August 15, 2009

The Power of Why

Music legend Les Paul passed away this week. Aside from transforming music through his inventions like the electric guitar, reverb, and multi-track recording, perhaps his most important contribution is a life that is a testament to the power of asking "why".

I recall an NPR interview with Les Paul when he was in his seventies. He said that his success at innovation and his triumphs over the medical adversity in his life came largely from an inner drive to always ask 'why'. As a young child he pondered why it was that a piano-roll could be sped up or slowed down and not change pitch, while a record on a turntable did change pitch when the speed varied.

I identify strongly with this, as I have always made every effort to understand why a particular song has the effect that it does on the people that it touches, positively or negatively. I studied psychology and got a degree in Molecular Biology, and that scientific background has been invaluable in deconstructing and understanding the complex process of songwriting.

If there is one big change I see in the mindset of the many young artists I work with today, as opposed to 20-30 years ago, it is the lack of that spark of curiosity to dig into the "why" of things. Kids and young adults are as bright and intelligent as ever, but not necessarily as curious about the world around them (due in part to changes in emphasis in school curricula, coupled with an instant-gratification digital/virtual world). The emphasis has made a shift from 'why' to 'how'. Of course there are always exceptions, but I see it as a clear trend, across thousands of folks that I have worked with.

This has significant impact on the craft of songwriting, and on the quality of the songs that are created. I am constantly asked 'how' to market a song, 'how' to record a song, 'how' to structure a song, 'how' to make a lyric better – but rarely 'why' does a specific aspect of a song or an arrangement have a specific effect on a specific type of listener. And, ultimately, this is really what we as songwriters want to be able to consciously shape and mold into our creations. To know the ideal blend of melody, harmony, rhythm, words, meanings, and phonics that will affect our target audience in the way we intend.

It's simply easier to say "you can’t know that" or "I just go with my gut instinct" or "however it comes out of me is 'true' so I'll stick with it". All of that just avoids the extra time, effort, and skill it takes to take the initial output and work it into something even better.

This is the crafting process – distinctly different from the song generation/creation process. Creation is unconscious, spiritual, emotional, and very individual. The biggest trap that aspiring songwriters fall into is believing that when that burst of inspiration is spent, the song is "done". The successful, seasoned songwriter knows that the end of that wonderful, indescribable time of inspiration marks the beginning of the next phase in the life of a song, which is the crafting phase. This is the rational, analytical process where specific tools and techniques are applied to the raw output of the creative flow, to cut and polish the raw gem into a final product that touches people in a desired way.

Understanding the difference between creation and craft is a key to better songwriting. And in this digital age where you are competing fiercely for the awareness and attention of an audience, it is ultimately the quality of the songs that is going to lift you above the baseline of uncrafted clutter.

When I wrote "Songcrafters' Coloring Book", I devoted the entire first half to "Why" it's important to learn and apply all the techniques presented in the "How" part of the book. That's a discussion which had never been presented before in any depth in other books.

You may know that saying "a guy", "the guy" and "this/that guy" create three separate effects. But when you know why, you become the master of every instance of this in all your songs. You may know that "she KISSED me" means something totally different than "she kissed ME". But when you know why, you become the master of every instance of this in all your songs. You may know that "she's just one of a kind" and "he is even kinder" both have six syllables, but cannot possibly be put to the same melody with good effect. But when you know why, you become the master of every instance of this in all your songs. You may know that the line "His innocence, in essence, was an evanescent dream" causes some kind of brain-tingle, while "His lack of experience eventually just faded away" is flat and forgettable. But when you know why, you become the master of every instance of this in all your songs.

If you are a songwriter or musician or singer, don’t shortchange yourself by overlooking the benefits of asking why things work or don’t work, and find yourself a good mentor or coach who can explain it to you and make it relevant to your world and your goals.


©2009 Bill Pere. All Rights Reserved. Content may not be re-posted without permission. Quotes from this content with attribution are permitted. Use of this content in for educational purposes is permitted with proper attribution. Links to this content are encouraged.

August 14, 2009

Q&A : Collaboration Agreements

Actual questions I receive from people

across the U. S. and abroad.


