Why you should never trust songwriting credits

Marcus Berkmann predicts Ed Sheeran’s future: co-writing the hits of someone much younger and prettier

7 March 2015

9:00 AM

7 March 2015

9:00 AM

Songwriting credits are, as we know, not always to be trusted. Since the dawn of music publishing, there has always been a manager or an agent or a well-connected representative of organised crime willing to take a small cut of a song’s royalties, in return for services rendered or threats not carried out. Who actually wrote any song? Well, we know that Bob Dylan wrote ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’, but after that it gets a little murky. Lennon/McCartney songs, after the first couple of albums, were written by Lennon or McCartney but rarely by Lennon/McCartney. The Verve’s ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’, notoriously, sampled more of Andrew Loog Oldham’s orchestral version of ‘The Last Time’ than it probably should have, and thus the song carries the credit ‘Jagger/Richards/Ashcroft’, with the two Stones getting 100 per cent of the money and Richard Ashcroft having to make do with a slightly disappointing 0 per cent. Allen Klein, that legendary enforcer, insisted on the full whack or the record would have to be withdrawn from the shops. Remember records? Remember shops?

Every song, of course, sounds a little like another song, except possibly for ‘Wuthering Heights’. It’s only when similarities become uncanny that the lawyers are called in. Most recently, chubby young awards magnet Sam Smith settled out of court with Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne after someone noticed that Smith’s ‘Stay With Me’ bore a striking resemblance in the tune department to Petty’s ‘I Won’t Back Down’. ‘All my years of songwriting have shown me these things can happen,’ said Petty, unpettily. ‘Most times you catch it before it gets out of the studio door but in this case it got by. Sam’s people were very understanding of our predicament and we easily came to an agreement.’ In other words, make cheques payable to T. Petty Esq. The errant Smith and his co-writers said they were ‘not previously familiar’ with the Petty track, which I suppose is just about possible. ‘Stay With Me’ won Grammys for Record of the Year and Song of the Year — because obviously those are two very different things — but Petty and Lynne’s contribution was not acknowledged by the Academy, as they were deemed to have done ‘no new work’ in writing the song. As opposed to the very hard work the others had put in, writing the same song again purely by coincidence.

Who are these co-writers, anyway? Names, just names. Professional songwriters are everywhere, credited in ever-lengthening lists on every new song you hear. Singers can no longer be just singers, valued for their pipes and their infallible dress sense; they must also be songwriters, whether or not they can write songs. So they note down a few useless, illiterate lyrics and the ‘music guys’ come in and build a song around them. It’s remarkable how many professional songwriters are people who had a go at being performers and didn’t sell as many records as their talents might have merited. I see that Dan Wilson, once of powerpoppers Semisonic, has been working with the Dixie Chicks, Taylor Swift and John Legend, and co-wrote Adele’s ‘Someone Like You’. And one of my favourite songwriters, Gary Clark, who wrote and sang ‘Mary’s Prayer’ for Danny Wilson and many other songs that should have been hits, now lives in the US and shapes whole albums for the likes of Natalie Imbruglia and Delta Goodrem. As they say, it’s a living.

In such a world it can be hard for real singer-songwriters to stand out. Both my children are unfeasibly obsessed with Ed Sheeran’s two albums, so I have heard rather more of them than I might have wished. But I have to admit, he’s not bad. There isn’t much of a voice — it’s often mixed far too high, and its limitations are painfully exposed — but he writes a nifty lyric, works with proper people (Pharrell Williams, Rick Rubin) and writes songs with tunes that don’t all sound like each other. These are old-fashioned pop values, but somehow the public ignored all this and made x the bestselling UK album of 2014. And last week silly old ginger Ed with his try-hard tattoos picked up one or two of the Brits that Sam Smith didn’t win. Lucky boy, although if he isn’t co-writing the hits of someone much younger and prettier in 15 years’ time, and saying he much prefers being ‘out of the limelight’, he will have done astoundingly well.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments
  • convincing

    A good melody goes a long way, sadly lacking in the majority of today’s music. Difficult to come up with new unique melodies now, find one and your quids in.

    • Helen of Troy

      I do it all the time.

  • Ivan Ewan

    All you have to do is the I-V-VI-IV chord sequence, and any half-hearted attempt at a melody will be gobbled up by the masses – after it’s been blasted at them ten times a day on the radio, that is.

    I-V-VI-IV, in the last twenty years or so, has been viewed by record producers as a cheap shortcut to success. Here’s just one example:

    Make it go,
    Make it go,
    I never wanna hear those chords again!
    Make it go,
    Make it go,
    If I block my ears and count to ten

    It’s all the same
    A tired refrain
    I can’t believe nobody realised
    And I just can’t take it any more


    Those chords never bothered you anyway.

    • William_Brown

      Off you go then Ivan – make a few million using your ‘can’t fail’ hit record algorithm….Or are you just too artistic to try?

      • Ivan Ewan

        Well my band made a few hundred that way a few years ago (made the girls cry) along with some other, less boring chord sequences, but honestly, the record labels are satisfied with the number of bands they already have rewriting the same song over and over again.

        • William_Brown

          Well, I think if you just look at ‘the charts’, then you might have a point – they used to define what is popular (and, at the time ‘good’) music almost in its entirety. Nowadays though, there isn’t a singular zeitgeist, there is so much more original clever and crafted music to be listened to and discovered now, than ever before.

          • Ivan Ewan

            The charts, is my point exactly – I mean we’re talking about bubblegum pop in the article, right?

          • Helen of Troy

            Personally, I like instrumental jazz best, of the foot-tapping, Monty Alexander kind.

          • New unique melodies now, find one and your quids in.

          • Makes no sense: that’s not how the world works… at all.

  • Helen of Troy

    Yeah, I have found myself singing ‘everybody’s going surfing… sweet little sixteen’. But every song sounding a little like every other? There’s only one of my songs that in the first few notes could almost be introducing ‘Strangers In the Night’, though the rhythm differs — and the song immediately takes off in its own completely different direction. I’m happy to say that all of my approximately 50 songs are completely distinct from each other and could not in the slightest be mistaken for another artist’s!

    By the way, what does ‘unfeasibly obsessed’ mean?

  • Dogsnob

    Ed Sheeran looks like one of those sponge faces that were popular a few years back, stuffed into and trying to burst out of glass jars.

    • Helen of Troy

      Ooh, how biting of you! Perhaps he’s a nice bloke. What then?

  • Excellent post I impressed on this creative post.

  • John Carlin

    Sheeran’s Thinking Out Loud is a blatant copy of Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get It On. Can’t believe this hasn’t been challenged.

  • Music is the medicine of braking heart but i think that which should be literate and meaningful lyric. Thanks for good article and wonderful presentation.

  • Most or blogger can’t write who are active in web, But you are awesome who create interest to write about that.

  • Wonderful post I intimidated on this artistic

  • Doesn’t Concern You

    A friend of mine had written a song and has been trying to get it published for years. But recently that song was bought from her by a singer that’s pretty dang popular (I’m leaving names out of it), and now said singer who bought it is saying
    that THEY had originally wrote it a long time ago, for another singer… It just pisses me off that my friend’s name is nowhere to be found on anything related to the song, and is given no credit at all. Thats about all I have to say…. Yep.