Know Your Rights: Topline Writers, Producers & Vocalists

The collaborative process between music producers, topline writers and vocalists (who may or may not also be the topline writer) in creating a song, should lead to an end product which all parties can be proud of. However, when it comes to the respective rights of each person involved, it can also lead to conflict and misunderstandings – like this example of Avicii and Leona Lewis.

In the complexed and multi-faceted area that is copyright and royalties it’s not hard to see how confusion can ensue. However, there should be no excuse for failing to recognise the rights of topline writers and vocalists, as well as those of producers, whom have jointly created music together. Unfortunately, we see too many cases where at least one party has not had their rights recognised nor registered with the necessary organisations. These are most often due to a lack of understanding and administrative oversights, as opposed to malice. This is why it is so important that topline writers, vocalists and music producers all take responsibility for being as knowledgeable in this area as possible and ensuring they are discussing terms from the outset of a collaboration. In turn, record labels must also take responsibility for recognising the Rights of all parties involved in the creation of a record and reflecting this in their agreements.

As a vital aspect of making and monetising music, we will be writing about this in more detail and offering resources to topline writers, vocalists and producers on this in future. However, let’s start with the basics. Whether you are a topline writer, songwriter, producer or vocalist, if you have collaborated on the creation of a song in any way these are the rights you need to be aware of and what you can do to ensure these are being administered correctly.

 

Songwriting Splits (Copyright)

If you write any part of a song, whether it is the topline melody, the lyrics or the backing track, you are due a songwriting split (and in turn a share of publishing income – mechanical royalties and performance royalties) of that song. Therefore, this would be relevant to topline writers and lyricists, as well as music producers if their production constitutes songwriting work (i.e. they wrote/produced the instrumental parts of the song, as is typical in electronic music). You would not be eligible for a songwriting split (or any publishing income) if you recorded vocals on a track as the singer, but did not contribute in any way to the writing of the song (please note – in rare cases there could be exceptions to this if you had been expected to do a large amount of vocal arranging, create (write) extensive harmonies or heavily ad lib). It is also not unheard of in electronic music that a featured vocalist who did not contribute to the songwriting may still be offered a songwriting split, in lieu of a session fee, by way of payment.

The way in which songwriting splits are decided are often determined by a few different factors – for example, how many people have been involved in the songwriting process or how much you contributed to the song. Historically, the lyrics and topline melody of a song would make up 50% of the song, while the instrumental/backing track parts would make up the remaining 50% of the song. However, in electronic music these two features of a song aren’t always equal. Furthermore, whilst a song may be split 50/50 between a topline/lyric writer and a producer, it is common practise that both parties will actually own 50% of both the topline/lyrics and the track – despite who wrote what. More on songwriting splits and the complexities of determining each writers split here and here.

Whichever splits are agreed between the songwriters, it is important that this is stated in writing (as early as possible but certainly before the song is exploited in any way) and that each writer then registers their share of the song so they receive the correct publishing income which may arise. To ensure you catch all the types of income which are generated from owning any musical copyright you must register your songwriting splits with both the Performing Rights Society (PRS) and the Mechanical Copyright Protection Society (MCPS) here.

 

Mechanical Rights

Mechanical Rights compensate the writer(s) of a song when that song is reproduced or distributed either in physical form, such as CD or DVD, or streamed/downloaded from the internet. Therefore, you are entitled to Mechanical royalties if you wrote any part of the topline melody and lyrics, or indeed the instrumental backing track, and thus it is relevant to topline writers, lyricists and producers. It is not relevant if you only recorded a vocal without having written any part of the song.

If you have written any part of a song which is due to be released on a record label, you should be awarded mechanical royalties even if you are not the named or main Artist of the song. This is often overlooked if you are a topline writer collaborating with a producer or Artist who signs the song on which you collaborated to a record label. Labels do not always use due diligence in checking how many writers were involved in the creative process and will sometimes agree mechanical splits with the main Artist/producer without including the topline writer. This is a too-often occurrence in dance music.

Therefore, if you are a topline writer you should be ensuring that your contribution to the writing is reflected with a share of the mechanical royalties, and that both the Artist with whom you are collaborating and the label releasing the song are fully aware and in agreement – ideally before the song is signed but certainly before release. You should also be a member of the Mechanical Copyright Protection Society (MCPS) who will collect the mechanical royalties due to you, on your behalf.

 

Performing Rights

Performing Rights compensate the writer(s) of a song when that song is played (in either live or recorded form) publicly at concerts and festivals, as well as being broadcast on radio, TV and certain digital platforms, or played in clubs, venues, shops, and public business establishments such as gyms etc. Therefore, you are entitled to Public Performance Royalties if you wrote any part of the topline melody and lyrics, or indeed the instrumental backing track and thus it is relevant to topline writers, lyricists and Artist/producers (in the context of electronic music). It is not relevant if you recorded a vocal without having written any part of the song.