I am an unsigned singer/songwriter, and am often contacted by artists requesting that I write and/or sing a hook on their song. I am often hesitant to do so because I am not sure how I should be compensated, or what rights I have once the song is recorded and put out there. Often times these artist will make it seem as though they are doing me a favor by allowing me to be on their track, as though that should be compensation in itself. I have already once had a situation where I wrote a hook for someone who asked that I "collaborate" with them, and since have never heard from this person. What are my rights in this type of situation? And how I do prevent from being taken advantage of?


Rest assured, you're not alone in wondering about this, as I get the same question from many folks all over the world. Collaboration in music is good thing, as it usually leads to a better result than when working alone, but it should only be done when you fully understand the business and legal implications, not just the creative benefits. If either party is not aware of the business aspects of collaborating, it is likely that unpleasant disputes can arise.

The first thing you have to clearly understand is the concept of Roles in the creation and production of a song, and the rights that go with each. The rights and expectations are different for writers, performers, producers, arrangers, and all the other roles. In addition to the Roles there is the format of the agreement between the parties – there is joint ownership collaboration, where income and expenses are shared according to some agreed arrangement, or there is work-for-hire, where one person pays another a set fee up front in exchange for ALL future rights, or there are spec deals (speculation) where you do something for free with expectation of seeing income later on.

I discuss this at length in "Songcrafters Coloring Book" and to read my online articles on this topic, go to my Songwriter Tools and look at the articles entitled "Role Call: You Are Bartholomew Cubbins", and also "Taking the Labor Out of Collaboration".

Once you understand the different roles in the life of a song, you'll have a better handle on what to realistically expect from different kinds of collaboration. Remember that there are no set rules for collaboration – it is whatever the parties agree to. The one golden rule of collaborating is to always get the agreement in writing BEFORE you actually do any work with or for someone else, and know what is reasonable to ask for and expect.

In your question, you describe two different situations: "artists requesting that I write and/or sing a hook on their song"

If you write any part of the song, you have a whole different arrangement than if you just sing on the song. If you do both, you have two different agreements for that same song. As a writer, assuming you are not paid up front as work-for-hire, you are a part owner of the copyright, and are entitled to a portion of the writer's share of the song (based on a percentage you both agree to). You also need to decide who will administer and control the copyright (i.e. act as the publisher). The publisher always gets 50% of all royalties, and the writer(s) split the other 50% . Thus if you are a co-writer with a 50/50 writers share, and the other person is the publisher, they get 75% and you get 25%. Ideally, you want to be co-writer AND co-publisher.

Whether you contribute one word or most of the song, the percentage split is whatever the parties agree to. Generally, business etiquette would be a 50/50 split, or if you collaborate only on lyrics but not on music (or vice-verse) then it's generally a 75/25 split of the writers share (50% of the income).

These are only guidelines, as you can negotiate any arrangement you want, but ALWAYS get it written down, signed and notarized UP FRONT!. It's up to you whether you want to ask for a fee up front as full payment and not have any claim on later earnings (work-for-hire) or whether you want to retain some percentage of ownership. The work-for-hire arrangement is clean and simple and is probably best when you don’t think there is much potential for the song down the road. If you want to retain part ownership, then you have to address the question of who pays for expenses of recording/promoting the song. If you have a share in the potential royalties, it is not unreasonable for you to pay a share of the expenses. However, also know that whoever pays MOST of the expenses is really the one who controls what happens once the song is written – the major stakeholder has the final say in how the song is produced, recorded, promoted etc – UNLESS you have a specific written agreement stating otherwise.

You want to avoid a situation where you are responsible for any portion of costs without having some way of controlling those costs, and the way they are being spent. Be careful about painting yourself into a corner with this type of arrangement. It may sound good initially but is a very bad situation to be in.

As a writer, you get royalties from 4 sources: (a) CD's/downloads sold (currently 9.1 cents per copy, split between writer/publisher as above) (b) live performance (only if monitored by ASCAP, BMI,SESAC, SoundExchange, and only if you are a registered member) (c) Licensing for movie/TV/Videogame/Ringtone placement (whatever deals you negotiate) (d) Sheet music (not as relevant today as many years ago).

