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Songwriting Collaboration on the Internet

By Elton Smith and Larry Holder

Written for ACAPella Magazine
ACAP, Inc.
PO Box 863
Graysville, TN 37338

Larry Holder Music Banner

Songs of Praise Banner

The featured song is Share The Love

Back in the old days (before 1995), songwriting was a lot different from what it is today. If you were blessed by God with well rounded skills you could be a successful songwriter. If you only had some of the necessary skills and were lucky enough to come in contact with someone who had complimentary skills, you could still be successful. That was the old days... those days are over.

Today we have a new tool and it is fast changing the landscape of Christian songwriting. Everyone knows that the Internet is a great publishing tool. You put useful information out there and the world beats a path to your door. But not everyone realizes how useful it is as a collaboration tool.

Before diving into the details of how this works, first let's look at what it takes to create a successful song:

(1) A great theme. This is the most important ingredient. If you start from the wrong place you won't end up with a good song.
(2) Beautiful lyrics. A rhythmic and easily remembered elaboration of the theme.
(3) Compelling music. The kind that people end up humming all day and can't get rid of.
(4) Good presentation. A well prepared music score.
(5) A high-quality recording. There are a lot of good songs out there that have never been recorded correctly and therefore never catch on.
(6) A distribution channel. This is how people learn about the song.

That's all you need to know to be a well rounded songwriter. All you have to do is have great song ideas, add beautiful lyrics, write great music, create a professional music score, record the song, and get it into the hearts and minds of the masses. That's all! I don't know about you, but I feel inadequate at this point. :-(

But God is orchestrating a huge crescendo and music is an important part of it, so he has given us a tool to overcome our deficiencies. Let's say you write good lyrics but can't write music. Team up with someone! They don't have to live in your city. They don't have to live in your state. They don't even have to live in your country, though it helps if you speak the same language.

How do you meet the right person? On the web, of course. A good place to start is the Christian Songwriters Web Ring.

This is just one of thousands of rings in the Webring system, but if you are a Christian songwriter, this is the one you will be most interested in. When this article was written, our ring contained over 190 sites. These are either sites created by Christian songwriters or sites that are highly supportive of Christian songwriting (like CCLI). Sites set up by Christian songwriters are required to have some form of audible music online. You can browse through the sites listening to the music, reading the lyrics, and observing attitudes until you find someone who appeals to you. Hopefully, this is also someone who has songwriting skills that you lack. Then, forgetting your shyness, send them an email. Maybe they will be interested in collaborating, but don't be discouraged if they tell you they are just too busy right now. That's the way it is when people get involved in the internet... they have to start being very selective. Don't give up. Trust that the Lord will lead you to the right person at the right time.

What next? In our scenario, you write lyrics. Your new friend writes music. Your part is easy. You send them some lyrics in an email. Send several poems and request feedback. Their part is a little harder. They could scan images of sheet music and send these to you, but that would not be very efficient. What they really want to do is put the music in a format that you can hear. There are 2 very good alternatives available on the internet: RealAudio® (a compressed wav format) and midi. To create a RealAudio® file, you must first create a recording, then a wav file, then a RealAudio® file. The RealAudio® file will be fairly large (about 300k for a typical song), but manageable. Don't try to transmit the original wav file to your friend. Wav files are usually around 100 times larger than RealAudio® files. Midi is very different and requires some specialized skills. A midi file is a set of instructions that can be interpreted by a computer sound card or other midi device to play music. The only real drawback is that there can be no singing in a midi file... just notes. On the positive side, midi files are very small (around 30k). You can either use software and a mouse to create your midi files or your can attach your computer to a midi compatible music keyboard and bang away while the computer is recording you. In either case, the RealAudio® or midi file can be attached to an email and transmitted from one collaborator to another without cost and almost instantaneously. The cycle has begun. It will probably take several iterations to complete your song. Keep tweaking the music and lyrics until you are both satisfied with the results.

The reverse of this scenario is also useful to explore. The music may be written first and the lyrics applied afterwards. This method allows the musician greater freedom. Their imagination can take flight while they sing "la, la, la" or "na, na, na". It is then up to the lyricist to add the words. One analogy to this is a sculptor who waits for the inspiration of "seeing" the work of art buried in a block of marble, even before attempting to chip away it. The same Spirit who inspired the writing of the music is able to inspire the lyricist to complete the work with equally inspired words, producing a unified whole. It is an exciting and enjoyable journey of the soul, akin to witnessing the birth of a new baby. It may not happen right away, but inevitably a word or phrase takes form, and then another line, and another... Pretty soon, it's a flood of praise pouring out, and there on the paper is an entire verse, an entire chorus; soon, an entire song. Inspiration is key; if words are simply "manufactured", it will not last. Just as the Bible tells us that it requires faith to please God, so the lyricist must be sure that the lyric writing has been produced as an act of faith, waiting upon the inspiration of the Spirit within them to pour out a tangible expression of personal praise.

