Change A Word, Get A Third, or at least that’s the joke for singers and songwriters.
Here is the deal.
For a song to become a mega-hit, a given songwriter would prefer to give their song to a superstar. Right? Right.
This makes sense. There are plenty of songs and want-to-be-writers. But there are very few bestselling singers.
So in the event that a song does become a hit, acclaimed singers might prefer to change a line or phrase so that they can be listed as a “writer” on the song.
That way they, are paid in perpetuity, not only for the performance of the song, but also for the publishing and master.
And honestly it seems like a win-win.
For what struggling songwriter would’t want Taylor Swift, Beyonce, or Justin Bieber to reword a line or two for them?
I mean, I’d agree to co-write a book with Ryan Holiday in a second flat.
With so much dough potentially at stake, it is no surprise the hits are the source of hard dealings and dark deeds. In the old days, artists were induced to give away the publishing rights of their hits, which ended up being worth more than the records. Today, a top artist can insist on a full share of the publishing even though they had nothing to do with writing the song. (“ Change a word, get a third,” the writers call this practice.) The music business, like the TV business depicted by Hunter S. Thompson, is a “cruel and shallow money trench… a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs,” and that’s how the hits have always been accounted for. (Thompson added, “There’s also a negative side.”)
-John Seabrook, The Song Machine