Collaboration can be key in songwriting at all stages of a creator’s career - whether you’re getting your creative juices flowing by jamming with a friend in your basement when you’ve just started making music, or you’re hand-picked by an A-List pop star to join a writing camp for their new album - collaborative songwriting can be an incredibly productive way to create music.
But when you collaborate, you must have conversations - sometimes tricky ones - about how you share the songwriting credit for the songs you write together. These conversations, though they can be uncomfortable, are crucial to ensure everyone is fairly compensated for their contributions.
Who is a co-writer?
A co-writer is an individual (whether a producer, band member, vocalist, instrumentalist, or songwriter) who contributes to the process of writing a song. Different contributors will participate in one or the other - or both - the recording and composition (songwriting/publishing) for a given song, but here we are going to focus on just the composition.
What are split sheets?
A split sheet is a shared document that states the ownership that each songwriter has in a copyrighted work. This ownership is determined by an agreement between the writers, often based on how much each writer contributed to the overall songwriting. For example, the person who writes the lyrics for the entire song will likely receive a larger share than someone who contributed part of a bridge.
The split sheet, outlining the exact percentage owned by each songwriter, is agreed to and signed by all parties, and it should be created for every song before it is used commercially in any way - whether that’s a release through a distribution platform or a third-party license. We always like to say, get the split sheet signed before you leave the studio to avoid headaches later on.
The splits for every song must add up to 100 percent in order for the writers’ publishers to administer their shares. A split sheet can serve as written evidence of copyright ownership should a co-writer face any conflicting claims later on. As long as all parties sign the document, it is considered a legally binding agreement.
Real World Co-Writing Examples
Each co-writing experience is different - and naturally some will be better than others. We reached out to a few Ghanaian music writers and asked them to share their co-songwriting experiences, and whether they use split sheets. Here’s what we found:
Have your co-writing experiences been more positive or negative?
Singer, songwriter, and vocal coach Quayba has had positive and “a few bad experiences.”
How were you introduced to split sheets? Do you use these in co-writing sessions?
Boss was introduced to split sheets in 2017 by Ghanaian producers Kuvie and Kofi ‘iambeatmenace’ Boachie-Ansah. Boss did not use split sheets in some early co-writing sessions, though, because a lot of “collaborations happened through friendly familiarity, and as such the line between friend and colleague was sometimes blurred.” The norm was “there was no importance (for some) placed on making sure that all artists were credited/compensated.” Boss adds: “Now I ask that terms are set even prior to the sessions beginning because it allows for clear understanding for all artists/producers involved.”
Boachie-Ansah was introduced to split sheets “fairly early – some 15 years ago or more,” when he chanced upon the concept during his reading about songwriting and the music business. He brings up the “conversation of ownership and or part-ownership” whenever he makes contributions to creating intellectual property of any kind, to protect his rights.
Quayba learned about ownership shares and using split sheets through her own research. She’s found that split sheets and clear ownership share agreements are still not always the norm. For some projects, she and her co-writers “kind of had an understanding on percentages per the amount of content each one contributed,” rather than a more formalized agreement.
During co-writing sessions that didn’t include using a split sheet, how were ownership shares discussed?
In one case, Boss and the other writers agreed on a feature fee for her work, and also to her being named as a featured artist on the songs, music video, and digital stores, rather than a traditional songwriting share split. In this case, she will be sharing in the master recording revenue rather than the publishing.
Boachie-Ansah hardly expects to find himself in such a situation because he always brings up ownership shares and educates his collaborators, even giving music business books as gifts, for those who don't know about split sheets. Even if there is a verbal agreement about splits, parties eventually sign papers agreeing on splits before release of composition.
Quayba and her co-songwriters all make contributions in good faith, although [she] is yet to receive any earnings for her work in these sessions. This is caused by what she calls “a bad sharing culture especially when the song becomes a hit and people want to get all the praise for it. Hence we have a lot of songwriting disputes. Also, people tend to not understand the process in general.”
How do discussions about collaboration and ownership shares, in the Ghanaian music space, generally go? Is this discussed often, and, if not, why?
Based on Boss’s experiences, creators usually do not discuss ownership shares because “a lot of collaborations happen through friendly familiarity, and for the promise of exposure.” It is “slowly changing” because creators not only understand that they need to be compensated for their roles in creating songs, but, with the increasing growth of the professional music industry in Ghana, more money is on the table making these conversations more necessary.
Boachie-Ansah discusses ownership all the time, even if it is an uncomfortable subject to many. He has “walked away from countless projects that failed to address this issue from the start.”
Discussions about ownership shares do not happen often, says Quayba. “The tension created by the discussion of ownership shares may affect the creative flow,” explains Quayba. “Furthermore, creators are possessive and protective of their work - as a result there is reluctance to share credits. In addition, co-writing is still a fairly new concept” to many creators.
Learn From Others
One common theme from these Ghanaian writers’ experiences is that discussing ownership shares during or after a collaboration can be difficult, and therefore be overlooked.
But it must be done. Discussing ownership early helps to avoid uncomfortable or difficult situations, such as conflicting PRO registrations, with your co-writers later on. Once you’re comfortable doing so, it’s important to set an example by speaking up about ownership shares, using split sheets, and sharing personal experiences with others. Set your own standards for working with others and encourage those you work with to do the same.
If you have questions about split sheets or ownership, music publishing, or Songtrust, check out our Help Center, sign up for one of our Music Publishing 101 sessions, or reach out to our team directly.