As we all look to the possibility of a composers union, it’s interesting to consider what affect the implementation of uniform union rules and guidelines might have on the composing business, especially when it comes to the abusive practice of ghostwriting.
Let’s define ghostwriting very specifically: it’s the practice of a “name” composer hiring a secondary composer to write original music for a project and refusing to allow the secondary composer to claim proportional authorship on the cue sheet for his or her original music. Being a ghostwriter also usually comes with a demand of silence about your work. Being a ghostwriter has nothing to do with screen credit, but does have to do with cue sheet credit, which is widely recognized as the official record of authorship for a musical composition and can and often is the basis of years or decades of royalty earnings.
In many cases, being a ghostwriter is a bit like being a musical mistress. You’re paid well for your services, but if you talk about it or dare publicly take credit for your “work”, it can have career-damaging consequences for you and your “employer”. And if a ghostwriter is not working under a written agreement with the hiring composer or the production, the ghostwriter may actually have a claim for copyright – something that the production company hiring the “name” composer might find distressing to say the least – especially if the use of the ghostwriter was kept secret, as it usually is the case, from the production company.
We can contrast this to the far more ethical practice of hiring additional composers for a project, where the additional composers are hired, paid, and are listed on cue sheets as the authors for the music they wrote. If they co-wrote with the hiring composer, then both are listed according to the amount of original creative material from each composer contained in a cue. They often appear as “Additional Music By” or “Orchestrators” in the screen credits, but most importantly they are able to claim official authorship or co-authorship of the music they write. I have absolutely no problem with the practice of hiring additional composers, which I consider to be the fair and correct way to handle things when a composer is forced by time constraints or other reasons to hire additional composers for a project.
More often than not, it’s composers in their early years that are targeted by other composers to work as ghostwriters, and in some cases it is an educational process where the ghostwriter learns the craft “on the job” and the hiring composer serves as a mentor. But in far too many cases, this process opens the door for a myriad of abusive practices often involving executives, “hummers”, and other non-composers masquerading as composers and claiming partial or total authorship for music they did not write. If even the authorship of music becomes a negotiating item, what do we have left as composers?
It’s always interesting to see so many so-called (and self-proclaimed) “leaders” in our community get very quiet when this issue comes up, probably hoping that the skeletons in their closets in this area will stay well hidden. The silence of our leaders and organizations on this issue is deafening, with even the ASCAP Board reportedly refusing to approve a proposal some years ago by board member Doug Wood for ASCAP to take a stand against what amounts to cue sheet fraud. Thanks for the support, guys – keep up the good work! If you’re not even going to stand up for the principal of authorship, I wonder what your job exactly is… It’s a shocking and offensive abandonment of the most basic responsibility of any organization that represents music and authors when any crooked executive can “claim” authorship and the organization happily pays out big bucks, quarter after quarter, to people the organization knows full well are not the authors of the music they claim authorship for. It is the ultimate corruption of authorship, and those who manage the system, make the payment and registration rules and write the checks have the ultimate responsibility for allowing it to continue and grow. Their fear of getting involved in the integrity of authorship of their own catalogs only serves as a big green light to the cue sheet fraudsters who prey on composers hungry for any work at any price.
The new composers union may be a unique opportunity to introduce some ethics, responsibility and accountability into the composing process in this area if the union contracts require that cue sheets list who actually wrote the music in the production. Likewise, the lack of direction in this area by the union could open the door to any number of opportunistic executives, non-composers, music supervisors, and other hungry middlemen to demand a portion of composer’s writers royalties – essentially becoming a co-writer – as part of a production deal.
I’ll never forget the words of a young composer I met at one of our events in Los Angeles. He landed an in-house gig at a large LA music library right out of Berklee and at the event, with some hesitation, asked me if it was “standard” that he be required to list the library owner as co-writer on music he writes for his own clients such as indie filmmakers, on his own gear, while at home when he’s not working for the library. I asked him how the music library president justified this demand, and the young composer said the library president told him that since it was income from his library gig that allowed him to purchase his gear at home, that the library president must be listed as a co-writer on any music created with that gear. He was certainly shocked when I informed him that he was being massively taken advantage of, and I recommended he run, not walk, from that library.
For some time now, our industry has been like a town with no traffic signal. People have been left on their own to decide what’s right and what’s not, and some have acted responsibly while others have acted unethically and selfishly. The new composers union could be likened to that first traffic light – finally establishing some order to an industry where abuses are far too frequent and the price paid by new and up and coming composers in terms of credit, compensation and integrity of authorship far too high.
Maybe, if we’re lucky, the new composers union will be the first composer organization in LA to actually have the backbone to adopt as a simple, fundamental rule something that common sense, not to mention artistic integrity, ought to make obvious…
The only names on the cue sheet should be the person(s) who actually wrote the music.
What a concept! I suppose for those who like to weasel their way onto cue sheets and take credit for the creations of others, that must be a pretty scary concept, but for the rest of us, proper authorship and fair payment for our work is the least we deserve.
One thing is for sure: if we do not take charge of our industry and start working aggressively to improve things, nobody else is going to do it for us. The attitude of “anything goes, just get the gig” that has produced rampant fee undercutting and fuels abusive practices such as ghostwriting must end if we are to survive as an industry. Today, more and more people have their hand out for a piece of copyright or writers royalties. It’s up to us to create a process and a framework where those kind of payoffs are a thing of the past and we can proudly claim authorship to the music we write.