The Average Hit Song Has 4+ Writers and 6 Different Publishers

Want to create a hit song that will get you on the Billboard Top 10?  Then you’re gonna need a committee.

According to a new study, the number of writers and publishers on hit songs has increased substantially.  In the 1960s, an average hit song on the Billboard Top 10 had an average of 1.87 writers and 1.68 publishers each year.  Songwriting duos were common, and creativity a simpler endeavor.

Now, popular mainstream songs have (on average) at least four writers and six publishers each.  And that, ladies and gentlemen, underscores the challenge that the music industry faces in licensing and rights administration.

Using data from its Songdex catalog registry, Music Reports dug into Billboard’s annual Top 10 hits.  They analyzed the registry by decade, from the 1960s until the 2010s.

This wasn’t a straight line increase.

During the LP era (60s-80s), the number of songwriters and publishers on hit songs didn’t rise as dramatically.  Based on the Songdex analysis, in the 70s, hit songs on the Billboard Top 10 had an average of 1.95 writers and 2.04 publishers each.  During the 80s, the number of average publishers in top 10 songs slightly rose to 2.06.  The number of writers remained the same.

In the 90s, the number spiked to an average of 3.13 writers and 3.49 publishers per top 10 song.  Incidentally, the change coincides with the rise of digital music formats, such as the MP3.  Napster also launched in 1999.  All of which ushered in an era of massive data overload (and that’s before streaming took hold).

Consumers quickly adopted digital music formats, resulting in a “market need for registration, licensing and reporting systems,” says Music Reports.  In the 2000s, Billboard Top 10 hits had an average of 3.50 writers and 4.96 publishers each year.   The music industry couldn’t support the increased complexity in music rights ownership.  It also wasn’t prepared for the “exponential consumption” of digital music.

Arguably, the industry still isn’t prepared.

This past decade, streaming has emerged as a major source of revenue for record labels.  Using its Songdex catalog registry, Music Reports noted that Billboard Top 10 hits saw an average of 4.07 writers and six publishers.

Speaking on the data, Bill Colitre, Music Reports’ Vice President and General Counsel, noted the complexity of music licensing in the new millennium.

Looking at the Songdex data, what’s particularly interesting is that the increase in the average number of publishers per song is even greater than that of the number of writers.  This analysis underscores why music licensing, administration and royalty accounting is such a specialized area, and if a company can’t maintain a refined, reliable database like Songdex – for all music, whatever the era – they run a real risk of missing critical rights information.

You can find the breakdown of average writers and songwriters for Top 10 hits by decade below.

  • 1960s – 1.87 writers, 1.68 publishers
  • 1970s – 1.95 writers, 2.04 publishers
  • 1980s – 1.95 writers, 2.06 publishers
  • 1990s– 3.13 writers, 3.49 publishers
  • 2000s – 3.50 writers, 4.96 publishers
  • 2010s– 4.07 writers, 6.00 publishers


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Image by Music Reports



Image by Adrian F (CC by 2.0)

15 Responses

  1. Anonymous

    Does writer include melodies or just lyrics? Thanks.

    • William

      Yes! It gets complicated real quick with more people. If you wrote the lyrics, did you write all? Some? If some, what percentage? Did you write the whole melody? Some? What percentage? What about the chord progression? Or including something new to the song?

      The songwriters somehow come to an agreement as to what percentage of the song they wrote. It sounds like its literally a committee working on a song. Geez.

  2. Elbow

    Anyone who has worked on songwriting for major label stuff knows that half (or more) of the writers have nothing to do with actually writing or composing the work, it is more about leverage and credits/pub income for the artist, producer, etc.

  3. London Publisher

    Talk about the elephant in the room. Right there. Staring out at us. More publishers than writers. Why the hell would anyone need more than one publisher for their share of a work? They wouldn’t. That extra publisher isn’t there out of the writer’s necessity. They’re getting cut in on a deal.

    Publishing is just seen as another source of income, where the artist, label, producer, et al, feel they deserve a slice (and, ahem, will drop the project if you argue). Even though none of them wrote anything. Which makes life especially hard for publishers, who want to sign writers exclusively and pay advances, but are aware that they may be cut down once a big hit starts to happen.

    Ultimately, no one has ever suggested a label or artist should cut the writer/publisher in on their sales or neighbouring rights income. So why do the writers and publishers have to share their pie?

    • London Publisher

      I should clarify that the above rant was aimed at split-publishing (where a single writer’s share is split, going to two unconnected publishers) rather than situations where a writer’s publisher is then administered by another publisher, but it’s still a single publishing chain.

    • Anonymous

      In those cases, the artist or producer is generally listed as one of the songwriters, (regardless of how much actual “songwriting” they did). The phenomenon of there being more publishers than songwriters is primarily due to co-publishing deals, where a big publisher such as Universal administers on behalf of itself, and on behalf of the songwriter’s publishing entity. This also occurs because different publishers may administer on behalf of the same songwriter, but in different territories. Perhaps UMPG administers when a song is used in the US, and Warner/Chappell administers in the rest of the world. There’s also the type of use to consider. Perhaps one publisher controls mechanical rights, whereas another handles licensing for synchronization uses. Having more publishers than songwriters is quite normal. Keeping track of it all is the real trick.

  4. Anonymous

    Is anyone else wondering why the graph looks so weird? The blue line signaling the growth in publishers surpasses 5 on the Y axis somewhere between 2 and 3 and ends up at 6 publishers at the 10 mark on the Y axis. The line denoting the growth in writers looks fine, but I don’t know what’s up with the publisher growth line.

  5. danwriter

    The increase in the number of publishers is also attributable to the increase in co-publishing arrangements in which the writer participates on the publishing side through his or her own publishing company. So it’s not completely one sided. Also, while some record producers of a certain stature have always been able to command participation on the publishing side for what they produce, as the value of points on sales — the traditional form of producer back-end participation — declines along with record sales, publishing becomes an even more valuable form of compensation. And it includes participation in airplay royalty revenues, which sales points do not.

  6. Ross

    In the 70’s my British band Strapps released 4 albums. I alone was the writer of the songs and the publisher was Almighty Music (Bob Hirschmans co). I don’t understand this new world. It looks phoney or something to me … unwholesome lol