Setting Ground Rules
Despite its many advantages, co-writing carries some baggage that solo writing doesn't. You and your co-writer will need to come to an agreement on certain points or at least agree to disagree. Here's a partial list of issues you may need to discuss.
Will the co-written work be a fifty-fifty split in terms of copyright and royalties, no matter who writes what? Or will the split be based on total contribution?
Who decides when the song is ready to be recorded or performed?
Must both writers agree on arrangements and matters of performance?
How will demo costs be split, where will the demo be made, and what is the budget for recording?
Who will produce the demo or have a say in the production?
What happens if one of you isn't happy with the song?
What if one of you brings a partially completed song to the table and ends up wanting it back?
What if one of you wants to bring in a third co-writer?
How will disagreements over lyrical or melodic content be resolved?
Who will bring the potato salad?
The answers to these questions might seem obvious, but it's unwise to assume anything that's not spelled out in advance. You might get together with your potential co-writer a few days before your session to discuss some of these points.
It might be a good idea to discuss the planned length of your session beforehand. Most co-write sessions last three to four hours, but you may wish to go longer if you feel you're on to something. You might also want to leave a little extra time between sessions in case this happens.
Some songwriters, especially in New York and LA, prefer to clear up any questions or doubts in advance by using a written co-writing agreement. If you decide to use a co-writing agreement, make sure that you have one that has been drawn up by an entertainment attorney. Otherwise, it may prove to be worthless.
Some songwriters, especially in Nashville, may be insulted if you ask them to sign a co-writing agreement. These people believe, perhaps not wrongly, that you shouldn't write with someone you don't trust. Many of them also believe in an unwritten code of co-writing etiquette that sometimes contradicts what the law has to say about co-writing. Whether you prefer an ironclad contract or a handshake, make sure you get at least one of the two.The Unwritten Rules
Though some songwriters, and most lawyers, may believe differently, there are rules of etiquette ascribed to by most professionals. If you bring an idea or partial song to the table, it's still yours unless you use something your co-writer came up with. Unless otherwise stated, all co-writes are shared fifty-fifty. The song is done when you both agree it's done and not a minute sooner. Unless otherwise agreed upon, demo costs are to be shared equally, and so are decisions regarding recording.
No other writers will be brought in on the song unless both writers agree. As long as no substantial changes to the lyric or melody have been made, each writer is free to perform and record the song as he or she sees fit. Small disagreements over content should be handled either by compromise or by agreeing to disagree. Larger disagreements should be handled before pitching the song. If the two writers cannot come to an agreement or agree to pitch two different versions, the song goes on the shelf and stays there. If only one co-writer has a deal and his publisher is fronting the demo money, that writer or his publisher will make all decisions regarding the demo.
There's more, but you'll learn it as you go. If you want to know about a particular subject, ask your co-writer how he or she feels about it. Mostly, the unwritten rules are about mutual respect and treating your co-writers the way you'd like to be treated.
Don't assume that all songwriters are aware of the laws or the unwritten rules and etiquette procedures that govern co-writing. Always make sure you and your co-writer understand and agree to all the terms, written or unwritten, to which your songs will be subject. If you have the smallest doubt, ask.