Songwriter U: Deconstructing Songwriting Malarkey

SONGWRITERS BEWARE! On the epidemic of erroneous online advice to songwriters

In a perfect world, the birth of the World Wide Web thirty years ago, which offered humans non-stop immediate access to all known knowledge and wisdom, could have resulted in a profound expansion of human intelligence and empathy, forging a true age of enlightenment.

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But it was not to be. In fact, it has had the opposite effect. Instead of human harmony we are engulfed in dissonance. Instead of a new age of clarity and wisdom, we’re flooded in malarkey.

So crazily ensnared are we within the perpetual barrage of all kinds of information, it’s harder than ever to divide misinformation and truth. Instead of humanity becoming way smarter, we’re way more confused.

Simple fundamental ideas, even ancient self-evident ones about which there never was any question, are now the source of debate. The strangest example came from Google, who reported that one of the most-Googled searches of all time was: “Is the moon real?

Is the moon real?” Really? Yes.

It’s a question that millions of people needed answered in this, the 21st century. This isn’t progress. For eons of human existence, the veracity of the physical moon has been something about which most humans agreed. Even little kids.

Not anymore. This is life in the age of malarkey.

(If, like me, you’re wondering why this moon confusion exists, here’s an explanation I found in seconds, which nails the problem; our glut of information doesn’t distinguish between truth and non-truth, and ignores the source of infomation. The moon, it says, is likely “an ancient automated spaceship that is part of a wave of drones that go throughout the universe seeding planets with life.Oh! That helps clear things up. )

So knowing that millions of humans no longer concur on fundamentally accepted aspects of earthly reality, this rampant expansion of songwriting misinformation is somewhat understandable.  Even fundaments of songwriting, once seemingly as evident as the moon, are distorted daily online, where they can exist forever uncorrected and unapologetically erroneous.

To reverse this trend, American Songwriter has launched this series, among other real-time measures, to chip away at the mountain of songwriting misinformation already online, and that to come. 

To start, we focus on maybe the most fundamental of these songwriting subjects: the definition of “songwriter.”

Like the veracity of that giant glowing orb in our night skies, defining what a songwriter is, and is not, has been easily understood for a long time. 

1. Regarding the definition of ‘songwriter.’ Do you qualify?

Part of the problem is that our language is shaped by usage, and mirrors misinformation as it’s woven into the culture. To write that a song is “by” someone is ambiguous, as it can refer to the performer and also the songwriter of the song. For example, is “Hound Dog” by Elvis or by Leiber & Stoller? The answer is both, of course, but the confusion is baked into the language. 

Frank Sinatra & Sammy Cahn. Sammy, one of the great lyricists of modern times wrote 89 songs, including many beloved standards, recorded by Sinatra. Yet according to online sources, Sammy was not a real songwriter since he wrote only words; he was a lyricist.

Decades ago, the greatest and most popular recording artists–whether Al Jolson, Bing Crosby or Frank Sinatra–never wrote songs, nor did they claim to. Professional songwriters wrote the songs, and professional singers performed them. There wasn’t much confusion: Sinatra: singer. Sammy Cahn: songwriter. It was an easy distinction. Of course, these lines have long been blurred. 

But other factors have contributed to this confusion, such as the idea that someone writing only the lyrics of a song and not the music is, technically, a lyricist, not a songwriter.

Which is , of course, false.

Inversely, many sites insist that someone who writes music for songs but not words also does not qualify, and should never consider themselves a songwriter. 

These ideas are not suggested as personal opinions, but as facts, and are provided by a seemingly reliable source created to help songwriters succeed in the music business. The following example comes from the reliably-named website Careers in Music. In this attempt at clarification they muddy up things even more by explaining why this distinction matters. Their article “Lyricist Vs. Songwriter” states:

Many writers are confused as to whether what they do can officially be classified as a Songwriter or a Lyricist. If you’re erroneously referring to yourself as a Songwriter when you’re really a Lyricist, you not only sound unprofessional and unknowledgeable, you’re also missing out on valuable career opportunities by incorrectly pitching yourself.

That’s not only wrong, it’s insulting. If you’re making this mistake, it says, you’re not only woefully unprofessional, you sound dumb.

Purported non-songwriter Sammy Cahn with Frank Sinatra. Sinatra recorded 89 songs with words by Sammy.

Other sites focus more on people who write music only, and not words, who are not really songwriters. The main example?

Elton John!

Elton John, who is among the most phenomenal songwriting successes of modern times, we are told, is not a songwriter. Because the brilliant Bernie Taupin (also a famous non-songwriter) wrote the words, we were fooled into believing they were songwriters because of all the hits they created together, such as “Rocket Man,” “Your Song,” and “Candle In The Wind.” Very sneaky!

Had this definition been in effect in past decades, it would mean that George Gershwin, who wrote “only” music and no words, was not a real songwriter. Nor were most of the giants of that era, such as Harold Arlen, Yip Harburg, Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart, Oscar Hammerstein, Jerome Kern, Johnny Mercer and the rest, long revered as the greatest songwriters who ever lived.

Yet according to many websites on songwriting, none of them were qualified to even be considered as songwriters. Regardless of all the amazing songs they wrote. 

Other wrong ideas regarding the definition of ‘songwriter’ include the idea that if someone has written songs that are unknown, that person doesn’t get admission to the songwriter’s club.

