Toplining – What it is (and Isn’t) and How to Become a Topliner
Toplining is a weird music term. Some musicians I’ve spoken with about songwriting had never heard of it. Others believed that songwriting and toplining were the same thing. I want to talk about exactly what it is and how you can become a topliner in the industry.
What is toplining?
Toplining is essentially writing a vocal part over a pre-made music bed. It *is* songwriting in the sense that you’re writing a crucial part of the song, but it is *not* songwriting in that you’re creating a new song from scratch. If someone hires you to do toplining, they’ve already created the music and you will be expected to write the rest.
Why do people hire topliners?
Producers are often really talented at creating beats and synth tracks. They can do this part but aren’t confident in their vocal melody or lyric writing skills. That would be where a topliner comes in. Sometimes instrument players want to hire topliners instead of writing the whole thing themselves. There are many possibilities!
How common is toplining?
For me, toplining is probably 90% of my songwriting work. I do it for EDM producers, commercials, bands, and other situations where people don’t want to write the vocal part. The other 10% is songwriting – writing the full song for clients from the ground up. So I’m obviously biased when I say toplining is extremely common, but if you want to get paid work as a songwriter you’ll definitely want to try toplining as an option.
How do I get started as a topliner?
First, you’ll want to hone your craft. Don’t take a paid gig until you know exactly how to do it! Get some free music beds or background music online and practice writing to it. Have fun with this! See how many ideas you can create. Use this to create your reel of example toplines you’ve done. Another tip: Use one track to create several songs! I did this when I was first starting to show people that I could take their idea and do multiple things with it. It got me my first couple of toplining gigs! Set up your social media and let people know you’re available for toplining services.
How do I get paid for toplining?
This can be tricky, since you are writing part of the song but not all of it. You can work this several ways.
- Option 1: No up-front pay, but larger royalty split
- I actually don’t recommend this one often. Unless you are sure the song will sell and generate revenue (if the client already has proven sales and a large following), you’re unlikely to make a ton of money off of royalties. Still, if you want the work and the client doesn’t have money but is willing to split 50/50 with you, it might be an option
- Option 2: Work For Hire (no royalties, all up-front pay)
- This is most common for me. I do this because I’m not sure what will happen to the song after I’m done with it, and I need the money up front (musicians don’t often live lavishly, in case you’re wondering). However, the obvious downside to this is that if the song ever does become huge, I will make nothing off of sales. So it’s important to decide if this is a risk you’re willing to take.
- Option 3: A combination of the above
- Let’s say you are offered a lower rate than you would normally accept, or the client doesn’t have enough to pay. This is a good time to negotiate royalties with them if you’re willing to do this. Create an amount of up-front pay combined with royalties that will make both of you happy.
SonicBids has a great article on toplining if you want to check it out here.
Here is my songwriting reel, which includes many toplined tracks:
If you’d like to work with me on a toplining track, please contact me here!
Do you prefer toplining or writing the whole thing? Do you have a standard payment arrangement? Please let me know!
For those of you who prefer videos to blogs, here is a video summary of this post:
I wrote a whole book about songwriting, toplining, and how to communicate with your fellow musicians in order to get a great song. Good songs can be great songs if everyone is on the same page, so make sure you all understand the goal of the song! If you want to check the book out, it’s right here!
I am also currently giving private consultations for session musicians. We can talk about whatever you like, whether it’s toplining, recording, or any other aspect of running a session business. Feel free to contact me about it here!