Toplining Etiquette: How to Hire a Topliner
Toplining is a vague and confusing topic. The more I’ve been doing it, the more I realize that most people don’t know what it is or aren’t sure what it entails. I think it needs to be discussed and defined, so why not do it for you here?
I’ve been a topliner since I was a kid, when my uncle would give me instrumentals to write over. I know, that’s a really boring story, but I just want to put it out there because I’ve done it for a really long time. I’ve also done it as a career full-time, making songs for commercials. Now I do it part-time for private clients, but there’s still so much missing or bad info that I want to clear things up.
First, what is toplining?
Toplining (or Top Lining, or Top-Lining) is when someone writes a vocal melody and lyrics over a pre-written track. Occasionally (but not always), the writer will also sing the topline. Other times, the co-writers will then hire a session singer to sing the song once it’s written.
I wrote about toplining once here, but this is going to be way more in-depth and geared toward those who hire or work with topliners.
Here is a video I made about this post if you prefer to watch rather than read:
Tips to Hire a Topliner
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These are my absolute best tips to get what you need from hiring a topliner:
1). Be VERY Specific About What You Need
These are actual screenshots from people seeking topliners:
There is literally no way for me to quote a price on these. I don’t know what they even are. I don’t think THEY know what they’re asking for.
If you’re not sure what you need exactly, I have free worksheets in my library that will help you hone in on what you’re looking for.
The most important thing to know up front is: Do you want just a topliner or a singer as well?
Please note that this will impact the price, but we’ll get into cost below.
2). Focus on One Song at a Time
A lot of songwriters like to work with the same person, and that’s totally understandable. However, working on 2+ songs at once can get messy and confusing. Unless you have a tight deadline and need all 3 songs finished at once, working one at a time is much better.
It saves confusion when writing back and forth. If someone wants me to “change the bridge,” I don’t have to respond with, “which one?”
Also, you might find that you and your topliner are not a good fit, and you don’t want to find that out and still have 4 songs left in your contract. Working on one at a time will allow you to get to know your topliner better and decide if you want to keep working with them.
Even if you buy a bundle from someone (you may get a discount from some people), I still recommend focusing on only one song at a time.
2). Define the Terms Up Front
A lot of topliners will have policies for clients, but you should have some terms to bring to the table as well.
Some important terms to consider:
- Who keeps the rights and royalties to the song? If there is a split, is it even or does it depend on other factors?
- Who keeps creative control over the song? Who makes the final call on things like lyrics and singing style?
- Will the topliner and/or singer’s name be used on the project? If not, what is the expected protocol? (Singers should have policies on this!)
- Who will be in charge of promoting the song? (See #4 below)
- Who is in charge of mixing and mastering, or hiring those services? (Normally it’s whomever holds creative control, but if it’s a 50/50 split, this is something to discuss up front!)
3). Do Not Lie About Your Clout
Mini Rant Time: Why do people do this?? I don’t understand. I’ve had SO many people approach me and say some version of this ridiculous line:
“This song has been picked up by a major label. I just need you to topline and sing it.”
Please trust me: There isn’t a major label on earth who will “pick up” a song that hasn’t been finished yet. Especially when they don’t know the person finishing it.
I don’t know if people do this to seem like their song is more important, or to make the singer more excited about working on it because they think all singers want to be on major labels. It won’t, and we don’t. Please trust me. You don’t need to lie about this. We also don’t care how many Instagram followers you have. We are professionals offering a service, so the outside details are relatively unimportant.
4). Address Promotion Up Front
If you want your topliner to promote the song on their own social media, that needs to be discussed before the project ends.
Typically, I don’t promote songs I’ve worked on unless it has been previously agreed upon (and reflected in the cost). The song isn’t “mine,” so I normally don’t even think to promote it, assuming the client has their own promotional plan.
It’s totally fine to want your topliner to promote your song, but they need to know early on and they need to know your expectations for that. It may impact the cost, and/or they may be more willing to promote if there is a royalty split.
This could tie into #2 above, but I feel like this is such a common issue that it needs to be its own separate tip.
How to Meet, Approach and Hire Topliners
While social media is probably the best way to meet topliners, there are ways to contact them that will increase your chances of working with them.
I do NOT recommend the standard “collab, bro?” comments or DMs.
This is a business venture, so you’ll want to approach topliners like you would any freelancer you might hire. Even if you’re looking for a 50/50 split with no payment up front, it’s still better to be slightly professional. It doesn’t need to be a business email with a cover letter of course, but there are ways to be professional while still being friendly and approachable.
Here is an example of how NOT to approach someone (that I receive all the time):
“Need singer and writer for my song. You down?”
Here is an example of a GREAT approach:
“Hi Mella, I saw your work on (however you found me) and I think you’d be a good fit for my project. I’m seeking a topliner and singer. Are you available to discuss terms?”
You could also list your own terms if you already have them. But see the difference? The first one will not likely even receive a response, as I can tell they’ve pasted it and sent it to 40 other people. The second one is personable and actionable.
Plan Your Project Before Searching for a Topliner
You don’t have to know every detail of course, but the more you DO know, the better. At the bare minimum, I need to know what you need: Lyrics only? Lyrics and singing? Lyrics, melody AND singing? The more details you can provide, the better.
I made you a present: These worksheets are designed to help you get clarity on your project. They’ll walk you through the process and help you address terms. You’ll have to join my mailing list, but you’ll get access to a library of resources to help you with your music career!
Sign up here for your toplining worksheets:
I hope this toplining guide helps you with your next project! Let me know if you have any questions in the comments!
If you’d like to work with me as a topliner, I have limited availability depending on the time of year. Contact me and let me know what you need!