If you are the writer of any part of a song, in order to receive your writer’s share you need to ensure you are registered as a rights holder member with the Performing Rights Society (PRS) in the UK. You can do so here.

 

Neighbouring Rights

As with the above, Neighbouring Rights also relate to public performance of a song. However, while public performance rights compensate the writer of the song when their music is publicly performed, neighbouring rights compensate the master holder (usually, the record label) AND the performer when a song recording is played in any public forum. Therefore, if you perform on a song (for example, sang the vocal) you should be awarded neighbouring rights even though you did not write any of the lyrics or melody. These rights therefore apply to lead vocalists, backing vocalists, session singers and all instrumentalists who perform on a song recording. This means you will be awarded royalties (the ‘Performers Share’) each time a record you perform on is played on radio and TV, or in clubs, venues, shops, and public business establishments such as gyms etc. If you are the performer on a record, in order to receive your performers share you need to ensure you are credited as a performer at the time the song is registered with neighbouring rights societies – Phonographic Performance Limited (PPL) in the UK. You can do so here.

Please note that neighbouring rights aren’t paid in the USA, and therefore not applicable to US plays of your record.

 

Disclaimer: please note that rights, royalties and how they are administered can differ from territory to territory – the above are specific to the UK. Most other territories have equivalent societies as all those mentioned above.

What Makes a Good Vocal? Here are some tips

In electronic music what is it that makes a ‘good’ vocal? This is something we think about a lot in trying to ensure that our Topline Consultancy services and The Topline Library are as valuable to music producers as possible.

Yet there is not necessarily an industry, or musical, set of standards that make a vocal work. Our subjective views on the sounds we hear also mean that for every person who loves a particular vocal, there will undoubtedly be another who doesn’t.

So what is it that makes a ‘good’ vocal?

Vocals sell records

There are the tangible qualities of a vocal – the singers range and technical ability, how it is recorded and where, type of microphone used, for example – which we can measure. However, the intangible features of a vocal – a far longer list which would include everything from the tone and timbre of a singers’ voice, the lyrics and phrasing they use, how emotive their performance is, the song arrangement, and the creativity and innovation of the producer/studio engineer – are entirely variable and non-formulaic.

These cannot be measured, and it is often hard to describe why a certain vocal track speaks to us above others. What we can universally agree on is that the vocal in a track is what resonates most with listeners – fundamentally, the vocal is most often what sells a record.

 

Vocal Quality

When it comes to vocal toplines, our focus at the AR Vocal Agency is on quality.

First and foremost, that means the quality of a singer’s voice (though not necessarily how ‘good’ a singer they are).

Our ears are piqued by interesting voices – unique tones, original deliveries, and natural ability. Such voices may not be trained, technically perfect or on-trend at that time, but if they are able to capture the right ‘feel’ we don’t think it matters.

Conversely, we are also rightly impressed by wide vocal ranges, unmatchable technique and vocal control; there will always be room for these in commercial music. Our role in supplying vocals for such a wide range of sub-genres means embracing an equally broad variety of vocal styles.

 

Vocal Production

Second, and just as important, is the quality of the vocal production, using the most suitable recording technique for the vocal. This can mean a different approach is taken to the recording of each individual topline.

The producer must ensure the singers’ best performances are captured, showcasing their unique sound and the atmosphere they create accordingly.

We are concerned with the recording studios used and their equipment but, most crucially, with how experienced the producer is in vocal production – a skill that requires patience and keen attention to detail.

 

Some things to consider for your tracks:

  • How ‘good’ (whether that’s interesting, unique, emotive, suited, soft, strong etc) is the vocalist?
  • Using a vocal producer – a producer who specialises in vocal recording
  • If this isn’t possible, ensure you are always honing your vocal production skills – vocals should never be an afterthought in the production process
  • Focus on the vocalists’ performance as well as their technical ability – capturing emotion is key
  • Do offer the vocalist guidance & reassurance when recording – studio singing is often more challenging than live performance
  • Allow the vocalist to perform/record vocals in the way that makes them feel most confident
  • Record as many takes as possible – you may need to comp extensively
  • Have the vocalist do a great amount of ad libs – often these ‘finish’ a track and add feeling
  • Ensure the microphone used, and the set-up, is the best fit for the vocalist
  • How are you processing the vocal takes? Is this best suited to the feel you are trying to create?

 

Learn More

For more information on vocal production, read tips from Kuk Harrell, vocal producer to Rihanna, Pentatonix, & Mary J Blige; Music Tech’s 20 Vocal Production Techniques; and The Little Known Recording Trick That Makes Singers Sound Perfect.

 

Vocalists: What’s in it for them?

