Are Drum Beats And Bass Parts Songwriting?

Recently electronic musician BT was sued for copying a 9 second drum beat from another song. According to this press release he was cleared of charges of copy and sampling this drum beat. “Plaintiffs had no credible evidence that BT copied the drumbeat, or that he ever heard Vargas’s album.” Furthermore, the “Basic drumbeats and rhythm patterns should not be subject to copyright protection at all and there is substantial case law that says they are not,” explained Anthony Falzone, the executive director of the Fair Use Project and lead counsel in the case.

This is interesting because I was just having a conversation with a drummer about this very topic just this week. Can a drum beat or drum part be considered a copyrightable part of a song, or part of songwriting? Copyright law, as the quote above indicates, says no. But, so many drummers feel that the drum parts in a song are an integral part of a song and the song couldn’t exist without it. This is also true with many bass players. They also feel that the parts they play in a song contribute to the songwriting. As a bass player I used to think this too, however, this is something that I learned to get over pretty early in my career. There is a big difference between performing a song and writing a song.

OK, drummers and bass players (and rhythm guitarists), time to get over your egos and ask yourself, “can the song be played with another part other than the one you performed?” I would venture a guess that 99 in 100 times that what you played can be replaced by just about anything any other drummer or bass player can come up with. Think about this, if the drum or bass part was so integral to a song how could a song be performed by a single vocalist and an acoustic guitar? In this case they are definitely not necessary or an integral part of the song. Songs can be performed many different ways without actually changing the song. How about when the song is done in a different style? For example, when a Ska band covers a metal song, or when a jazz band covers a pop song. The drummers and the bass players don’t need to play the same bass parts as the originals. It’s the lyric and melody that make the song, not the bass and drums. Most of what we play is taken from other drummers and bass players.

Not convinced? In Ska songs the drum and bass is very similar in most songs. In AC/DC songs the drum parts are the same in more than half the songs! The bass player is pounding the root note of each chord for almost every song. There are thousands of blues songs that have the same drum and bass parts and these drummers and bass players aren’t claiming songwriting credit.

I know, I know. You were playing drums or bass while the song was being written. But that doesn’t mean you wrote the song. Think about it, unless you came up with the progression of the song or the lyrics or melody you didn’t write the song. What you did was help the songwriters to work through their song idea and help determine the style in which the song will be played by your band.

Think about this: you get hired to play drums on the new Pearl Jam record. Eddie Vedder says, “We are looking for a straight-up rock feel in the verse, a tribal thing in the chorus and go wild in the solo.” Do you deserve songwriting credit? Did you write the song?

Now, do I believe that bass players and drummers can be songwriters and contribute to songwriting? Sure I do!

While it’s true that during the songwriting process what the drummer and bass player play usually isn’t songwriting, it can influence the writing of the song. It’s entirely possible that your performance influenced the songwriters to write what they did, and maybe that song wouldn’t exist in that way with out your performance, but you still didn’t write the song. What you can do is discuss your influence over the song and negotiate some sort of vanity credit or publishing split. If you came up with part of the progression, or part of the melody for the singer or some of the lyrics, then you definitely wrote part of the song.

I think it is much easier for a bass player to write a part that is integral to the song and be eligible for songwriting credit because the of the nature of the instrument. “Walking on the Moon” by the Police has a simple, really distinct bass part in the verses that can arguably be considered melodically necessary to the song. “Sweet Emotion” by Aerosmith wouldn’t be the same without Tom Hamilton’s bass part. “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place” by the Animals can’t be played without the bass part. I would love get songwriting credit for all my bass parts, but for the most part they aren’t eligible.
Some drummers would argue that Neil Peart from Rush is a great example of a drummer that writes parts that are integral to a song, and that Rush songs can’t be played without them. Sure his drum parts are very musical, but I still believe that you can take out the drums and Geddy Lee’s bass and play most Rush songs with just a singer and acoustic guitar.

How did all this happen? Why do bass players and drummers think that their parts are part of the songwriting? I am guessing that this happened with the advent of garage bands writing their own songs and in the spirit of camaraderie sharing songwriting credit equally with all band members regardless of their contribution. I know know that this was true in virtually all the bands I have ever been in. This is a very popular thing for bands to do. To this day, Bon Jovi gives songwriting credit to his band to ensure that his band isn’t poor while he makes millions as the songwriter. While I don’t always agree with it, sharing songwriting credit can be a good thing to keep bands together. It still doesn’t mean you wrote the song.