Over the years, I’ve produced and arranged numerous recordings for songwriters with various levels of music training. Sometimes I am presented with songs that are very complete with lyrics, melody and chords. I am initially given a lyric sheet that may have chord symbols over the words, and maybe a demo recording so I can learn the melody, or the melody will be sung to me in person or over the phone. Whenever I start an arrangement, I always write out the melody and chords using music notation as a first step. I like having a sheet I can refer to. Notated music is my language.
But sometimes I am presented with songs that are not as complete. The songwriter may have minimal or no “academic” music background and therefore, does not know how to harmonize their melody by adding chords to it. They sing their melody to me in person or over the phone and tell me what the lyrics are or send them to me. In this scenario, it is up to me to “create” the chords. It is usually obvious to me what the chords should be after hearing the melody, but sometimes, if it is not so obvious, I’ll present a few choices to the songwriter. In either case, I never consider myself a co-writer by simply adding chords to existing words and melody. I’m just the arranger.
There have been times though, when a songwriter has added words and melody to a music arrangement or chord progression that I created first. I have a lot of unfinished ideas in my music “pile” that I look through from time to time when someone wants to collaborate with me. In this case, I am considered a co-writer because the new melody was created using the music that I started. In a scenario like this, I usually have a lot to say about the new melody and help to refine it. At this point, there is no question that I am a co-writer as I am actively involved with crafting the melody in addition to the chords. I may have something to say about the lyrics too, but I am more of a composer than a lyricist.
With some of my arrangements, I have practically rewritten entire songs to make them into what the songwriter really intended. Even if I am offered writing credit for this I do not accept it. As explained above, if I did not write the words or melody, I am not the songwriter, just the arranger.
There have also been times when I have composed original sections of music as long introductions to a song or significant interludes and did not take writing credit. In this type of situation, if a new melody was introduced by me, I could technically be considered a co-writer. But in most cases, I don’t make a big deal out of it and I’m happy to contribute whatever I can in the arrangement to make the song the best it can be.
When producing CDs involving previously recorded music (cover songs), if I am put in charge of “copyright clearance,” I always try to find the copyright owners in order to pay them their mechanical license royalties, no matter how small. The first place I look is on the Harry Fox website. Limelight is a newer site that makes things very easy as well. But sometimes, if songs have been previously recorded but not published, it is unlikely that they will appear on either site. In this case I will do research on the internet, make phone calls and do whatever I can in order to track down the copyright owner! Sometimes this requires significant detective work. Once I find them, I send them their royalty check along with the appropriate legal document: Notice of Intention to Obtain Compulsory License for Making and Distributing Sound Recordings.
People generally appreciate it when you track them down in order to give them money! One time after I paid an unpublished songwriter, a few months went by and he did not cash his royalty check. When I called him to find out why, he said he wanted to keep the check so he could show it to other producers he knew to teach them how things are supposed to be done!
Awhile ago, I produced a CD every year for a school where the students would include an alma mater song. They would sing about their school, sung to the tune of a very popular song. Changing lyrics for a recording requires the permission of a publisher and so I always wrote a letter requesting permission. Here’s an informative site: Copyright: Changing Lyrics
In my role as the producer of a music recording, I always do my best to respect another’s copyright.