Inside the Dirty Business of Hit Songwriting

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Sixty-four years ago, as Elvis Presley’s career reached its supernova stage, the 21-year-old singer’s team hit on a strategy that enabled him to profit from songwriting without actually writing songs. His management and music publisher had added Presley’s name to the credits on a couple of his early hits, but the singer wasn’t comfortable with the practice and frequently told interviewers that he had “never written a song in my life.” Instead, as recounted in Peter Guralnick’s authoritative biography “Last Train to Memphis,” his team set up an arrangement whereby the King skipped the credit but received one-third of the songwriting royalties for each song he released, no matter who wrote it. (This arrangement was confirmed to Variety by an industry source familiar with the catalog.)

According to Dolly Parton, the policy not only was still in practice nearly two decades later, but the King’s ransom had gotten even bigger. Presley was going to record Parton’s 1974 hit “I Will Always Love You,” which is now one of the top-selling and most-performed songs of all time, largely thanks to Whitney Houston’s epochal 1992 cover.

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“I was so excited, Elvis wanted to meet me and all that,” she recalled in a September 2020 interview on the “Living & Learning With Reba McEntire” podcast. “And the night before the session, Colonel Tom [Parker, Presley’s longtime manager] called me and said, ‘You know, we don’t record anything with Elvis unless we have at least half the publishing.’ I said, ‘I can’t do that.’ And he said, ‘Well, then we can’t do it.’ And I cried all night, ‘cause I’d just pictured Elvis singing it. I know it wasn’t [his decision], but it’s true. I said ‘no.’”

True to his manager’s word, Presley did not cut the song. (Reps for the Presley estate did not immediately respond to Variety’s requests for comment.)

Presley and his team were hardly the first or the only ones to capitalize on such an arrangement; to paraphrase former President Richard Nixon, they played by the rules of the business as they found them. Ghost credits and royalties probably date back to the dawn of copyright if not the dawn of creativity. As depicted in the recent film “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” for decades they have been particularly rife in the music business, where the often-collaborative nature of songwriting makes it difficult to prove, let alone quantify in percentages, who contributed what.

According to a recently formed group of songwriters and producers calling themselves the Pact, the practice, long an open secret in the industry, is as bad if not worse than ever today — and unlike Elvis, the artists are going after credit as well.

As songwriters have seen their leverage eroded by streaming — which pays a larger royalty for recorded music than publishing — artists, managers, producers and even executives have amped up their demands for credit and/or a percentage of the songwriters’ publishing in exchange for the artist cutting the song, or even simply for bringing the song to the artist. And as the value of song catalogs has risen in recent years, with Bob Dylan selling his to Universal Music Publishing for more than $300 million and Stevie Nicks selling hers to Primary Wave for $100 million, sources say, more people are playing hardball.

Multiple industry sources tell Variety that the practice involves some of the biggest stars in music and their teams; one major manager has even called the practice a “tax” for his artist recording a song. Pact co-founder Emily Warren (who has written hits for Dua Lipa and the Chainsmokers) and her manager, Zach Gurka, tell Variety that a standard ask ranges from 1% to as high as 20%, with an average of 15%; other sources speak of requests for 30% or even 50%. Songwriters often go along, on the premise that a smaller percentage of a hit song by a major artist is better than a large percentage of the same song when it isn’t a hit — and by that same logic, the writer’s publisher or manager may advise them that the tradeoff is better for their career than saying no. (The same situation can also lead to non-songwriting artists getting lucrative publishing deals.)

In an open letter published by the Pact last week — and since signed by more than 1,000 people, including major songwriters like Justin Tranter, Ross Golan, Tayla Parx, Savan Kotecha, Joel Little, Amy Allen, Scott Harris, Ian Kirkpatrick, Sam Harris, Victoria Monét and more — the signatories pledged that they “will not give publishing or songwriting credit to anyone who did not create or change the lyric or melody or otherwise contribute to the composition without a reasonably equivalent/meaningful exchange for all the writers on the song.” The Chainsmokers, Parx and Little have all written social media posts supporting the Pact.

Although the initial signatories did not name names of offending artists, the list includes cowriters of songs by such Grammy-level performers as Justin Bieber, Dua Lipa, Selena Gomez, Ariana Grande, the Jonas Brothers, Britney Spears, Shawn Mendes and many others.

“There isn’t a songwriter who has released 10 cuts who hasn’t encountered this situation,” Ross Golan, who has written hits for Bieber, Maroon 5, Grande and more, tells Variety.

“The money grab is worse than ever, it’s gotten out of control,” says another top songwriter. “It’s a total abuse of power — and basically extortion.”

Adds a third, whose career reaches back to the 1960s: “I’m not surprised that it’s still happening — but I am surprised it’s happening to this extent.”

