Ghostwriting and The Composers Union

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.


  • Les Hurdle
    December 1, 2009 @ 6:16 pm

    >>>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.<<<

    Who will legally be able to apply a 'fine' if the rule is broken?

    How will they know?


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  • December 2, 2009 @ 8:41 am

    Great article!
    Thanks for this, Mark!

    Let’s get to it, fellow composers!!

  • Keith
    December 2, 2009 @ 10:39 am

    The problem of ghostwriting seems to be worsening. I have a friend who is the assistant to the ghostwriter of a major television composer. A ghostie position can pay the bills and provide a good training ground, but it stifles the growth of your career by keeping you anonymous. Music is the only category in TV and film that doesn’t have an established hierarchy of credits. From producers and directors down to caterers and loggers, everyone is listed as a contributor to the project with the exception of composers. I would love to see a music credit structure that looks like this:

    Lead Composer – asst composer – 2nd asst composer(s)
    Lead orchestrator – asst. orchestrator(s)
    Lead copyist – asst copyist(s) – conductor – etc.

    Thanks for the article, Mark

  • Joe
    December 2, 2009 @ 11:20 am

    I see the stand that we need to take. However, the line is SO incredibly blurred. In my experiences, ghostwriters are usually given “themes” to use throughout the cues. So arguably, a “ghostwriter” might just be an “arranger” – granted, there will probably be “original” materials linking these themes together. And more often than not, when a ghost writer finishes a cue, the “name” composer usually “tweak” it – so how do we deal with that?

    This union is a great idea! We need numbers at this point! The idea of every man/woman for him or herself does not work anymore!

    This industry is full of irony! Not to speak for everyone, but I think most of us really don’t like how this industry works, yet our love for this art keeps us from leaving it.

  • December 2, 2009 @ 2:24 pm

    Great article, I heartily agree. I am curious what people think about cue sheet credit for “arrangers”, who are using the themes written by the “lead” composer but actually doing the writing to picture and making necessary adjustments and choices regarding harmony, color, tempo, etc.

    I have seen situations where the arranger and lead composer split cue sheet credit 50/50, which seems to make sense to me since the arranger is doing the work but the lead composer came up with the initial concept. I think it’s reasonable, but I’m interested to know what other people think of this arrangement?

  • Joe
    December 2, 2009 @ 2:48 pm

    @Ryan, 50/50 would be ideal. I agree. I still think the line is very blur. Because I’ve been an orchestrator where I have taken the role of the arranger as well. It’s not so clear cut all the time. I’ve also been in situations where a cue was passed on to me by another ghost-writer who already worked on the cue, and I was supposed to fix things, subsequently the cue is passed on to someone else to be fix. There’s got to be a way to make this work for everyone.

    A lot of contracts are written such that the composer is supposed to be the only person coming up with the music. I think that is probably the top reason for composers not giving cue sheet credit to the ghost writers, future royalties being the second top reason probably.

    There are composers out there who do it right. Hats off to them!

    Do you think a strike is possible?

  • December 2, 2009 @ 7:05 pm

    What if companies don’t want to hire union composers? Also what about the practice of not putting anyone’s name on a cue sheet because big networks don’t want to pay blanket agreements anymore? I think you will find that many big networks and production companies will not work with a union. They will want to own every aspect outright. I am all for getting a fair deal and I hope things improve but how will a union enforce composer’s rights?

  • December 2, 2009 @ 7:41 pm

    I am so touched by this. I spent 3 years of my life ghostwriting, only to get out of it with more debt than before and never able to step up as a more established composer. I’m not going to mention names at this point since mine wasn’t even mentioned either. Granted it was a unique learning experience, but how is a young composer supposed to start a career and make a name for him/herself if he/she can’t take credit for his/her work and not even able to build up an impressive film reel. I sure hope that this union thing will work out for all of us. I’m happy to see that, though sad to know that i actually got so tired of it, i left the country to live somewhere else, far…. far away from the mecha of music production. Here, i can be a bigger fish in a smaller pond. As i have learned from other people’s mistakes, actually giving the diserved credit to my collaborators has made me more establshed in the local market. I hope this organization will be a worldwide thing, though i’m sure it will only apply to Americans. If you think hollywood’s a mess, wait until you see what people get away with here in Chile. It can go as far as talent agents and managers taking authorship of their client’s work. You should be dumb in the first place to get into this kind of deal but a lot of musicians here actually have no idea. The local ASCAP is growing, but very slowly and not always surely. Greetings from Chile, from a fellow Berklee alum.

