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A songwriter is an individual who writes songs, also called a composer. Although songwriters of the past commonly composed, arranged and played their own songs, more recently the pressure to produce popular hits has tended to distribute responsibility between a number of people. Popular culture songs may be written by group members, but are now usually written by staff writers: songwriters directly employed by music publishers.
Some songwriters serve as their own music publishers, while others have outside publishers. Furthermore, songwriters no longer need labels to support their music. Technology has advanced to the point where anyone can record at home.
The old-style apprenticeship approach to learning how to write songs is being supplemented by some universities and colleges and rock schools. A knowledge of modern music technology and business skills is seen as necessary to make a songwriting career, and music colleges offer songwriting diplomas and degrees with music business modules.
Since songwriting and publishing royalties can be a substantial source of income, particularly if a song becomes a hit record, legally, in the US, songs written after 1934 may only be copied by the authors. The legal power to grant these permissions may be bought, sold or transferred. This is governed by international copyright law.
Professional songwriters can either be employed to write directly for or alongside a performing artist, or they present songs to A&R, publishers, agents and managers for consideration. Song pitching can be done on a songwriter's behalf by their publisher or independently using tip sheets like RowFax, the MusicRow publication, and SongQuarters.
Songwriters who sign an exclusive songwriting agreement with a publisher are called staff writers. Being a staff writer effectively means that during the term of the songwriter's contract with the publisher, all their songs are automatically published by that company, and can not be published elsewhere.
In the Nashville country music scene, there is a strong staff writer culture where contracted writers work normal "9-to-5" hours at the publishing office and are paid a regular salary. This salary is in effect the writer's 'draw', an advance for future earnings paid on a monthly basis so they are able to live on it. The publisher owns the copyright of songs written during the term of the agreement for a designated period, after which the songwriter can reclaim the copyright. In an interview with HitQuarters, songwriter Dave Berg extolled the benefits of the set-up: "I was able to concentrate on writing the whole time and have always had enough money to live on."
Unlike contracted writers, some staff writers operate as employees for their respective publishers. Under the terms of these "work for hire" agreements, the compositions created under the term of the agreement are fully owned by the publisher. Because the recapture provision of the United States Copyright Act of 1976 does not apply to "works made for hire," the rights to a song created under an employment contract can not be "recaptured" by the writer after 35-40 years. In Nashville, young writers are often strongly encouraged to avoid these types of contracts.
Staff writers are common across the whole industry, but without the more office-like working arrangements favored in Nashville. All the major publishers employ writers under contract. A staff writer contract with a publisher is a natural first step for any professional songwriting career, with some writers outgrowing the set-up once they achieve a degree of success and a desire for greater independence. Songwriter Allan Eshuijs described his staff writer contract at Universal Music Publishing as a starter deal. His success under the arrangement eventually allowed him to found his own publishing company so that he could "...keep as much [publishing income] as possible and say how it’s going to be done."
- "How to pitch your songs to industry insiders.". EMusician. 1 July 2007. Retrieved Aug 25, 2010.
- "Interview with Roger Murrah". HitQuarters. 22 June 2009. Retrieved Aug 25, 2010.
- "Interview with Dave Berg". HitQuarters. 4 January 2010. Retrieved August 25, 2010.
- "Interview with Allan Eshuijs". HitQuarters. 6 September 2010. Retrieved Sep 7, 2010.