When a song has performer A, composer B, and lyricist C, who is the artist of this song?

Is this decided by rules not based on the creative process, e.g., by producers? Or is the artist the party that had the "idea" for the song (and, so to say, engaged the other two parties to work for them)? Or are, technically, all three parties the artists of the song?

  • 2
    Did you have a specific context in mind? legal? mp3 metadata?
    – user16
    Feb 25, 2015 at 13:37
  • @topomorto: Metadata for tagging music would be one example (I often see that the artist field is listing only one party, while other parties are credited separately as composer, lyricist, or performer). Mainly I wonder how to correctly credit involved parties when writing about a work, e.g. in the typical "<artist> - <title>" notation.
    – unor
    Feb 25, 2015 at 13:47

4 Answers 4


As already pointed out, it's a somewhat ill-defined term, so if you want to avoid ambiguity, it's probably best to avoid the word 'artist' altogether, and instead credit individuals using more specific terms such as the ones you already mentioned.

In pop music, an 'artist' often means the main named recording artist. So Frank Sinatra is the 'artist' for a Frank Sinatra solo song, even if he didn't have a hand in composing it, or if there were other backing singers. An exception would be if a DJ had written a track and got a programmer to help them with some of the sounds and arrangements, and hired a singer to record some vocal samples. In this case, the DJ, as the overall coordinator of the production, would probably be seen as the 'artist'.

In the case of bands, the band is often seen as a single collective 'artist', depending on context.

Classical music seems to cause more confusion - is the 'artist' the composer, or the performer? I've seen examples of people looking at it either way, but unless they are the same person it's always going to be better to credit the performer and composer separately,

  • In my experience most classical music is introduced giving both the composer and the performer.
    – user3169
    Feb 25, 2015 at 23:01
  • 1
    @user3169 yes, and ideally you can maintain that information. But then you can get problems when you are forced to choose one 'artist' - e.g. when you are arranging a bunch of cds by 'artist', or adding data to a (badly-designed) database.
    – user16
    Feb 25, 2015 at 23:07

According to the OED an artist is:

A person who practises or performs any of the creative arts, such as a sculptor, film-maker, actor, or dancer. - oxforddictionaries

So in reference to music and songs, the term 'artist' is slightly misused as it refers to an individual.

So, Kate Bush is an Artist who is mostly responsible for her works.

And, Geddy Lee, Neil Peart & ALex Lifeson are Artists but together they form a band 'Rush' and are jointly responsible for their works.

Add into that producers, album artwork painters, piano tuners etc. etc. you can see that any undertaking can be said to be made up of 'Artists'.

So, technically, yes, all three of your examples are the 'Artists' of the song...


To take a slightly different stance, the artist is "whatever it says on the label" - in the broadest terms.

Specifically because that is the tag by which all the Performing Right & Mechanical Performance/Sales organisations internationally recognise that performance.

So if it says "The London Philharmonic Orchestra, Conducted by Sir Simon Rattle", that's who the artist is.
As equally valid as if it says "Frank Sinatra" or "Rush" to take two earlier examples, or if it says "Billy Bragg"
… even though everybody is aware that many people were involved in the performance of the first three examples & more than likely the only person on Mr Bragg's track was Mr Bragg himself.

The other performers will all have their names & the part they played in the project listed in the official records at the Mechanical Performance/Sales organisations, & will all be paid accordingly.

Who composed & authored the work is a completely different question. The "work" & the "performance" are not the same thing, no matter how closely-related they may appear to be.

In the case of a DJ/producer collaboration, the lines blur on writing/performance/production - however, production credits are paid separately to performance credits or composition - so someone, somewhere, signed a form saying who gets what percentage of which Right.

...but the Artist is still what it says on the label ;-)


The most extreme example of how little meaning the “Artist” has:

John “Jellybean” Benitez had 2 fairly big hits in 1987 with “Who Found Who” and “The Real Thing” on which he was credited as the Artist. At the time, much was made about what he DIDN’T do on these records, he didn’t Write, Arrange, Produce, Play, Program or Sing anything on these records. His contribution was described as “a feel thing”.

The 80’s/90’s dance music act called Change didn’t actually exist as a group in any sense whatsoever. The first hits were actually sung by American session vocalists (including Luther Vandross) but were performed musically by “The Goody Music Orchestra” in Italy. Writers/Producers were fairly stable. However, by the 3rd album (and later hits), all of the writing, production, performing and recording was done by Jam and Lewis in the USA.

Before the band 10cc made a name in their own right, they wrote, arranged, played and recorded a number of tracks under a variety of band names which were all the legal property of 2 US Businessmen, Kasenetz and Katz. All these band names had previously existed as real bands but has been acquired by Kasenetz and Katz who had the right to release records in the name of these bands.

Contrast with Stevie Wonder who often plays every instrument on his records – as well as singing, arranging, producing and being the sole writer.

  • 1
    See also: Plastic Bertrand, who didn't do anything on "Ça plane pour moi" -- he was hired as the pretty face to promote the record. The real singer is Lou Deprijck.
    – BCdotWEB
    Mar 20, 2015 at 21:41
  • @BCdotWEB Didn't know that, thanks for the info. Of course, there's the Milli Vanilli thing too.
    – Lefty
    Mar 20, 2015 at 22:06

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