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.

 

The Subject of Subjectivity

The subject of subjectivity – in music it’s a big one. Not simply that we, of course, have differing tastes, musical influences and ways of expressing ourselves musically. But we also seem to hear, and certainly feel, music differently. The very definition of subjectivity being ‘based on or influenced by personal feelings, tastes or opinions‘ speaks of a purely emotional response, rather than one informed by facts or science. This has given us a rich musical tapestry, none of which is better illustrated than in electronic music– an umbrella term for a diverse and often polarising multitude of sub-genres (here are just some. Gulp). This is no doubt a positive, for both music listeners and music creators; the scope for musical expression being so broad that people of all tastes and influences can find escapism in it. But it can cause an issue when applied to the business of music.

This is never more true than when producers and topline writers come together to create a track. There are a number of reasons this can be the case–a fusion of the twos differing musical styles, ways of writing, and inspiration included. However, it can be far more complexed than that. If people hear and process music somewhat differently to one another, this is a very minor disparity compared to how we describe and talk about music to one another. What is generic to the topline writer may not be to the producer, what is underground to one may not be the next, likewise what commercial, universal, leftfield or catchy are, to use some terms frequently bandied about in electronic music. We even recognise differences in the way sub-genres within electronic music are understood or described. This is largely where misunderstandings and setbacks can occur within the topline process. It is with this in mind that we ask all of our clients (the producers) to provide musical references which illustrate the key stylistic traits they have described to us in their topline briefs. This must then be followed with extremely clear communication of what is required to the topline writer.

One thing that does seem to be widely accepted within commercial music is that all producers (not to mention their respective publishers and record labels) are looking for hooks– those short riffs or phrases which catch as many listeners ears as possible and make a song accessible. Again, not exactly a scientific definition but we all know them when we hear them. They can be created within the produced track itself, but are more often left to the topline writer/vocal to bring to the track. At the very least a producer needs to have allowed the required space and flow within a track for the topline writer to embed them (when writing a topline to a pre-produced instrumental that is). There is a formula to writing in such a way, however to achieve this by speaking purely in (very subjective) musical terms is near-impossible. It is for this reason we ask all of our clients, in addition to the (subjective) style or feel of music they are hoping to create, what their objectives for their track are –who is it to appeal to and on which platforms? Which record labels are they hoping to find a home at? What are their radio targets for the track, ideally?It is in identifying these types of clear-cut goals to a track that musical subjectivity can remain a creative gift, without becoming an obstacle to the topline process.

-AR

Anna Russell speaks at Point Blank

Thank you to Point Blank electronic music school for having AR Vocal Agency founder Anna Russell last week, talking about the working process between producers and vocalists/topline writers.

Anna will be returning to Point Blank, London as guest speaker, this Friday the 24th of June at 4pm, for all music business students interested in attending.

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.

What To Look For In A Vocal

Before being able to find the right vocal for your track you have to know what it is you are looking for. Whilst this may sound obvious, producers often approach us for help in finding a vocalist or producing a topline with very little idea of what they want. Or, with an exact idea of what they want but without carefully considering whether the vocal they have in mind is the best fit for their track. Is it what the track needs?

If not, this is usually only discovered after having tried various different singers, recordings and vocal arrangements, all to no avail. This can not only use up valuable time and resources, largely for the producer, but it can also kill creativity for the producer, the vocalists and any co-writers involved. The outcome? Sadly, we have had many of the producers we work with tell us of their frustration at having to shelve tracks they loved, convinced that no vocal would ever fit.

To try and minimise this happening, the first step in our process when working with any producer is an in-depth consultation. Whilst we are happy to A&R vocals/toplines on behalf of producers, it is hugely important to us that their vision for the track is realised, whilst also advising them on what may or may not suit vocally. Not only does this mean taking into consideration the producers’ personal taste (voices they like, styles they favour), but also the genre they are operating in and their objectives for that particular track. Have they considered all the various directions they could go in with the vocal? Are they thinking broadly enough (outside the box)? Certainly, what we do know is that simply taking cue from what your producer peers are doing, the latest charts, or recent successful tracks is not enough. The process needs to be more refined than that, and tailored specifically to you.

So, what to look for in a vocal? If you are currently sourcing a vocal for your track here are some of the questions to consider before beginning your search:

  • Will this track be improved for adding a vocal?
  • Who/what have my influences for this track been?
  • What are my objectives for my track a) creatively, and b) commercially?
  • Which emotion does the vocal need to convey to listeners?
  • Which tones of voice do I most like/dislike? (Generally speaking)
  • Which style of voice might be best suited to my track?
  • Does the vocal need to be of the same genre as my track? Might a juxtaposing vocal be more interesting/original?
  • Do I already have a vocalist in mind for my track? If so, are they the best fit for the track, or just the easiest option?

Being able to answer these should clarify what it is you are looking for. As such an integral part of the record, a vocal should never be an ‘afterthought’ and due care taken at every stage of the process, including before even beginning.

– AR

Throwback Thursday: AR – The Beginning!

This week we’re throwing it all the way back to an interview with AR founder Anna Russell, from the very beginnings of the AR Vocal Agency in 2012.

The business, our approach and ideas may have expanded way beyond these, but the company’s ethos and passion for vocals remains the same.

See how it all began here!

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