Now shifting gears we will talk about copyright just a bit. All songwriters should strive to learn at least the basics about copyright. This is important because at the very moment they put a new creative work onto something tangible, such as writing it on paper or recording it on tape, copyright automatically exists, regardless of whether there's a copyright notice or not, and regardless of whether it is ever registered or not. In other words, as a songwriter, creating copyrighted works is inevitable, so they should learn something about the privileges and responsibilities that just as inevitably come with it.

There are many aspects of copyright, more than a short article can adequately cover. Thankfully, the Copyright Office of the Library of Congress now maintains many helpful and clearly written circulars, FAQ's, and other resources on the Web, enabling songwriters to get a proper understanding of what copyright really is, along with forms and instructions for registering musical works if they wish to do so. The URL is:

For starters, read "Copyright Basics" (Circular 1), and then branch out from there. There are also some good books on the subject that can be found in many bookstores, including an excellent book, considered by some to be the "bible" of the music business, entitled "This Business of Music", published by Billboard Publications.

The following is by no means all-inclusive, and should not be interpreted as legal advice (if you need legal advice, by all means consult a copyright attorney familiar with the music business), but hopefully this will provide some food for thought with collaborative songwriting in mind.

Generally speaking, when a song is written with someone else, with the intent at the time of writing that your words and music will be combined into a unified whole, the end result is a "joint work". Each collaborator of a joint work, regardless of which part(s) or how much of the creative effort was done by whom, jointly owns the whole finished song. It is similar to a husband and wife jointly owning a house; the husband does not solely own the garage and the wife does not solely own the kitchen, etc. Both together own the whole, undivided house.

If a song is written down, it is generally also recorded. There is a difference in owning the copyright of the song and owning the copyright of the sound recording. The owner of the sound recording is generally the artist(s) and producer(s) whose creative efforts went into it. So, suppose two songwriters collaborate on a song, and jointly own the words and music. One of them then sequences a MIDI of the song, or prepares some other sort of sound recording (perhaps in a popular Web format such as an MP3, a RealAudio® file, etc). That person then owns the copyright on that particular sound recording, even though both of them jointly own the copyright of the underlying song.

Derivative works may also come along later. Two examples of derivative works include new arrangements of a song, and translations into other languages. A derivative work is a new entity itself, and any applicable copyright for such a work is a separate copyright from the copyright of the original work it is based on, whether the copyright of the derivative work is owned by the same owner as the original work or not.

Obviously, this just scratches the surface, but shows the importance of knowing about what is behind copyrights, which is all the more important to understand when the task of writing and managing a song is shared between two or more songwriters. Again, a visit to the web site of the Copyright Office can shed a lot of light on this often misunderstood topic, and clear the path toward "administering" rights of copyright in a responsible and informed manner.

If you would like to derive some income from the use of your songs, it is a good idea to register them with the Christian Copyright Licensing International organization (CCLI). Over 100,000 churches in North America pay an annual license fee to CCLI to obtain permission to reproduce the lyrics of copyrighted songs. There is no fee for registering your songs with CCLI. Visit their web site to learn more.

You have come a long way. You have realized your strengths and weaknesses and found a collaborator to work with. You and your collaborator have written several good songs and you want people to hear them. Back in the old days, you started contacting music publishing companies asking if any of them would accept your songs. Of course, you are unknown, so they just ignored you. Frustrating, wasn't it? But remember, the old days are gone. God has opened the flood gates so that anyone can publish their work for the world to download and use. Once you get your music online, others may start contacting you, wanting to collaborate with you in writing a new song. Be kind to them and remember: just recently you were doing the same thing.

Copyright © 1999 by Elton Smith and Larry Holder


Elton and Larry publish praise and worship songs on their web sites. The two of them met via the Internet, after independently starting their web sites with just a few songs each. Additionally, Elton and Larry have enjoyed several 3-way collaborations with Steve Israel, who has not only been traditionally published (Integrity Music) and recorded (Liberated Wailing Wall), but also maintains a web site with many independently published songs. Today, the collaborations now number over 40 (and counting, PTL!) in less than 2 years, and several have been translated into a wide variety of languages. Their web sites are dedicated to providing praise and worship music that is freely available for all to enjoy. Stop by and say "hello" when you have a chance...

Songs of Praise (The site this article is on)
Larry's Songs of Praise and Worship
Steve Israel Songs

Over 400 songs in 17 languages. Four musicals. Over 700 images.

Everything is freely available for non-profit use.

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