  • Joe
    December 2, 2009 @ 7:46 pm

    How would the Union police this – checking how much ghost writers and main composers are composing? This raises so many questions.

    I’m curious about foreign composers too, and composers not located in LA. As we saw what happened to the orchestras, to avoid the union, people go out of LA, ie, Seattle, Bratislava, Prague…Anyone think the same trend will happen – once a union for composers is formed – then filmmaker just hire people from other cities or countries?

    Thoughts anyone?

  • Keith
    December 3, 2009 @ 9:39 am

    That should be negotiated and agreed to by both parties in a standard union contract between composer and second composer, orchestrator etc. 50%, 20%, 5% of Something is better than 100% of Nothing. That way, while you’re learning your craft, you at least get some royalties- and – you get credit, you can use the music on your own reel and it ends predatory practices.

  • Adeyemi
    December 3, 2009 @ 2:40 pm

    Good knowledge you are leashing out to us Mark, hi guys. I am also a music ghostwriter, I know it might sound strange but I like what I do, I even have a site coming up soon. But my mail for now is

  • December 5, 2009 @ 8:20 am

    Many times it’s not the lead composer that is unwilling to give credit – it’s the ramifications they fear with their director/producer relationship, professionally and contractually, that tie their hands. (ergo, why they can’t put any other names on the cue sheets)

    Simply put, personally they’re fine with sharing credit, but professionally it’s suicide for them to do so (producer/director freak out. You know what I mean)

    We need to make it safe for composers to give the credit, which means changing the perception of the people at the top, which is a much harder row to hoe.

    It needs to be accepted industry practice that lead composers sometimes need to hire assistant composers, additional music composers, arrangers – pick your title – in order to meet the often insane deadlines.

    Lots of great ideas above re: hierarchy of credits, pre-established percentages, etc. Another compromise could be to leave screen credit with the lead composer as long as cue sheet credit is given, so the ghostwriter can get paid and use the cue sheet credit for their own promotional purposes. The general public wouldn’t know any different but it would make a huge difference for the ghostwriter in our little world.

    If producer/directors were on board with things like that, I’m confident that most of our fine lead composers would have no problem giving credit.

    So, yeah, maybe you’re right – maybe the only way the director/producer lot will start to accept that is if the really big guns start to stand up and demand it.

  • Mark Northam
    December 5, 2009 @ 10:18 am

    Hi Desha –

    I agree with you – cue sheet credit for assistant composers is a perfectly reasonable standard, even if screen credit is avail only for the primary composer. I expect it will probably be the union, vs the big composers, who take a stand for it, though. So often in our industry, individuals are simply not willing to take a stand for much of anything – I expect many are hoping the union will do that, but in reality the union only represents the sum total of all of our expectations – and those expectations are going to determine what the union eventually looks like, depending on who gets involved.

  • Joe
    December 15, 2009 @ 6:22 pm

    Let’s face it. It is the ghost writers’ choice to accept a job or not. If the conditions are that there’d be no credit no cue sheet…simply don’t take the job.

    Think about it – the ghost writers are just as responsible for perpetuating the problem as the lead composers. We WILLINGLY take on these gigs knowing there wont’ be cue sheet, and no credit…yet we complain about it? I don’t understand.

    Many ghost writers I know are doing phenomenally well for themselves, like one of the above users Adeyemi – who can openly admit that he or she enjoys ghostwriting. There are ghost writers who have been able to buy houses and cars, raise families from doing ghost writing. This is not to say that the practice is “right”.

    So maybe next time we’re offered a ghost writing gig for no credit and no cue sheet…we should all say no…hmmm – who’s willing?

  • jesse hopkins
    April 15, 2010 @ 9:50 pm

    ghostwriting lacks integrity and devalues the profession

  • Sad Industry
    July 30, 2016 @ 11:14 am

    The biggest scam occurred over the last 8 years in the music industry stealing a young girls work. Part of her work included goo goo dolls Magnetic and Boxes….She has so much more work dating back to 2009. Listen for it you can hear it.

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