Co-Writing Etiquette For Songwriters

by Marty Dodson
Jan 20, 2017

Recently, we’ve had several people write me concerning issues with co-writers. So, I thought I’d remind everyone of a few co-writing etiquette “Do’s and Don’ts”. Co-writing a song with someone enters you into a business relationship with them. Once that song is done, the two (or three, or five) of you have created a legal entity that will live on for 75 years after the last one of you passes away. That’s a big commitment. Because it’s a big deal, it’s important to know how to properly behave in regard to that little song baby that you create. Here are some things to keep in mind:

1) Ideas thrown out in a co-write are not for you to write on your own later. You pick one to write that day in the room and the other ideas “belong” to the person who brought them in. Taking the ideas you didn’t use that day is uncool and unethical. Come up with your own ideas and respect the ideas of your co-writers.

2) Communication is key. BEFORE you co-write, talk about how you like to work and what the plan will be if you write something cool. It’s extremely frustrating to write a great song with someone and then be told “I don’t have money to demo it”. What’s the point of writing it if you can’t get it recorded and out to the world? If you are having money problems, tell your co-writers that before you show up and discuss how to handle a demo if you can’t pay your share. Just like in dating, you can’t communicate too much with a co-writer.

3) If you don’t like where something is going in a co-write, pull the plug – earlier rather than later. Don’t finish a song with someone and then say “I don’t like this song. I don’t want my name on it.” Be upfront. Tell your co-writer the minute you start having that feeling. You can either call it a day or try to find another idea to write, but don’t go along for the ride and THEN tell them. Not cool.

4) In the event that you need to divorce a co-writer, be honest but kind. It’s ok to say, “I just don’t think we are the right combination, but I appreciate you giving me your time”. It’s also OK to suggest bringing in another person to help salvage the song. There’s no shame in asking for help. If the divorce is inevitable, don’t drag it out. Don’t place blame. Just be straightforward and end it.

5) After the divorce, sort out what to do with the song you were working on. You can say “Do you mind if I take this idea I brought in and write it with someone else?” But, they might say “no”. Technically, if the two of you started it, you both have a right to it. If you didn’t bring the idea in, the best thing to do is to say “I don’t mind if you write it with someone else as long as you don’t use the melody or any of the lyric that we started”. Usually, it’s best just to let that song die and move on to the next one. But, figure that out before you leave the room.

6) Remember that word gets around. If you are ugly to a co-writer, word spreads. Do that too many times and you’ll be struggling to find anyone to write with. Be nice and respectful. Always.

7) Don’t talk down to a co-writer. You aren’t there to teach or instruct your co-writer. If they need that, then you don’t need to be writing together.

8) Don’t talk bad about your co-writers. When I hear a co-writer telling me something bad about another of their co-writers, it lets me know that they probably talk badly about me too when I’m not around.

Following those 8 tips can help you be a more attractive co-writer. Write on. ~MD

Marty Dodson

Marty Dodson

Marty Dodson is a multi #1 songwriter, co-founder of SongTown, and co-author of  The Songwriter’s Guide To Mastering Cowriting and Song Building: Mastering Lyric Writing


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