Even top hitmaker Justin Tranter, cowriter of hits for Gomez, Bieber, Spears, DNCE and more, isn’t immune from the demands, telling Variety: “The business is definitely still broken and songwriters are definitely the least respected people in our industry, no matter how big of a songwriter you become.”

In an Instagram post supporting the Pact, X-Ambassadors frontman Sam Harris said: “I have had to give up portions of my publishing on songs that I’ve written for other artists and haven’t gotten fairly compensated — and I’ve also been in situations where I’ve asked for publishing on songs that I didn’t write. That’s not fair.

“So for me, this is kind of a wake-up call for our industry, and for myself too,” he continues, “to say we really need to set some ground rules and make things more equitable for everyone involved.”

* * *

Up until the 1960s, singing and songwriting were generally considered separate skills. But as Bob Dylan, the Beatles and many others revolutionized that dynamic, the industry eventually followed — to the extent that most pop singers are not considered “serious” artists today if they don’t write their own songs (that perspective does not necessarily apply in country music, but more on that shortly). Along with that shift, the non-artist songwriter’s industry clout has waned: They usually don’t have the starpower or multiple revenue streams that artists have, let alone the muscle and leverage of managers and top executives. Songwriters don’t really have a union or even a large trade organization to represent them; during the negotiations for the Music Modernization Act, which was signed into law in 2018, they were represented by the Songwriters of North America and the Nashville Songwriters Association International, which are much smaller than the National Music Publishers Association and the performing-rights organizations that were also involved in the talks.

“Too often, songwriters don’t value their own art,” Warren tells Variety. “When we first started the Pact, we explored the possibility of becoming a union, but that was just too complicated, so hopefully this fills that void to a degree. The idea is to protect each other, but it’s really hard — there’s no leverage and not many options, so there’s a real lack of confidence.”

Coupled with that challenge is the sheer difficulty of proving who actually wrote a song, an art form that defies hard and fast definitions. That conundrum is exemplified by the protracted — and extremely expensive — recent legal battles around two songs in particular, Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” (which has been contested for years by the estate of former Spirit guitarist Randy California) and Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse” (which is centered around four simple notes that also appear in an earlier song by Flame titled “Joyful Noise”). While those are essentially plagiarism lawsuits, along with the 2015 decision that found Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams’ “Blurred Lines” had co-opted the “feel” of Marvin Gaye’s hit “Got to Give It Up,” they all show just how blurred the lines can become when trying to prove authorship. With millions of dollars at stake, the decisions in those lawsuits have swung from one side to the other like a metronome, appeal after appeal, in a Dickensian back-and-forth that probably will only end when one side loses its will or its funding.

The above lawsuits involve comparing one song to another; things can be even more complicated when trying to prove exactly who wrote one song, particularly whether a person’s contribution is worthy of a credit and a certain share. Apparently, no credits are ever truly final: Many songs in recent years have seen writers quietly added as sample claims or infringement allegations are settled out of court; and more than 40 years after the song’s release, Procol Harum organist Matthew Fisher won a credit and royalties for the 1967 classic “Whiter Shade of Pale,” one of the most iconic and lucrative pieces of music of the modern era, although the case bounced back and forth in British courts for four years.

But unlike those cases, the jockeying for credit that the Pact is disputing takes place before a song’s recording or release — and sources say many stars and their teams do not hesitate to use their leverage. “A lot of the time, even if the artist was just in the room, [their representative] will say that their ‘energy’ contributed to it and deserves a credit,” one veteran songwriter says. “It’s like just breathing the same air as them is enough.”

However, Warren and others stress that most of the artists in question do write songs, or at least have a hand in the process — but it’s when they’re angling for credit on songs to which they didn’t contribute, or made just minor tweaks, that bad feelings occur: A longstanding music-biz catchphrase goes, “Change a word, take a third [of the credit].”

While such moves seem unreasonably greedy, a key component of a modern pop artist’s longevity is their ability also to be seen as an artiste, writing and producing their own songs. (While multiple industry insiders tell Variety the practice is particularly rife in the hip-hop and pop worlds, they also say it is much less common in Nashville, partially because songwriters in country music traditionally are more respected and have more industry clout, and also because there’s less of a stigma attached to a singer being an interpreter rather than a songwriters as well.)

“I don’t quite understand the need for it, but I guess I get it,” Warren says. “But from the songwriter’s side, it’s more about the principle. If the credit is so important, the artist should do the business for it: How about taking 1%, or even no percent, instead of 15 or 20?”

But no matter what their public persona might be, in reality most major superstars and/or their teams are stone-cold killers when it comes to business. So when the ask comes in, it can range from a carrot to a stick and everything in between.

“Along with the threat of ‘Oh, we’ll just find another song if you won’t give us x percent,’” Warren says, “there’s been some pretty intense bullying about my lack of worth to a project — and how I should feel lucky [to be involved], and how it makes perfect sense that this artist should get this much publishing based on who they are. And then they threaten that they’re never going to work with me again.”

