A songwriter is an individual who writes both the lyrics and music to a song. Someone who solely writes lyrics may be called a lyricist, and someone who only writes music may be 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 often written by staff writers: songwriters directly employed by music publishers.
Some songwriters serve as their own music publishers, while others have outside publishers.
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 are 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 or performed publicly by permission of 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 pitch 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.
The staff writer
Songwriters signed to an exclusive songwriting agreement with a publisher are known as "staff writers". Being a staff-writer effectively means that during the term of a songwriter's contract with a publisher, all their songs are automatically published by the company to which they signed, and cannot 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 copyright of the songs written during the term of the agreement is owned by the publisher for designated period, after which the copyright can be reclaimed. 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."
Staff writers are common across the whole industry, but without the more office-like working arrangements favoured 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", the success from which eventually allowed him to found his own publishing company so that he could "keep as much [publishing] as possible and say how it’s going to be done."
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