Big Names Cash In On ‘Third For A Word’ Songwriting Rule

When music fans think about the art of songwriting, they usually want to have a romantic vision of the process–their favorite songwriters sitting down late at night in a dimly lit room, deep in the throes of passion and inspiration. Maybe a candle flickering above a blank piece of paper, with a glass of wine or whiskey to the side, and tears staining the page as they alleviate their heartache by bearing their soul in a song.

In truth, mainstream songwriting more resembles the unappealing aesthetics of industrial food production, especially in Nashville, where legions of songwriters peck away in cubicle farms from 9 to 5 under florescent track lights, trying to manufacture a hit with very formulaic approaches.

The Beatles and Bob Dylan revolutionized everything for rock music back in the day by writing their own songs. The Brill Building in New York once was like a beehive full of hit makers trying to strike gold, but as artists took up their own songwriting duties in the realm of rock and pop, that all fell by the wayside. Except for in Nashville.

Over the last few months there has been a number of intriguing articles about Nashville’s songwriting establishment and culture, that have really helped draw the curtain back and expose just how antiquated, and sometimes how sinister Nashville’s songwriting culture can be.

Read NPR’s detailed breakdown of how a hit is made in Nashville

A great example of the contrast between songwriting approaches is the Rose family of Nashville. Mother Liz Rose is a career non-performing songwriter, and maybe the most important behind-the-scenes person to Taylor Swift’s success. As a single mother of three, she took the young songstress under her wing and helped pen many of her biggest hits. Though not a household name like Swift, Liz co-wrote seven of the songs on Taylor’s debut album, and worked on 2008’s Fearless, co-writing the song “White Horse” that won the Grammy for Best Country Song of the Year in 2010, and “You Belong With Me” which was nominated for the Song of the Year Grammy for all of music. The success of the songwriting duo helped lead to Taylor’s monster wins at the 2009 CMA Awards, where she took home Female Vocalist of the Year, Album of the Year for Fearless, and Entertainer of the Year.

Meanwhile daughter Caitlin Rose is going about songwriting in an old-school fashion, playing songwriter and performer. Blessed with an immaculate voice and songwriting in her genes, she is trying to make her way from the ground up, recently releasing the album Own Side Now in the UK, which will be available in the US in March. I saw her recently opening for Justin Townes Earle, where she gave thanks to people for letting her crash on their floors as she faces the all too common struggles of up and coming artists that do not have the spotlight celebrity franchises like Taylor Swift have.

What percentage of those Swift songs did mama Rose write? The anti-Taylor crowd will tell you she wrote nearly everything, but thanks to an old school tradition of the country music writing establishment called “Third For A Word”, regardless of Liz Rose’s contributions to these songs, Taylor will get equal rights in regards to songwriting credit and revenue.

Music Row’s songwriting machine is a bevy of collaboration, where many songwriters work with each other to get kinks worked out or power through mental blocks. Even if a songwriter or performer only contributes one word, they will still get a third of the songwriting rights if there were two other writers involved. And as music sales plummet and superstars look to cash in on whatever revenue streams they can, lucrative songwriting rights have enticed more big-named performers, many who have never written their own songs, to contribute a “Word for a Third”, leaving some behind-the-scenes songwriters perturbed. Songwriting revenues are one of the few things in the music industry that are actually increasing, rising 7% last year, and as a songwriting article in The Tennessean points out:

Recent albums by Carrie Underwood, Reba McEntire and Kellie Pickler included several co-writing credits by each of those performers, which was a rarity or even nonexistent on the artists’ previous albums. That trend has sparked its share of controversy among nonperforming songwriters who, behind the scenes, are critical of artists who show up at songwriting sessions, contribute little to the process but claim credit and future royalties for the songs created.

Songwriting has become so lucrative because as album and song sales have decreased, cross-marketing opportunities for songs in movies, TV, commercials, video games, and other places have increased. But the amount of professional songwriters in Nashville has decreased 75% in the last five years because the business has become more cutthroat. The always-present struggle of journeyman songwriters in Nashville trying to get the attention of the stars they want to perform their songs has led to some relinquishing rights in the “Third for a Word” rule just to get their song some attention from a big name.

As the music industry’s infrastructure and control continues to crumble, and as the one increasing revenue stream for music continues to be songwriting, how the politics of songwriting unfold might be the key to the industry’s continued declines, its potential stabilization, or its eventual recovery. If songwriting revues are co-opted to keep celebrity-named music franchises like “Carrie Underwood” and “Reba McEntire” in operation, this could be at the expense of some of Nashville’s best wordsmiths. Some career songwriters have now quit the business, or have to moonlight as waiters or work at Home Depot to keep the lights on, taking time and energy from their passion. It is not hard to surmise that in this environment, creativity and diversity amongst Music Row’s songwriting pool will continue to dry up as celebrities use the good intentions of “Third For A Word” to help keep their infrastructure and top-shelf wealth afloat.