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Co-writing Nashville Style

by
Gift

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This post is part of a series called Songwriting & Composing: From Inspiration to Execution.
8 Tips For Self-Critiquing Your Songs
Developing Motives (or How To Write a Symphony With Only Four Notes)

Prior to moving to Nashville, I had practically no experience in the fine art of co-writing. Frankly, the idea was a little repugnant to me. I thought of myself as the artiste and rationalized that the contributions of another songwriter would cramp my style and hinder my creativity. Looking back, I think I was just very much intimidated by the idea and came up with excuses to avoid what was a widely accepted practice on Music Row.


Publisher Arranged Co-writes

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Where would Elton John be without Bernie Taupin's lyrics?

A publisher will arrange co-writing sessions for his or her writers for a number of reasons. One reason is to get a new signees feet wet!

My first publisher-arranged co-write occurred two days after I had signed on the dotted line. I was horrified to learn that I would be writing with country artist, Lacy Jay Dalton, who had a top ten hit at the time. Talk about perspiration! I am neither a great musician nor a great singer, and these shortcomings, paired with her celebrity, really stepped up my already ample insecurities.

In the end, the session yielded a fairly mediocre song, but the afternoon was pleasant and enlightening nonetheless. I had lost my virginity in a sense!

Sometimes, a session is arranged to supplement a writer's strength with another's weakness and vice versa. Perhaps you are a very strong lyricist, but a bit weak in the melody department. Maybe your melodies are fabulous but are sadly lacking in groove. Where would Elton John be without Bernie Taupin's lyrics?

By making your songs stronger, your publisher has a greater chance of getting them cut which, of course, benefits him. Pair me with a really good guitar player, and I am a very happy camper. Melodies suggest themselves so much more readily than when I write alone hacking away on my instrument.

Simply put, when two or more co-writers represent more than one publishing company or group of contacts, the possibilities for getting the song recorded are multiplied. Two writers from the same house only have one publisher pushing the song. More contacts, more lottery tickets!

The same is true for unsigned writers with decent contacts. When two or more circles of connections are put together, the result is exponentially improved.

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Writing Up

If you can manage to shine and pull off an impressive writing session his contacts can become your contacts!

Most co-writes occur between two or more writers with approximately the same level of success. For the most part, it is not considered classy to approach a writer with an extensive track record unless you bring the same background to the table.

It is obvious what the lesser writer stands to gain from such a pairing, but what would be in it for the senior writer? It tends to put them in the very awkward position of having to sidestep you and risk hurting your feelings.

Occasionally though, an A team writer may be impressed by an idea or a performance and extend the invitation himself. Better yet, a successful artist!

If you are ever in such a position, count yourself lucky. The expectation is that you show up with some ideas, perhaps some lyric, and some melody. Why is more expected of you than him? He or she is bringing success to the table whereas you are in the position of having to prove yourself. You are also much more familiar with the style of this well-known writer than he will be of yours.

Your up-front contribution helps him to get to know you and see where your strengths lie. He will also most likely have a publishing deal and contacts that you lack. If you can manage to shine and pull off an impressive writing session his contacts can become your contacts!


Percentages

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This is a good time to bring up the subject of percentages. It is the natural assumption than when two or more people sit down to write a song together, the writers all have an equal split: 50% each in a two-way; 33 1/3% each in a three-way, etc.

However, when one writer is of much greater stature it is a good idea to clarify the situation from the start. You may end up with only 40% of a two-way until you have proven yourself. Considering what you stand to gain, that is a real bargain for you!

Another scenario might be that a co-writer brings a nearly finished song to the table and just needs some melody help or a little lyrical doctoring. This is another time for dialogue.

All of this being said, a variation from the usual even split has never happened to me. I have never been asked to accept less nor have I ever requested anything but an equal share. Still, it is better to know upfront.


Getting To Know You

Grabbing a cup of coffee at a local cafe is a common practice preceding the session.

Writing with a co-writer for the first time is always a unique experience, especially if you don't know the individual at all. It is advisable to agree on whether to attempt a cold start or to both bring ideas.

Grabbing a cup of coffee at a local cafe is a common practice preceding the session. This gives the writers a chance to get to know each other a bit in a less intimidating environment.

If either writer is signed, the co-writers might then proceed to one of the writing rooms of his publishing company. This is kind of like home field advantage in football! Expect to bat ideas around for quite awhile before really digging in.

An essential ingredient in a successful co-writing session is the freedom to be vulnerable. Being able to voice good ideas along with bad ones is part of the process. I have often found myself tossing out, "not this, but the gist of this." I want my co-writer to know the direction I have in mind even though I don't yet have the words!

To voice a strong negative statement about a co-writer's idea or line really puts a damper on the experience. "That's lousy!" will guarantee a very poor climate for creativity! Choose your words carefully and kindly. When you need to decline, simply indicate that you want to keep looking. If you don't respect the person you are writing with, the joke is on you!

While you are still establishing a relationship, don't feel the need to nail down every word, chord, and note in the song. Getting a good first draft down nurtures confidence and you can go back later to make the tweaks.

Another thing to avoid is being overly pushy. Maybe you just love a line or a groove that you came up with but your partner lacks the same enthusiasm. Give it your best shot and then move on.

If you have no intention of making changes, then why are you co-writing? On the other hand, if a certain co-writer continually dislikes what you do or vice versa, there is probably no point in continuing past one session.

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When a song is completed, take the time to discuss some questions about the song's future with your co-writer. Agree on a demo budget.

Will the recording be an elaborate one in your publisher's studio? Will your co-writer do a simple guitar vocal at home? What style are you looking for? Who will the publishing rights belong to? Will the singer be one of the writers? Will it be a male or female vocal? What are some good pitch ideas for the song and who can get the song to whom?

I have written with singer/songwriters who just assume they will perform the vocal. This can be very touchy when you do not care for their voice or feel it is not right for the song. Communication nourishes enthusiasm and creates strong co-writer bonds.


Failures

Now and then, a co-writing pairing simply doesn't work. It might be because both writers have the same strengths and weaknesses or any number of other reasons. You may simply dislike the other person or their writing style. There may be no spark whatsoever. If, after several hours, you are getting absolutely nowhere, call it a day. It can't work all the time!

I recall hearing about two hugely successful writers who decided to give it a try. Writer A desperately wanted to write a Writer B style song and Writer B was intent on adding a Writer A style song to his catalog. Needless to say, the session was an uncomfortable disaster but both fellows eventually could laugh about it.


Pairings

An urban New York City writer will bring very different influences in his briefcase than a Kansas farm boy.

Like wine and cheese, the pairing of two creative individuals can have infinite results.

A male writer who always writes with males will write a very different song from a fresh perspective when he sits down with a woman. Piano players write very differently than guitar players.

An urban New York City writer will bring very different influences in his briefcase than a Kansas farm boy.

A very successful friend of mine got the opportunity to write with a very deep-voiced star. Everything they wrote together was written around the singer's ability to dig way down deep vocally. The same melodies would never have developed with a tenor.

Embracing differences and using them to the song's advantage breathes new life into every songwriting session.

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I have co-written over a thousand songs in my life and have enjoyed the process about 90% of the time. To me the most rewarding aspect is that's it's rather like parenting a child.

With this other person or persons, you have created an entity that no other pairing could create. There is a shared enthusiasm when it goes well that is both exciting and exhilarating.

Even if the song fails to see the commercial light of day, it still exists to you and your co-writers, and at least for a while had wings!

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