Gurka, who manages Warren and several other songwriters, chimes in, “This isn’t just Emily, this is happening across my roster. And something that highlights how normalized it’s become is actually the opposite of what she just described: I often hear, ‘Your client is so amazing, they’re one of our favorite writers and we know the value that they bring, but now our artist has to promote the song for a year so we need 15% or we’re gonna have to find another song,’” he sighs. “I can’t tell if that’s better or worse.”

One veteran songwriter who has worked with several major artists now sees through the velvet-glove approach. “Stars are very charismatic, and they know how to use it to get what they want,” the songwriter says. “You don’t want to believe they’re ripping you off, and even when it’s obvious that they are, it’s easy to blame it on the manager or the A&R — after all, being the bad guy is part of their job.”

Another songwriter adds, “A lot of the time, you’re not supposed to talk about this stuff with the artist. If you do, you’re being ‘negative’ and might not get invited back. The manager will say, ‘Oh, the artist wants you to do them this favor.’”

Another adds, “I’ve had situations where writing the song was a great experience — and then I’ve been treated just horribly. Even if you get the credit on a hit, the surrounding bullshit and disrespect is what hurts.”

That songwriter also spoke of not receiving featured billing on a hit that they cowrote and sang on, because of what the artist described as “the look” — although it was unclear whether the songwriter didn’t suit the artist’s profile, or whether the artist was trying to appear to have the lion’s share of the creativity. The songwriter stressed that they were satisfactorily compensated financially in this situation, although not in terms of credit.

“Stars have a different chemistry, they live in a different reality from everyone else,” the songwriter says. “A lot of them get addicted to power and money and credit, and they want it all. It’s like an addiction, or a disease.”

* * *

However, even some of the most experienced people Variety spoke with question the degree to which the artists are involved or even aware of the practice — “Nah, [this or that artist] would never do that,” more than one of them said — and it’s not hard to imagine less-experienced or less business-savvy artists glossing over such details during a long meeting. Tiffany Red, who has written hits for Jennifer Hudson, Fantasia, Jason Derulo and Zendaya, says, “You can picture a manager pointing to a line on a statement and saying to some 20-year-old singer, ‘That’s the publishing percentage you get on the song,’ and if there are any questions: ‘That’s the way it works.’

“I think the artists are either super-greedy or super-green,” she continues. “And a lot of people starting out don’t know any better, and are scared to say no.”

Another songwriter adds, “I’m sure a lot of artists aren’t aware of the ways they’re being leveraged and bartered.”

But on the flip side, some songwriters feel that even less-traditional methods of collaboration deserve credit: Autumn Rowe, who has worked with Lipa, Jesse McCartney, Lindsey Stirling and many young singers, says she usually is happy to share with artists who were in the room at the time of the song’s creation. “The type of writing I do is quite personal to an artist, and often their stories inspire me,” she says. “I’ve written with a lot of teenagers and it’s their first session, so they’re not confident writers yet. They give me their vulnerability, and there’s no way I would have written those songs without them. If it’s a 16-year-old telling me about being bullied and I put that into the song, I would feel weird if that type of openness didn’t get something in return.”

At the same time, she’s very upfront about the steep financial challenges songwriters face. “The industry just doesn’t understand how hard it is to be just a writer,” Rowe says, noting that there’s usually no salary and many expenses aren’t covered. “You often have to pay for your own travel, and a lot of the time you end up working for free,” she adds; multiple writers cited weeks-long writing sessions that only produced a couple of songs that ended up being recorded — or none.

Warren and nearly all of the writers who spoke with Variety stressed that they’re not opposed to cutting deals — “but this straight-up stealing, taking publishing without giving anything in return, has got to stop,” she says. “It’s important to say that we all recognize how important the artists and managers and labels and everyone is to our careers and our lives — we’re not interested in slamming artists, we’re just tired of not getting that same recognition and respect in return.”

One solution suggested by a songwriter manager is for labels to refuse to release a song until the songwriting splits are confirmed — a practice that is currently in place for production credits. An artist manager proposed a regulatory protocol mandating a 5% publishing share for artists on songs by outside writers that they record, although that suggestion that was met by some songwriters with a wry, “Sounds great — does that mean they won’t ask for 20% anymore?”

The Pact has a steep battle ahead of it: Not only are they railing against a lucrative and long-established industry practice, since their stance effectively pits one set of writers against another, top songwriting and publishing organizations have shied away from officially endorsing it; only the comparatively grass-roots Songwriters of North America has made a statement in its support.

“Everybody knows about this: managers, labels, publishers, lawyers, everybody,” one top writer says. “I’m not naming artists’ names unless I can throw their teams under the bus, too.”

Another is less diplomatic, calling for artists to “give back the publishing they took.” The writer says, “If people start naming names, an awful lot of artists will have a lot of answering to do.”

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