The Songwriter’s Code

songwriters code - songtown


The Songwriter’s Code

From the Brill Building in New York, to Music Row in Nashville, songwriters have been operating under this “code” for many years. If you hope to join the professional ranks, you MUST learn the code and go by it. If you are just wanting to co-write in general, it’s good to know how it works. Not knowing can cause LOTS of problems.

Here’s what you are agreeing to when you co-write:

1) I will put my best work into the song we create. I’m going to give you 100% while we are working on our song.

2) I agree to work on our song until we are both happy with it.

3) I won’t take any of the work we did and take it to another co-writer without asking you. Our works is “ours” and I will check with you before involving anyone else.

4) To the best of my ability, I will work to get our song recorded. I will pitch it myself, use all of my connections, or hire a song-plugger if I’m able to do so. I will work to give our song every chance to succeed.

5) If we write a song that both of us are excited about and want to demo, I will pay my portion of the demo costs (within reason).

Up-Front Communication Is Key

If you are not willing or able to do any of those 6 things, you need to communicate that with your co-writer upfront. In most co-writing situations, there’s no point in co-writing if one partner is not able to pay for their part of a demo. Why write a great song if you can’t get a pitchable recording of it? The demo doesn’t have to cost $800, but you should be willing to pay for some sort of pitchable demo – even if it’s a $150 guitar vocal demo that you split 2 ways.

Communication is the key. Talk to your co-writers upfront about the way they like to work, how they handle demos, and what they do with songs after they are demoed. And share with them your feelings on all of these issues. That’s how you avoid problems and misunderstandings.


Additional Comments: If one of you is excited about a song and wants to demo it, and the other is not, I suggest a compromise. Maybe doing a simple guitar/vocal demo to keep the cost down. I’ve also made a deal that I would pay for the whole demo and the co-writer would pay me back for half if it got cut. I’ve done that when I REALLY believed in the song.

With a little time and open communication you will be able to master the art of co-writing.

Write on! MD

Marty Dodson - pro songwriter/instructor - SongTown

Marty Dodson is a multi-hit songwriter, co-founder of SongTown, and co-author of The Songwriter’s Guide to Mastering Co-Writing and Song Building: Mastering Lyric Writing

33 thoughts on “The Songwriter’s Code

  1. Great stuff Clay & Marty, Because I have no track record of hits I feel like I shouldn’t begin to co-write outside of my trusted group of writers. I mean really can an unsigned writer with no track record be relied upon or expected to bring top notch content to a co-write? Let alone engage in tit for tats about songwriting methodology and standards? I feel like I should have done something significant in the industry before attempting to lead by example. Thats why I came to songtown in the first place. I need professional advise and guidance to become the songwriter other great writers would like to co-write with. Until I have written something great on my own, how can I recognise what greatness really is and convey that confidence to others in a writing room?

    1. Hey Nolan.
      I know your post is addressed to the author of this post but I just want to share my thoughts too.
      That you have no track record of hits ‘yet’ does not make you a lesser writer. Many hits you hear today were born out of opportunities. If you dont take chances with songwriters outside your group you may never get the opportunity yourself.
      I think you should believe more in yourself and your creative ability.
      Give yourself a chance. You may discover that you are a far better writer than you thought.
      I wish you the best.
      Nina Ogwo, Singer/Songwriter

  2. Great advice! My cowriters and I and other artists have also agreed to have two different versions from time to time. We’re in Texas – not sure if that makes a difference, but it seems fair.

  3. Greatness of advice ? and I do believe that it’s not so important what not to do right … it is very important what not to do wrong ❗respect and integrity is the most valuable part of co-writing to me and communication between all parties involved makes for a smooth musical ride ✌️??

  4. Thanks for a gr8 post Marty. I’d be interested in seeing what Scott Sturgis’ agreement and split sheets look like or if anyone else has docs that they share before co-writing. I think it’s gr8 to talk about it with your co-writer but if there’s a document that says “Hey this is how I’m comfortable co-writing or these r the guidelines I follow,” all the better.

  5. Hi. So glad to have stumbled upon you. I have written a few lyrics, but have no musical background at all, other than my love for music, specifically country and pop music would like to collaborte with a musically talented person, singers, etc. Please email me at : i look forward to receiving your newsletters, etc, as well. Thanks, Priscilla Olivier.

    1. Pricilla, many of our members co-write. Our website membership area has a vibrant forum where you can find music collaborators. Many work via Skype and email as well.


