Why Do Five or More Songwriters Have To Share a Single Oscar?
Since the Academy Awards handed out their first statuettes for best original song in 1935, almost two-thirds of the winners have been writing duos, including such legendary twosomes as Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, Burt Bacharach and Hal David, and Alan Menken and Howard Ashman.
Now, 87 years after composer Con Conrad and Herb Magidson won the inaugural trophies for penning “The Continental” from the 1934 film The Gay Divorcee, some observers say the Oscars need to update their rules to better reflect how songs are now created.
Current academy rules favor fewer songwriters at a time when the number of writers per song is increasing. So far this year, the average number of songwriters credited on a Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 is 6.4, compared with 4.77 over a decade ago in 2009.
Yet the academy considers any combination of more than two writers for a best original song contender an exception. According to the rules, if there are three or four songwriters, “a third statuette may be awarded when there are essentially equal writers of a song. The Music Branch Executive Committee has the right, in what it alone determines to be a very rare and extraordinary circumstance, to award a fourth statuette.”
If there are five or more credited songwriters, only one statuette is awarded to the collective, and the rules state “each songwriter must agree to the single ‘group statuette’ option by signing and returning a Group Award form prior to the submission deadline.” (Though a handful of other categories limit the number of eligible nominees, only best original song and best original score have the group statuette option.)
To deny all eligible songwriters their own statuette, regardless of the number, is “antiquated thinking,” says a senior A&R executive at a major label who has worked on Oscar-nominated songs. “The creation of art evolves over time. And as an organization that represents art — whether it’s visual media art or recorded art — you have to adapt and evolve.”
The academy (which declined to respond to the anonymous opinions in this piece) is clinging to a tradition “going back decades, that the way a song got written was essentially by two people, a composer and lyricist,” says the head of music at a movie studio. “They’re out of touch.”
Only two best original song winners have had four songwriters (“Arthur’s Theme” in 1982 and “Shallow” in 2019), and no Oscar has gone to five or more songwriters. Only once have more than five writers been nominated, when all seven members of Counting Crows earned a nod for “Accidentally in Love” from Shrek 2 in 2004. The next year, the limitation on the number of statuettes was introduced.
As a result, when there are more than four songwriters, it’s often up to them to make a hard decision. In January 2019, “All the Stars,” from Black Panther, received a best original song nod, but only four of the five songwriters — Kendrick Lamar, SZA, Sounwave and Anthony Tiffith — were credited. Fifth collaborator Alexander Shuckburgh (aka Al Shux) was not listed, even though a month earlier, when “All the Stars” received a Grammy nod for song of the year, his name was. (Shux did not respond for a request for comment.)
“Because of the constraints of the rules, we’ve had to have really uncomfortable conversations with songwriters to say, ‘Hey, you guys, go away and figure this out,’ ” says the movie studio executive, adding that in some cases, the writers have come back with participating songwriters left off to cull their total to four. “It’s hurtful and unfair.”
At least two tracks that could potentially make the shortlist of 15 songs to be announced Dec. 21 have five or more songwriters. “Lift Your Wings” from Netflix’s My Father’s Dragon has five credited songwriters. It was entered as a group submission so all writers would be recognized. The title track to My Mind & Me, Apple Original Films’ documentary about Selena Gomez, has six songwriters.
The group submission form requests a detailed explanation of the creative process, and songwriters may be deemed ineligible at the Music Branch committee’s discretion.
“I understand from the perspective of the academy that they want to keep it special and not be perceived as handing [awards] out like a participation prize,” says another label executive, “but some of the best songs of the past 20 years have been written by an army of collaborators, [and] we’ve seen an evolution of thought in terms of how those songs are regarded.”
The head of music at another movie studio sees the issue as more nuanced and, while not necessarily agreeing with the limitations on the hardware handed out, appreciates the seriousness of the academy’s deliberations when there are several songwriters.
“Each song can be a unique situation, and you have to be able to consider that,” the executive says. “You do have to look at who has done the majority of the work. It’s really important that you have music that was determinately created from scratch for that project. You have to put guardrails somewhere.”