All of the above has to do with collaboration as a writer. As an artist you have less leverage. Artists do not automatically share in royalties that the song generates. (There is legislation being considered to give artists some compensation from airplay, but as of right now, there is nothing). As an artist, you have to negotiate your own deal, based on whether you think it's best to be paid now and nothing later, or nothing now and a percentage later on, or something in between. I usually recommend that artists take some up-front amount and opt for less, if anything later on, unless the label has a good track record. You can try to negotiate an up front payment along with a specified, reduced percent on the back-end.

You wrote: Often times these artist will make it seem as though they are doing me a favor by allowing me to be on their track, as though that should be compensation in itself

This is essentially giving away your service for free. If you want to be compensated, negotiate terms up front and get it in writing. Anyone who does not want to do that with you is not someone you want to work with. Don't things based on the promise of "exposure". If you record for someone for free, it should be strictly because YOU want to and you're willing to donate your services. There should still be an agreement which governs what the person can do with the recording, and which stipulates what happens if the recording does generate income. As a recording artist, you generally have no legal say in how the song is used – that is controlled by the publisher.

You wrote: I have already once had a situation where I wrote a hook for someone who asked that I "collaborate" with them, and since have never heard from this person. What are my rights in this type of situation?

You are technically a co-owner of some portion of that song. If it generates any income, you are entitled to a share, BUT -- in the absence of any written agreement , and if the other person did not list you as a co-writer on the CD or on the copyright form, you may not have much recourse.

Bottom line of the whole thing:

-- Understand what you can reasonably ask for in a particular situation, and the different kinds of possible deal arrangements

-- Decide within yourself the value of your services

Make any deal you want


Besides the articles I mentioned above, get the book "Music Law: Managing Your Band's Business" by Rich Stim, Nolo Press. It will help you with a lot of this stuff. (See my Recommended Reading list)

Good luck to you in all your music pursuits.

For more, visit


©2009 Bill Pere. All Rights Reserved. Content may not be re-posted without permission. Quotes from this content with attribution are permitted. Use of this content in for educational purposes is permitted with proper attribution. Links to this content are encouraged.

May I Have Your Attention Please: Branding Your Song

In today's very crowded music marketplace, you are competing at any given time with thousands of artists and tens of thousands of songs – and you're competing for two specific things: Awareness, and Attention. Awareness is getting a listener to notice that you (or your song) exist, and Attention is sparking enough interest in that listener so that they willingly hold you in their awareness (and ideally, make others aware of you as well).

You cannot achieve Attention without first achieving Awareness. Thus, many artists spend considerable time and resource in "marketing and promotion", learning what they can and applying a variety of approaches to capture listener Awareness. However, they often overlook one fundamental piece of the whole picture – once you've achieved Awareness, what does it take to turn it into Attention?

The answer is simple and basic – quality. Great songs. The songs are like cars to GM, computers to Apple, food to McDonald's, or flavor to Coke. These companies have great brand awareness, but have faltered when there was a perception that their quality was compromised or did not measure up to competitors. The ultimate success of a company (i.e. you), is bring a quality product into a wide awareness.

I meet many young artists who want me to tell them all I know about marketing, but who never ask for analysis or critique of their songs. They've spend large amounts of time and money recording songs that have never been critiqued by objective professionals, or developing graphics that have never gone before a test audience, and then they wonder why all their best efforts at marketing and promoting yield little results – OR – they get some degree of results from their marketing efforts and never think to ask how much MORE they would have gotten if they had a better product (see the discussion of Ullage in "Songcrafters' Coloring Book").

There was an amazing online poll conducted by Derek Sivers in early 2009. He asked how folks get input on their songs during the development stage. A huge number of aspiring Independent Artists wrote (sometimes emphatically!) that they never seek out nor ever need critique. Not for their songs! Could you imagine any company today investing all the time and money it takes to launch a new product or service without including focus groups and market testing as part of the product development? We all remember (or not) the Ford Edsel… (See "Songcrafters' Coloring Book" discussion on Expression vs. Communication).

If much of your competition is not spending time and effort in maximizing the quality of their songs, it is good news for you – it means that if you take the time to work on the crafting of your songs, then your subsequent efforts at promotion and marketing will be that much more effective.

