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Key Signature "Songwriting Misconceptions"


The following is a reprinting of an article written by Al Kooper, published in EQ magazine. I wholeheartedly agree with this work as it pertains to common misconceptions regarding songwriting.

~Jim Ervin
Warrior Records

A Defining Of Terms
"Who writes the songs the whole world sings?"
By Al Kooper

I received a phone call today from a journalist who was using my quotes in a debate about songwriting. It seems that there are more than a few lawsuits emanating from the Hip-Hop community about who-did what. Some people feel that if they come up with a signature bass, guitar line, or drum loop, they are entitled to be songwriters. Bullshit. They are entitled to be musicians, producers, or arrangers.

A song is distilled down to a chord pattern with melody and lyrics riding above it. In the case of many Hip-Hop songs, there is no melody line. A Rap or Hip-Hop song can be distilled down to someone slammin' 4/4 and reciting original verbiage. That is the song itself. If your record or song is sampled by these people, you should be paid royalties. That is another issue entirely. Anything else that is added to that is an arrangement, musician, or production embellishment. Should Nelson Riddle be given songwriter credit on "Love and Marriage" because his arrangement on Sinatra's recording made it much more listenable than some songwriters huddled around a piano? Should George Martin's name be on The Beatles records of "Yesterday" or "Eleanor Rigby" because you can't think of those songs without recalling melodies from his string charts? No. It was their job to embellish the material and make it more listenable. That is what arrangers and producers do for a living and have pride about in their work. Should Mike Bloomfield or myself be given writers credits on "Like A Rolling Stone"? I think not. Did that record benefit from our contributions? Yes. Is the song itself any better a song because of it? No. Legal retaliation is beyond the scope of what most "wronged" people can afford today. That is an injustice in itself. Large corporate monsters can cheat you because you can't afford to do any thing about it. Legal counsel, like hotel rooms and airplane tickets, is ludicrously overpriced, generally speaking.

Let me give you an example: Recently, I was, in my opinion, libeled by MCA Records in new liner notes for a reissued catalog CD. I called them the week it was released after I bought it (God forbid they should send the producer a copy) and told them they were libeling me and had a lawyer's letter sent as well. They said they would pull the offending booklet out, rewrite it to tell the truth, and reservice the disc after they sold the initial run of 10,000. Guess what? A year later, and far beyond the sale of 10,000 units, that booklet remains for sale in the same re-pressed CD. It would cost tens of thousands of legal-help dollars to chase these wrongdoers, and the burden of proof would be on me to substantiate the libel, substantiate the career damage, etc. They win and I lose. They lied, continue to lie, and they are beyond my legal reach.

What's fair? I'll tell you what's fair. If Puff Daddy samples your record or composition, you should be paid royalties. If you play on or create a drum loop for that record, you should be paid as a musician for that session. If the drum loop, guitar part, or bass line you contribute makes that record a hit, you are not a songwriter. You're a damned good studio musician doing the job you were paid to do. If you're hired to write a string arrangement on a Jewel track, and you come up with soaring original counter melodies and take a 5 chord song and make it sound like Debussy, you are not a songwriter. You're a damn good arranger doing a great job and being compensated for it. If you're hired to produce the Rolling Stones and take them into the next millennium kicking and screaming their 55-year-old heads off, and you succeed and they have a number one album for the first time in 30 years, you are not a songwriter. You're a damn good producer doing what you are supposed to do and being compensated for it.

However, if you can lay claim to changing a song in its distilled form; i.e., if you change the melody or the lyric in a significant way, then you are, indeed, a songwriter. If you do that and remain uncredited the moment the record hits the charts, you must see legal counsel. Then it is your decision, based on your bank account and your lawyer's advice, to seek legal recourse. Don't do it after the album is named album of the year. You look greedy and like a band-wagon-jumper. Don't do it if the song never makes the charts (it's obviously not worth it then).

I have produced records where I have changed lyrics or melodies and not received credit. If I had asked for credit on that particular project, it would have upset the producer-artist chemistry and cost me the entire project. Some acts, like the late Ronnie Van Zant of Lynyrd Skynyrd, recognized when I was truly involved in the songwriting and rightfully put my name on a song. Other acts I produced, feeding at the bottom of the pond, had years to go before attaining the status of human being that Van Zant was born with. Some never have attained it to this day.

So, before you feel that you are wronged, define your terms carefully. Are you acting as a producer, arranger, musician, or really a songwriter? Amen.