
Sometimes the most significant moments in a co-write don’t happen when we are “writing.” They happen off the cuff, in conversation, in jest, noodling. A good co-writer is a great listener, astute enough to spot those moments (lyrical and musical) and hand them back to the collaborator for both to examine in a new light. Kear and Tomkins could easily have laughed about that observation and then gone back to writing the angry jilted girlfriend song. But they knew when the magic had arrived. They knew, then, to set it up as the payoff of their song.
So you have prepared your attitude and your skill-set. How do you prepare for the actual session itself? There is no single way, and every collaboration will require different things of you. But no matter what, be prepared.
Some questions to ask yourself in order to be prepared:
- Are we writing for a target? What is the style? Am I familiar with that style? How can I immerse myself?
- Are we writing for one of us as the artist? What will that mean?
- Are we writing for a specific pitch? What are the parameters? If it’s a tv show, for instance, do I know anything about it?
- Have I written with this person before? What strengths do they have? What might I need at the ready to prepare myself for tough moments?
- What ideas (lyrical, title, concept, musical, track) can I generate or access that might be appropriate for this collaboration?
You always want to have an idea at the ready for the inevitable moment when the person across from you says, “You got anything?” Be the writer who has that something that makes the two of you want to write the song.
And finally, some basic people skills: How can I make this “date” lead to the next? If I am getting a water for me, get one for her. If we are writing at my studio, create a nice space for them. Be a gracious host or a grateful guest. Make it a no-brainer to want to work with you again.
FINDING AN IDEAL COLLABORATOR MEANS FINDING OUT ABOUT YOURSELF
The analogy of dating and co-writing can be helpful. Going on a few dates helps you figure out what kinds of qualities you are looking for. Who brings out the best in you? It’s no accident that you write your best pop songs with her or your best country ballads with him. The synergy of your toplining and their composition, your grooves and their melodies, your tracks and their concepts, your voice and their feel… put you in a situation to utilize your strengths while they cover for your weaknesses. You similarly might be covering for their deficiencies. And just like when your friends set you up with the dreamboat who turns out to grimace at all your jokes, a great pairing on paper might not lead to real chemistry and good songs.
What we are really learning is not just what we need in another but what we truthfully have in ourselves.
Co-writing can give you a healthy opportunity to take stock of what you have to offer and what you need. It can give you the chance to learn alongside a peer on the frontlines of your songs. Therefore what we think of as our weaknesses are really invitations: opportunities to invite a collaborator into your art. Their weaknesses are in turn invitations to make ourselves necessary and valuable to others.
TWO IMPORTANT TAKE-AWAYS FROM OUR CLASSROOM STAB AT CO-WRITING
In THE ROOTS, the foundational course for song study at The Songwriting School of Los Angeles, we co-write in a limited time environment for a variety of reaasons. First, because you do not have enough time to thoroughly vet your ideas in the short time allotted for our in-class co-writes, you get an experience in making decisions and moving forward. You begin to condition the muscles that do this. You have perhaps heard of the expression paralysis by analysis? Without the time to overthink this song, you just might finish the minimum of two contrasting sections, if not the whole thing. Strengthening your finishing muscles is helpful. THE ROOTS will make you a consummate reviser. Be able to finish a first draft first.
Second, be awake to the power of Yes, And… in your life outside of co-writing. Practice it with your own ideas, responding with positivity and acceptance instead of self-doubt. See how tuning in that frequency keeps you open to opportunities in your creative life. Most great musician stories involve a “yes, and…” moment where an opportunity arose unexpectedly and the musician moved forward in the faith that something good might come of that movement. Moving builds momentum. Yes. And.
THE BUSINESS OF COLLABORATION
The law states that in cases of collaboration, the people participating split ownership of a creation equally unless the parties agree to a different split. Two people in the room, the song is a 50/50 split. Even if one writer really did all the heavy lifting. Lennon and McCartney wrote this way even when they weren’t in the same room, deciding things would come out even in the end and that equality would preserve the creative productivity of the relationship. “Yesterday” is a Lennon/McCartney co-write when it comes time to collect checks, though we all know Paul wrote that one.
If I’m in the room and I don’t feel like I contributed anything…
Perhaps you might propose a junior share if this is a relationship you want to nurture and you think the gesture will do that. Give your co-writer the right to say, no, I wouldn’t have come up with that killer hook if you hadn’t said what you had to say.
If I’m in the room and I feel like I did all the heavy lifting…
Be careful and be respectful, but if you feel strongly about this you might want to at least have a conversation to that effect. Just know that you have created a precedent in THIS relationship where each song is going to get parsed. I have heard that Don Henley goes over a song with a yellow highlighter and marks the parts he wrote in order to calculate splits. I don’t know if that’s true (I have never had the honor of writing with him), but I’m not sure how you can separate what one person “wrote” from how the room gave birth to the ideas of the song. If two or more writers are in the service of something powerful, their job is to serve that relationship and the songs that come from it.
Why is it necessary to work out the business part of a collaboration BEFORE you write the song?
Consider dinner with friends at an expensive restaurant. You are on a tight budget, end of the month. They have been dying to go to this hip place in Hollywood. You order salad and a water. They pile on the drinks, the apps, the chef’s specialty entree, and dessert. When the check comes, they toss a credit card to the center of the table and announce, “Let’s split it.” You have just bought the most expensive salad of your life.
When we make our expectations clear in advance, no one gets their nose out of joint or their feelings hurt. As Erik “Blu2th” Griggs (“No Air” Jordin Sparks/Chris Brown) says in his class Next Level Songwriting here at The Songwriting School and when we write, “Let’s figure out how we do what we do.” In other words, each relationship is different. As long as both parties know what to expect, both can focus on writing great songs.
- Conduct your business respectfully, thoughtfully, and professionally.
- Proceed with optimism and positivity.
- Cultivate and nurture healthy creative relationships.
RESOURCES FOR COLLABORATION
At The Songwriting School website there are a number of resources for collaborators. Below are links to two different collaborator agreements. The first is a simple split sheet. Writers state their names, the composition, and their respective contributions (lyric/music) and percentages of ownership of the song.
The second has some sample language as an example of the kinds of terms a collaborator’s agreement might include. Rights, responsibilities, etc. Neither is to be taken as a legal document or legal advice but rather as helpful starting points to create your own documents consistent with your own philosophies and relationships.
For more information about registering your song copyrights with the Library of Congress, visit their site.
More resources for Co-Writers
The Songwriting School of Los Angeles offers regular classes in collaboration called CO-WRITING SONGS: THE ART & BUSINESS OF COLLABORATION. Currently taught by Alan Roy Scott (cuts by everyone from Celine Dion to Luther Vandross to Pat Benatar), with special guests like Maria Christensen (“Waiting for Tonight” JLo) among others.
Twice per year The Songwriting School has put on the event Co-Writer Speed Dating, a chance to meet collaborators and learn about the art and business of collaboration. Here is a link to a Facebook gallery of pics from one such event.
© Rob Seals, 2011, 2012 for The Songwriting School of Los Angeles. All Rights Reserved.