A typical response to avoiding critique is that "I want to be different! My music doesn’t fit any type of category." Let's take a moment to look at when 'different' works for or against you. (See previous post on the Von Restorff Effect).

At my workshops, I usually ask 100 people in a room what song they think about when I say the word "love", and I usually get 100 different answers. Then I ask what song they think of when I say "centrifugal" – and there are only two kinds of responses – either nothing, or "This Kiss", as recorded by Faith Hill, written by Beth Nielsen Chapman, Robin Lerner and Annie Roboff (yes, it sometimes takes a village to raise a great song).

There is no question that this song "works", across different styles, tastes, demographics, and cultures. Besides being a #1 international Country hit and a Top-10 crossover hit on multiple-genre charts on three continents, "This Kiss" became the signature song for the 1998 movie Practical Magic. It won the Video Of The Year awards at the 1998 Country Music Association awards. This was the first time in her career that Faith Hill had international success with a hit – success due to the song, not the artist. (She had had four previous #1 hits, but nothing of this magnitude).

Why does this song "work" so well, as opposed to the vast number of other songs that are also about love and kisses? Clearly it's not just what the song is "about". There is more at work.

Song lyrics have three main sets of components: Semantic (having to do with meaning), Phonetic (having to do with the sound of the words), and Prosodic (having to do with the rhythm of the words). (These are all discussed at great length in "Songcrafters' Coloring Book")

When you look at the chorus of "This Kiss" :

(Chapman, Lerner , Roboff © Almo Music, HFA T14952 )

It's the way you love me

It's a feeling like this

It's centrifugal motion

It's perpetual bliss

It's that pivotal moment

It's, ah, impossible

This kiss, this kiss, unstoppable

This kiss, this kiss

you see that it's not what is being said that is so memorable -- a million songs say the same thing. It's not any unique use of metaphor or any memorable story. It is the sound of the words, their cadence, and the unusual choice of words. The incredible international success of this song is shaped primarily by five words: centrifugal, perpetual, (that)pivotal, impossible, unstoppable". These five words show tremendous interaction between semantic, phonetic, and prosodic elements. The sonic activity (use of phonetics) here is extremely high: a five-fold alliteration on "p"; all the words end in the "ul' sound; assonant syllables in "cen" "per" and "pet"; a sonic reversal in "pos/"stop"; and a rhyme in "tual"/"fugal".

Prosodically, all the words have the exact same cadence (accent pattern) of 4 syllables with the accent on the second: soft-LOUD-soft-soft, and the same rhythmic timing. The five lines of this rhythmic pattern set up a real perception of motion -- and then -- the spondee pattern of the words "this kiss" (LOUD LOUD) moved to musical off-beats totally changes the sense of motion and makes the title really stand out, far more so than if the words just continued the fast-moving pace of the previous lines. It is truly good songcraft on all levels.

Finally, the semantic choice of the particularly unusual word (for a song) "centrifugal" put the icing on this lyric, using the Von Restorff effect to uniquely brand the song.

The Von Restorff Effect is the cognitive principle that makes things stand out and be more easily remembered by being different . This same principle is at work with the music in songs as well. Ask 100 people what well known band they think of when you say "guitar", and you'll get 100 answers. Same for "keyboard". But ask what band they think of when you say "French Horn" and you'll get one – The Who. Ask about "flute" and you'll get Jethro Tull, and perhaps some Moody Blues. Ask about "cello" and it's the Harry Chapin Band. The Von Restorff Effect is clearly at work musically as well as lyrically.

The bottom line of all of this is simple: it's not enough to just be different, nor to be technically proficient. You have to have an above-average song in order for uniqueness and technical artistry to have optimum effect. And if you're going to be "different" it has to be in a way that is in a space of its own, without other competing songs or artists or styles. You can only determine this with some market testing. Don’t just assume. Always strive for maximum Awareness, but be sure you have a well crafted, quality song to hold Attention.

For more, visit


©2009 Bill Pere. All Rights Reserved. Content may not be re-posted without permission. Quotes from this content with attribution are permitted. Use of this content in for educational purposes is permitted with proper attribution. Links to this content are encouraged.erved