Easing the process by which music producers acquire vocal toplines means recognising the obstacles which can slow (or even prevent) them receiving their desired outcome – a vocal that meets what they have envisaged in their minds.

One of these obstacles is in getting the vocalist/topline writer to take on or, more frustratingly, see a project through.

Producers often report vocalists they have engaged on a project going AWOL somewhere between agreeing to take it on and actually delivering. This usually seems to happen at the final hurdle, once the producer has already heard and approved the vocalists idea for the track. Or, even more last minute, once the track is finished but before agreed contracts have been put in place.

I’m sure most of you have experienced the disappointment and inconvenience this causes. But have you asked yourself, during the creative transaction, what’s in it for the vocalist?

Ensuring that those you are working with are incentivised, to the best of your ability, can only help deliver better results for you.

So with each approach you make to potential vocalists, here’s a short list of the incentives you may want to consider offering. Which of these are right for your circumstances will be dictated somewhat by the type of artist you choose to work with.

 

Royalties

You may be happy to offer a reasonable share of both performing and mechanical royalties, but can you guarantee that the record will be exposed enough (either through performances, plays or sales) to make this worth their while? Vocalists (especially those who are not predominantly songwriters) often find it hard to see the benefits of this intangible and delayed form of commission.

 

Payment /Advances

Are you making an upfront payment to the vocalist/topline writer for their time in writing or recording a demo? For their time arranging the full topline for you? For their time rehearsing vocals? For their time recording the vocals? For their studio or engineer costs (if working remotely)? Travel to the studio?
There are many ‘hidden’ costs involved in the writing and recording process for vocalists. Payment for all/any of these are often reserved for the few, elite writers and artists only. However, just because your chosen vocalist isn’t known by name to you, don’t assume they don’t have better paid or higher profile work elsewhere – most established session singers worth their salt will.

 

Feature Credit

Will you credit the featured artist by name on the project? For full toplines and distinctive hooks in particular, make no mistake that the vocalist/topline writer’s contribution to the track is as great as the producers.

 

Personal Appearances

Is there the possibility you will use the vocalist for your future live performances and DJ sets? What about if a music promo video is made for the record? Will they be paid for these appearances? Or will you be employing a different artist for these engagements?

 

Aligned Styles/Positioning

Is the vocalist/topline writer already active in the genre in which you are working? Is this collaboration going to help them advance their standing in this scene? Gain them relevant exposure? Are they passionate about your genre/style? If the answers to the above are no, they may see this project as simply a commissionable gig for them (perhaps one of many).

 

Skillset

Have you heard much of the topline writer’s previous work? Are they familiar with the style of writing required of this genre? Have you briefed them and provided guidance on structure, requirements, lyrics, arrangement etc? You don’t want your collaborator to end up feeling out of their depth or disheartened.

 

Communication

Have you liaised clearly and regularly throughout the collaborative (and administrative) process? Have you gotten to know, and built a trusting working relationship, with the vocalist? Feeling included and valued, with visibility over how the project is progressing, is key to your collaborator remaining invested.

 

The vocalist/topline writer you wish to work with may already have a busy schedule of paid work, plus their own creative passion projects – don’t just assume that they’re going to appreciate the ‘exposure’ you are providing them.

And don’t devalue their art. If they’re good enough for you to collaborate with, they’re good enough to be remunerated, even if you can’t yet do that in cash.

Listen to AR’s favourite vocal tracks on BLOOP Radio

Back in February AR founder Anna Russell was a guest on D.Ramirez‘s show for BLOOP Radio, Northern Exposure.

Anna brought in several of her personal favourite vocal electronic/dance tracks, both past and present, to play and talked about the AR Vocal Agency.

Featuring tracks by Simian Mobile Disco, Riton & many more, you can listen again here.

The one crucial asset you need to get the right vocal

There is one crucial asset that producers looking to have a vocal topline written and recorded for them need – time. Time to carefully consider what type of vocal will be best suited to their track, time to source the right songwriter and vocalist, time for the writer to do their best work, time for demos to be submitted and considered, time for re-writing of the draft topline, time for final amendments to be made, time for the vocals to be professionally recorded, time for mixing and mastering, time for liaising with the vocalist, time for negotiating the vocalists/songwriters agreements and relevant royalty shares. Even with a team in place to ensure each of these individual steps are covered, it is rarely an entirely smooth process and one that needs – as we said – sufficient time.

We know that in reality it’s not an asset that producers or their record labels/publishers always have. There are myriad reasons for this, not least of those touring schedules, which can greatly halt momentum of the topline process. This is a real issue for independent producers and managers who may be overseeing the entire topline process and liaison with the vocalist unaccompanied. It becomes even more complicated when working across countries and time zones with your chosen vocalist. And what if the vocalist is also independent and may be gigging – who is motivating and time managing them?

