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Why Do Modern Pop Songs Have So Many Credited Writers?

How modern songwriting evolved into a game of aggressive credit—even for the people who didn’t technically do the composing.

According to a 2019 Wall Street Journal report, the number of musical copyright infringement cases rose 31 percent from 2,341 to 3,061 between 2015 and 2018. While most of those lawsuits never get very far, George Washington University maintains a musical copyright infringement database that also shows a dramatic rise in settled federal musical copyright lawsuits.

When these cases are settled in favor of the plaintiff, more songwriting credits are added after a song’s release. This is why the number of songwriters listed on Mark Ronson’s “Uptown Funk” has increased over the years. To avoid a Mark-Ronson-style-courtroom-induced headache, artists will sometimes preemptively credit writers of older songs even if the similarity between the older song and their composition is purely coincidental.

This is distinct from there being a rise in songwriters because of more sampling and interpolation. For example, Hayley Williams and Josh Farro were granted songwriting credits on Olivia Rodrigo’s 2021 number one “good 4 u” because the song bore resemblance to “Misery Business,” an earlier song the duo wrote for their band Paramore. Though there are similarities between the songs, I think it’s a stretch to say that “good 4 u” infringes on the copyright of “Misery Business.” Songwriters cannot own entire styles.

To reiterate, much of the reason songwriting credits have launched into the stratosphere is because we live in a very litigious world. Whether you’re a singer, songwriter, corporation, or ghost of music’s past, everybody wants a piece of the pie. But producers have also started getting more of that pie. While some of that also comes down to the money, it’s also due to how the computer has warped our definition of what songwriting is.

The real reason for the rise in songwriting credits might come down to producers

Historically, there was a clear distinction between songwriting and production. Songwriting was when somebody sat down and wrote lyrics to go along with chords and a melody. In effect, a song is an abstract object. The old folk song “Oh! Susanna” is the same whether I play it on a banjo or a piano. Production, by contrast, is a specific arrangement or recording of a song. Choosing to record “Oh! Susanna” on the banjo or the piano is a production decision.

Back in the day, songwriting and production duties were often segregated. This was cost effective. Not only was getting into a studio expensive, but you had to have technical know-how to create a professional quality recording. It made more sense for a song to be composed outside of the studio and then handed off to a producer to get it recorded.

This isn’t the case anymore. For a few hundred dollars, you can create a professional quality recording in your bedroom. Plus, since you’re working on a computer, it’s much easier to collaborate with people remotely. This has blurred the line between songwriting and production to the point where you can record a song as you write it. Because of this, things that might historically only result in a production credit, like crafting orchestration or a rhythm, now result in a songwriting credit. The creation of the 2018 top ten hit “The Middle” by Zedd, Maren Morris, and Grey, as recounted to the New York Times, illustrates these ideas.