A to Z of Making It, Copyright, Music, My Stories, Unsung Heroes

Songwriting Issues – Using Examples From Michael Sweet

I just finished reading “Honestly: My Life And Stryper Revealed”. It’s actually a pretty honest book when it comes to the relationships and dynamics between Michael Sweet and the Stryper guys. For that part I recommend it. I can’t say that I agree with a lot of the “God’s Hand is at work here” paragraphs but what I do agree with in full and can relate to are the sections about songwriting within the band. Check out these paragraphs;

Dissention was brewing within the band over songwriting. There seemed to be a definitive division starting to build between the band and me concerning songwriting and royalties. Songwriters usually make more money and this was starting to cause some friction within the band. I began to feel an obligation to split all the songs with the band in response to indirect comments and criticism.

In an effort to keep the peace, I lined up a meeting with our attorney Stephen Ashley to discuss my proposition. I told him that I wanted all the songwriting to be split equally, regardless of who wrote what songs. Oz wrote two songs on that album (“Come To The Everlife” and “The Reign”). I should never have agreed to those songs making the cut (at least not without undergoing some major changes), but in 1988 I was more interested in keeping the peace than ensuring we had the best songs possible on an album.

Stephen Ashley privately consulted with me after our meeting on splitting the songwriting and strongly advised me against it. He told me that I would be giving away hundreds of thousands of dollars by doing so. But again, I wanted to keep the peace. I could tell that I was becoming the bad guy, or at least that’s how I perceived it. How did that work out by the way? How was I becoming the bad guy? I wrote what I felt—and apparently what the fans felt—were some really good songs that obviously played a major role in our success. Somehow, though, I was feeling like the bad guy.

That’s what being in a band can do sometimes. Somehow spending relentless hours alone refining and re-refining songs to become the greatest they can be for the band can be turned around to be a negative thing. What should have been gratitude appeared to be resentment, at least from my perspective.

I allowed mediocre songs to creep into our repertoire just to make everyone happy. I gave away what probably amounted to hundreds of thousands of dollars in songwriting royalties just to smooth things over. Everyone seemed happy for now, except me.

Fortunately Stephen had the wisdom to convince me not to allow my idea of splitting songwriting to stand in perpetuity. After a certain number of years, the songwriting credits would revert to the original writers. So short term, the term when the bulk of the money was earned on a song, we all split the money equally. Long term, the term when minimal money rolls in, I retained the songwriting credit for the songs I wrote. We all agreed to this arrangement and moved forward. For seven years I gave 25 percent to each band member and songwriting credit on songs they didn’t write.

Each band that is successful will have ONE major songwriter that does lyrics and music. Then there are other bands that will have ONE major writer on the music and ONE major writer on the lyrics. Motley Crue has Nikki Sixx. Iron Maiden has Steve Harris. Stryper has Michael Sweet. Kix had Donnie Purnell. Metallica has James Hetfield. Megadeth has Dave Mustaine. Kiss has Paul Stanley. For Slayer it was Jeff Hanneman. Get my drift on this.

With the other guys, it was as if it didn’t really matter if the best songs made the album, just as long as everyone was contributing and everyone was equal. Who cares if a sub-par song makes its way on the album, as long as everyone gets a fair shake?

So, I was the bad guy. I was the one saying “Nope, that song’s not good enough for the record.” And, honestly, I said that to myself more than anyone. For every good song that I wrote, there were dozens of ideas that never saw the light of day, all because I knew I could do better. It was somehow okay to say to myself, “Michael, you can do better. You can write a better song than what you’ve got here.” It was just very difficult to say those things to my band mates about their songs.

In all of the bands I was in this is what normally happened.

I would bring in a song complete, with lyrics and music. Before that song is even brought to the table it would have gone through multiple re-iterations with me. The band will jam on it and if the others felt a connection to the song, then it would remain. Otherwise it would disappear to either be re-written by me or torn apart and have the riffs used for other songs.

The singer would bring in a song complete with lyrics and music and I would tweak it and decorate it and by default I would end up re-writing it. In one band I was in, the singer was also the rhythm guitarist (we had a Metallica four piece set up) and we agreed that we would all write songs together in the jam room because that is what we believed that our heroes did. This was a very slow, painful, argumentative and gruelling process, as both the singer and I became the bad guys due to us weeding out the sub-par contributions which of course caused animosity. In the space of 12 months we had four songs and countless arguments. As far as the singer/guitarist was concerned, it was quality over quantity, which differed from my point of view in that quantity breeds quality.

Then in one band I had a bass player that always brought in something and something is as nice a word that I could use to describe what the something was.

Bands are messy but when other people that didn’t write the songs want a share of it, then it gets hostile. And the whole history of music is littered with people owning a percentage in songs that they didn’t write. Which is a shame. Hell, the whole “Bark At The Moon”album has words and music by Ozzy Osbourne, which we all know is bullshit. However it still stands and in 50 years people will most probably believe that Ozzy Osbourne wrote that album with one finger on the piano.

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