A Survival Guide to Cowriting Songs
Judy Stakee, Owner, The Judy Stakee Company • August 31, 2015
Judy Stakee has decades of experience helping the world's finest music creators find their true creative voices. In her new book The Songwriter's Survival Guide, Judy offers her philosophy and wisdom on the craft and business of writing songs. She graciously allowed us to share this chapter from her book.
COWRITING: Playing Well with Others
Politeness is the poison of collaboration.
— Edwin Land
Cowriting is when two or more songwriters collaborate to create a song.
I can hear melodies in my head and love writing lyrics, but it’s been a few years since I’ve played piano, so I like to collaborate with musicians to bring songs to life. I am always in awe of the writers who can do it all by themselves. If you do need someone to help you out, however, then I suggest finding a cowriter.
In my years of experience in the music industry, I have come across many writers who would benefit from collaborating, but who strongly resisted it. Fear, pride, selfishness and distrust are all obstacles that stand in the way of a writer being willing to cowrite.
However, I strongly believe that collaboration can be crucial to your career. Think of it as an investment strategy that will help propel you towards accomplishing your dreams. Cowriting helps shed light on exactly where you are in the development of your craft.
Everything we are about in this life is in relation to someone or something else. For example, I am small compared to a building and huge compared to a flower; where you are weak, someone else is strong. If you are talented at writing lyrics and melodies, you can benefit from a partner who is an excellent producer or multi-instrumentalist with a working knowledge of music theory and chord structures. You both win and help each other at the same time.
Building relationships (whether it’s through cowriting a song or otherwise) directly builds your network. As a songwriter, you want to have a network of people in place who know who you are (your character) and what you do (your skills). This network of people can open up opportunities you never would have come across otherwise. For instance, your cowriter may know someone whose friend or relative is a record executive at a big music label. You never know what possibilities are waiting for you!
One of my favorite quotes is this African proverb: "It takes a village to raise a child." I don’t know anyone who can achieve greatness all on their own. We all need others to help guide, educate, and inspire us. Here’s some advice for your next cowriting project:
You are always faced with a choice when you find yourself in the room with another writer; you can guide, follow, or meet head on. How you navigate depends on your wants, needs and desires. Do you feel like leading the songwriting? Or would you rather sit back and see what transpires? What happens if both you and your cowriter want to lead today?
Being aware of how you work best, how much you are willing to bend, and how much you want to be challenged is your ticket to a cowrite you feel confident about and can learn and grow from.
Part of my purpose in writing this book is to help you know yourself better and become more conscious of your genuine potential.
Play well with others.
The better you are with relationships, the easier the cowrite will be. Are you agreeable or difficult? Are you flexible or unchangeable?
Remember that you are part of a team the moment you involve someone else in the songwriting process. Team-building results in self-development, positive communication, leadership skills, and the ability to work closely together to solve problems.
One evening, while I was guiding cowrites in my weekly workshop, I noticed one participant was badgering her cowriter rather than clearly expressing what she wanted. Not surprisingly, her partner got defensive and shut down communication. He was reacting negatively to her tone of voice and behavior. If she had simply expressed herself more clearly and directly, her cowriter would have most likely been more open to her suggestions. She did not realize that she needed to ask him to come to the workshop prepared with musical ideas so that she could focus on the lyrics, and the cowrite was suffering as a result of this.
The way we use our words and how we communicate can make or break a cowriting relationship — and ultimately the end product.
When you cowrite, you agree to create a product together, which can result in a music placement of some type (cover, cut, license, etc.) that has the potential to pay royalties. Before you leave the room, it is important that you and your cowriter have an agreement in place about song splits (who owns what percentage of the song). At the end of this section, you will find a form to assist you in this process.
Pay attention to the chemistry.
Cowriting songs is like co-owning a startup company. You are partnering with another individual to create a product that combines both of your perspectives and experiences. The right combination creates magic.
Pick cowriters who complement your skill set, are pleasant to be around, have good character and have synergy with you. Good chemistry is so important.
True story: I heard Keith Urban for the first time when he performed at the Academy of Country Music Awards show in 2001. His voice was rich, his songwriting was clever, and when he played that guitar of his— well, there were just no words.
I had just signed songwriter John Shanks, who was coming off producing the Michelle Branch album The Spirit Room, and was guiding him to integrate more country into his repertoire. From the get go, I knew that John and Keith would be great together. They were both talented guitarists who would inevitably bond over their shared respect for their instruments.
I called Keith’s manager to pitch John as a possible cowrite and before I knew it, they had spent their first day together. Keith walked in with an opening riff, and the rest is history.
Their hit song “Somebody Like You” spent six weeks at the top of the Billboard charts. In December 2009, Billboard named it the number one country song of the first decade of the 21st century. It was John’s first and Keith’s second number one hit. Now, that was a successful cowrite.
Judy’s Must-Read: Victor Wooten’s book The Music Lesson is an absolute must read.
Use a cowriter initiation form.
Each time you finish a writing session, fill out this form with your partner in the room. That way, you can establish right then and there on paper who wrote what and what the splits will be. Nothing is worse than putting this process off and having trouble remembering the details later on. I have included a template here that you can copy. I recommend keeping a dozen forms printed out to have at your fingertips. It shouldn't be awkward to talk about splits—it’s just good business!
This form will come in handy when you start cowriting.
ABOUT JUDY STAKEE
Judy believes in the new age of music. You, as a songwriter and artist, can carve out your own path to success. Your perspective is something to be celebrated. With over 30 years of experience as an executive in the music industry, Judy equips her students with the insight and tools to fully develop their careers. As Senior VP of Creative at Warner/Chappell Music for 20 years, she signed and worked closely with many of today's most acclaimed artists: Grammy-award winner Sheryl Crow, Katy Perry, Michelle Branch, Gavin DeGraw, Jewel and Joy Williams of The Civil Wars, among others. Judy's experience with developing producers and multi-platinum songwriters (John Shanks, Wayne Kirkpatrick, Scott Cutler, Anne Previn, Kevin Kadish, Franne Golde, Jamie Houston, Matthew Gerrard, Robbie Nevil, Tim James and Ben Glover) spans all areas of the industry. She is a true champion of the songwriter who recognizes talent with both ears and eyes.
Get Judy's book The Songwriter's Survival Guide now: bit.ly/buyjudysbook