Also wrong.

The purported non-songwriting team of Elton John & Bernie Taupin

Van Gogh sold no paintings. Was he not an artist? It’s art that defines an artist, not the success of that art, or its market value or perceived quality. The word ‘songwriter’ does not guarantee excellence; even bad songwriters are songwriters. And almost all great songwriters (except John Prine, Laura Nyro and few others) spent years writing not great songs before they wrote better ones.

Probably the most prevalent reason for this confusion stems from the assumption that the singer of the song is the songwriter. Always. Which is not always true.

Yes, it is sometimes true, of course. Many songwriters perform their own songs, of course. But there are also many great singers who do not write songs. Except for “Evergreen,” which she wrote with Paul Williams and few others, Barbra Streisand has not written any songs. It’s the same with Rihanna. Whereas Adele co-writes her songs, as did Amy Winehouse. Lady Gaga both writes her songs alone and also co-writes

This misunderstanding has been amplified by the common though unfortunate practice of artists receiving writing credit on songs they didn’t write. It’s a crooked tradition as old as the music business in America. In 1920, when Al Jolson was the biggest star in the world–as singer, performer, and star of the first talking (and singing) movie ever, The Jazz Singer–any song he recorded became a hit. 

Because of this, even the best songwriters agreed to the deal they were offered: Jolson records songs only if he shares writing credit with the real songwriters. In this way, he would collect half of the songwriting royalties. (Songwriters receive ‘performance royalties’ for performances of their song, including on radio or TV; artists receive ‘mechanical royalties’ for sales of records. )

Incidentally, these royalties, collected by performance rights organizations ASCAP, BMI and SESAC in America, represent all songwriters, including those who write only lyrics or music. All are songwriters, despite what you might have read.)

Songwriters who agreed to the Jolson deal although it was unfair did it always for the same reason: Half of a Jolson song was way better than nothing. It would generate a lot of money for the songwriter, though it was half, or less, than what he actually deserved

Jolson helped dramatically kick off this idea that the singer is the songwriter; that misinformation persists to now. Rarely has the record ever been set straight. Google now the question “Did Jolson write his own songs?” and this is the first answer offered:

“The story of his life was filmed in The Jolson Story (1946) and a sequel, Jolson Sings Again (1949). He also collaborated in the writing of many song hits and was a very popular recording artist.” 

See? If it’s the truth you’re after, this isn’t helpful, except in understanding the problem. The first part of the answer is irrelevant, and the rest is wrong. 

Although, if one dives deeply enough, there is truth. But not always easy to find. On the Cafe Songbook site, there is this helpful, if unobtrusive, addendum to their Jolson page:

Editor’s Note: A common practice among some popular performers was “cutting in” — getting songwriting credit and hence money when their contribution to the songwriting process was minimal or non-existent. It has been suggested that this was the case with Jolson.

Colonel Parker, who was Elvis’ manager, knew of this practice, and most methods of maximizing the income of a singer, regardless of ethics. He enforced the Jolson policy for songwriters writing songs for Elvis, and many, though not all, accepted it. Leiber & Stoller do not share credit with Elvis on “Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock” or any of their songs that he sang. Dolly Parton refused also.

But Mae Axton agreed, on “Heartbreak Hotel,” which she wrote alone. Otis Blackwell also agreed on three hits: “Don’t Be Cruel,” “Return to Sender” and “All Shook Up.”

Elvis admitted more than once that he was embarrassed by the songwriting credit, and never claimed to be a songwriter. Which might be why the truth actually is foremost when asking “Did Elvis write his own songs?” That answer is:

Elvis recorded more than 600 songs… but did not write a single song (impossible to confirm, but he was given co-writing credit on many songs because his label demanded songwriters give up 50% of the credit before Presley would record it)

That is true save for one major distinction, which is a typical reason why even the true information gets distorted. It wasn’t his label who demanded songwriters give up their half of the royalties. He first was on Sun Record, Sam Phillips’ label, and Sam had no policy like that. After all, it’s not the label that would profit from such a deal. They make their money by selling the album, not through song royalties. That money due to the songwriter would go to the artist, not the label. 

The source of this Elvis info? An article entitled “8 Elvis Presley Facts So Crazy You Might Not Believe Them.”

While the clarity is admirable, that headline doesn’t help. Is it really “so crazy that you might not believe” Elvis didn’t write the songs? If it is, that’s the problem right there. 

This tradition of artists receiving undeserved songwriting credit is not relegated to the distant past. It’s fairly common. So a non-songwriting fan can be forgiven for being confused. Especially because of the aforementioned websites purportedly offering valuable wisdom, intended to set the record straight once and for all and to end the confusion, and yet publish information which is distorted at best, if not entirely, 100% erroneous.

We will also celebrate those sources of real, reliable information on this subject, especially those who join American Songwriter in fighting the good fight by championing truth, and striving daily to separate the meat from the malarkey. Big kudos to Sonicbids for their work in this effort, even beating us to the punch by warning songwriters of unreliable sources back in 2019, in Caleb Murphy’s excellent “Why You Should Only Take Music Advice From Trusted Sources.” (The trusted sources offered affirm obvious expertise on the subject, as they include American Songwriter magazine, and also my book Songwriters On Songwriting.)

We will present our most egregious discoveries of songwriting malarkey in Part II of this series.

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