However, the most time constrained projects occur when a producer’s instrumental track gains a lot of traction and a vocal topline is then added to help snowball this success. Under these circumstances the release of the new version is often tightly scheduled, and a vocal scrambled for, so as to capitalise on this. But retaining traction shouldn’t mean compromising the quality or suitability of the vocal; otherwise the release campaign itself is rendered somewhat pointless.

As a vocal agency, the main role we play is in streamlining this process for our clients. We oversee each step, working across projects on a full-time basis to ensure no momentum is lost and that liaison between the producer and the vocalist remains fluid and structured. Also key is managing producers expectations on the amount of time needed to source the best suited vocalist for their track and, in turn, for the vocalist/songwriter to be able to deliver their best work.

Things to consider:

  • Before starting, carefully estimate and be realistic about the amount of time needed for each step of the topline process
  • Try to avoid a ‘scattergun’ approach to finding a vocal topline i.e. approaching dozens and dozens of vocalists about one track. Often this wastes more time than it saves. A more focused approach – clearly understanding what type of vocal you feel would best suit your project and then focusing on finding the right person (or small number of people) to work with – is usually more effective
  • Have a structured timeline for the process, and stick to this wherever possible
  • Schedule in liaison times with, and deadlines for, the vocalist/topline writer
  • Don’t schedule release dates for the vocal version of a track before securing the vocal, if possible

 

Of course, some of these are practicalities in an ideal world only. For those occasions when time is truly limited we are soon to launch our Topline Library – a library of already written and recorded acapella toplines. This will be exclusively available to access directly for subscribers of our mailing list. Subscribe to join this here now.

-AR

Our latest release: Pandaboyz & Nano Bites – ‘Live As Me’

Proud to have produced the vocal for Pandaboyz & Nano Bites new track ‘Live As Me’ which features on Protocol Recordings Miami 2016 compilation – out now.

You can hear a snippet of the track here:https://soundcloud.com/prot…/pandaboyz-nano-bites-live-as-me
Download here: http://prot.cl/Miami2016

This vocal was achieved using the AR Vocal Agency‘s topline consultancy service – contact us for more details.

Vocalists – is the talent pool larger than you think?

One of the key reasons I began the AR Vocal Agency was to increase the options available for music producers who were seeking vocalists and top line writers to work with. For many, it seemed that the pool of talent from which to choose was restrictive in either its size or its accessibility. If you were an artist/producer who happened to have the support of a great A&R, a proactive publisher, management with a musical background, or a large number of your own singer contacts then you were perhaps at an advantage when it came to finding vocalists/top lines. This, provided you were also time-rich to do the necessary searching and extensive listening required to source just the right vocal for your track. For emerging artist/producers the former of these – a strong support team – can be rare. For established artist/producers the latter – time – is a luxury. The result is that often the choice of vocalists and top line writers to work with can seem, if not be, very limited. And where to look?

There is no one set route, nor ‘correct’ process, for finding the right vocalist on any given project. I have heard stories from at least one of my own music idols, whose most iconic vocal dance track was delivered by a neighbour of his ‘who happened to sing a bit’. Sometimes, whatever works, works. However it is hugely important to me that artist/producers recognise that the pool of talent out there is incredibly wide – if you know where to look, or are willing to dedicate time to searching through all the haystacks in order to find the needles.

Here at the AR Vocal Agency, sourcing the vocalist/top line writer who is the best fit for each individual project we work on means looking far outside the circle of those who are tried and tested. There is nothing we enjoy better than partnering an established artist with an exciting new talent – ideally long before their peers are on to them. In fact, being able to introduce voices and writers who were previously unknown to the commercial music community is a source of huge pride. Whilst our network of vocalists is extensive, staying true to this ethos means that our search for new voices must be consistent.

In staying so, my hope is that the AR Vocal Agency can help to ease any frustration music producers have around sourcing the vocals and top lines best suited to them. In turn, we also wish to provide talented vocalists with a platform to be seen and heard by the people who need them most. For both parties, this is especially important where the support of publishing, management or a label may not be in place. And it might just be perfect for anyone lacking in time.

-AR

AR’s Favourite Vocals: Armand Van Helden feat. Duane Harden

Today sees the start of a new regular feature on the AR Vocal Agency, where we post a favourite vocal track of performance of ours!

It wouldn’t be right to begin this series with any track other than Armand Van Helden’s ‘You Don’t Know Me’, featuring a brilliant vocal topline by Duane Harden. Released at a pivotal time, when we were still new to clubbing, this remains perhaps our favourite dance vocal record of all time. It reached number 1 in the UK official charts in February 1999.

We will be adding all our favourite vocals to a playlist on the AR Youtube channel so you can follow the series – listen & subscribe here!

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