  6. Wow, im so glad i stumbled across you lovely people! I have written a few country song, and pop song lyrics, but have no musical experience at all. Is there anyone here who would like to collaborate with me, so we can use our different strengths and make good music together please? Shawn, hope you read my post and email me, also anyone else who would like to get in touch with me please. Thanks so much. Priscilla. Email :

  7. Someone pointed out that, inherent in any ‘partnership’ is a possibility for an ‘adversarial’ relationship. Witness, marriage. Sincerely, and with love, it begins, and, ‘they’ say more than half end in divorce, often with acrimony replacing matrimony. (Ooo! Good rhyme!)

    So co-writing is like marriage. Go in with sincerity and love. Communicate about such things as demos and costs and agreement on what’s worth investing in. (The main thing newlyweds argue about is money.) Don’t surprise each other with these facts of life after the song is written and one of you is more enthusiastic about it than the other is. Don’t assume your co-writer knows the road rules. Don’t assume they have the money to stand up on their side. When you assume you make…mistakes…you could have avoided with a little communication.

    And, maybe, don’t put all the eggs of your relationship with the co-writer in the basket of that one song. You may be just getting to know each other and the real ‘best song you’ll ever write’ is coming next session.

    I always say, “There will always be another song to be written. Someone will write it. Why not you?”

  8. Good co-writing contract … I have always just go by the golden rule … and try to do things right, in the right way for the right reason. My respect for you, and my trust in you was just elevated!!

  9. I have put together the “Songwriters Agreement” which is a one page that goes along with the split sheet. It defines what you mentioned along with a few other items. I give this to everyone I write with. it has helped many understand the process so there are no problems down the road.

      1. I love this, Clay and Marty; I was very successful for my entire adult life in flipping real estate..The one thing it always was about to make problems go away, was “What does the PAPERWORK say?”
        ☮️, 💡, love surround you and yours.

  10. If one of you is excited and the other is not, I suggest a compromise. Maybe doing a simple guitar/vocal demo to keep the cost down. I’ve also made a deal that I would pay for the whole demo and the co-writer would pay me back for half if it got cut. I’ve done that when I REALLY believed in the song.

  11. Hey Marty, this is really nice and clear. You can’t overemphasize the importance of communication! I have a question on #1 because I think it describes the ideal situation which is quite often not the case. What is the protocol if one co-writer is NOT excited about the song, would the right thing be to split the demo costs? I mean sometimes a song just isn’t that great even if you’ve done your 100% to make it as good as it can be.

  12. Thank you, Marty:
    This is great, pertinent information for me.
    I have only co-written with two friend whom I knew very well..
    So really didn’t know what was specifically expected of me/us as far as agreements.
    This will really help me and us going forward,to be more professional and well informed.
    Tedi May

  13. I would love to cowrite with someone.

    I’m strong with melody, weak with lyrics.

    I’m very strong with demos. I have my own recording studio. The demo side or even full recording is not an issue at all.

    1. We have lots of great lyricists here. You shouldn’t have any trouble connecting with some of them. If you do, let me know!

    2. Hi Shawn, If your melodies are strong, I will consider co-writing with you. If you wish send me one of your melodies to … in return I will send you one of my songs and a lyric. I write everyday, but I also record and entertain. donna c.

  14. What do you do if you have a co-writer who won’t continue to work on a song that needs more work and also won’t agree to bringing in another co-writer? Is the song just dead? This didn’t happen to me but has happened to two co-writing friends of mine.

    1. Sometimes you just have to let it go and learn a lesson. My first publisher always asked “Is this the best song you’ll ever write?”. If my answer was “No”, he’d say “Move on.” I’d just move on and not work with that writer again.

  15. Thanks for spelling it out so clearly. I had an experience about 5 years ago that went bad when a co-writer refused to pay her share for a demo, and things got heated. Even after I finally said I would pay for the entire demo, she wouldn’t sign off or agree to give me her PRO info and other info I needed to register the song for another year.

  16. Well said. It’s amazing how many things that “should go without saying” need to be said. If common courtesy and the Golden Rule don’t help you do the right thing, think about this: Is the underhanded little “cheat” you’re thinking about doing really worth the risk of never working with this songwriter or anyone in his or her circle of influence ever again? Probably not. A reputation for integrity is more important than whatever you’ll get out of this particular transaction.

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