Archive for March, 2015

The ‘Blurred Lines’ Verdict: A Dangerous Precedent?

Posted in Feature, Music, Pop culture with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 16, 2015 by David Hall

You can’t fail to have noticed this past week the outcome of a lawsuit from the family of late Motown legend Marvin Gaye, who sued Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke for copyright infringement. The outcome was newsworthy because the judge in the case found in favour of the Gaye estate; turns out Williams and Thicke intentionally and wilfully ripped off ‘Got To Give It Up’ in 2013 ubiquito-hit ‘Blurred Lines’, for cold, hard profit.

Generally the verdict has been interpreted as setting a dangerous precedent, basically due to the tenuous nature of the similarities between the tracks. Highlighted in court were just two instances of simultaneity, totalling some 3 or 4 seconds of play time, and Gaye’s long-standing set-opener ‘Got To Give It Up’ (admittedly due to an injunction) wasn’t even played in court.

This article makes some good points, although it paints something of a doomsday scenario for future cases along similar lines, particularly highlighting the ‘top line melody’ argument, which seems to have been somewhat bypassed in last week’s proceeding. Usually when it comes to legal wrangles, the go-to basis for contesting similarities is that Song ‘A’s memorable, jump-out melody line is conspicuously re-appropriated at a later date by Song ‘B’. The reason why ‘Blurred Lines’, well… blurs the lines, is that the similarities between it and ‘Got To Give It Up’ are more to do with the production, the genre, the feel of the song than familiar melodies. These, say the many voices decrying the verdict, are all things you can’t really copyright.

The problematic precedent that this case sets is that it has heretofore been notoriously hard to prove or disprove copyright infringement – or plagiarism, call it what you will – between one song and another. In simple terms, there are only so many keys, scales and chords to combine in western popular music until, sooner or later, two configurations will almost certainly overlap.

“Pharrell and Thicke are far from the worst offenders”

Before now, it has been entirely plausible that a songwriter might simply ‘do a George Harrison’ and copy a song without realising it.

Hearing a song by 60’s girl group The Chiffons years earlier, Harrison unintentionally copied the melody for breakthrough solo single ‘My Sweet Lord’. His “subconscious plagiarism” is a completely understandable argument, one the Beatle readily admitted to in later years. A song wormed its way into his subconscious, and when writing a melody for ‘My Sweet Lord’, it simply bled through into his own work.

Was he inspired upon hearing a song or just simply swipe a melody? Well, Harrison ingeniously (or cunningly, depending on your perspective) pre-empted Michael Jackson’s purchase of the Lennon/McCartney back catalogue by buying up the rights to ‘He’s So Fine’, sort of answering that question himself. Arguably the first but definitely not the last time money was simply thrown at such a problem.

Which puts me in mind of a similar situation which arose between Coldplay and Joe Satriani a few years back, and the maudlin British pretentionists being sued by the latter guitar great. Satriani claimed that the melody line from his track ‘If I Could Fly’ was mercilessly ripped off four years later by the Coldplay single ‘Viva La Vida’. And listening to each track, the evidence seems pretty damning.

So damning in fact that the case had to be settled out of court in a payment to Satriani, seemingly after some chest-beating from Coldplay’s lawyers. This video seems to imply even shadier rug-sweeping dealings, but although a very interesting, thorough music theory-based dissemination, no actual sources are cited with regard to those claims, and I can’t find any supporting evidence for this.

My main problem with the ‘Blurred Lines’ verdict, and hence the main point of this article is that Pharrell and Thicke are far from the worst offenders, for once in the latter’s case. But are Coldplay the devil incarnate? Surprisingly not. If Coldplay did genuinely intend to plagiarise Joe Satriani in the way it appears, they quite frankly could have done a better job of it. In my own opinion, it’s much more a Harrison-esque case that the principal songwriter (the band are credited equally) had probably heard the melody and assimilated it into his memory. Maybe it was playing in the background in a bar or a shopping mall; perhaps they didn’t even know they’d heard it.

All of which begs the question; who are the worst offenders? Well, let me put it like this…

The advertising industry will be worth $600 billion this year. But advertisers still manage to scrimp on rights for the use of licensed music, no matter how many times they get called out on it.

Americo indie bluesters The Black Keys got infamously touchy on the subject of their music being used in such a way, launching multiple lawsuits against US companies for unauthorised use of their tracks. Not taking the hint, a further commercial used a ‘sound-alike’ track. The ‘Keys again didn’t take too kindly to their music being ‘interpreted’ in such a way.

Meanwhile some advertisers are eager to buy into having an epic, sweeping soundtrack on their product as one would find in a highly-polished nature documentary, at a fraction of the cost. The kind of soundscape you’d get from… oh, say Sigur Ros, who years ago signalled their dissent by posting this exhaustive list on their blog, of sound-alike tracks closely mimicking their music without actually using the original tracks.

If all of this seems like ancient history, you need only reach for the remote control to catch this currently-running advert for wholesome breakfast cereal Cheerios from evil corporation Nestlé.

Which blatantly, brazenly rips off signature Vampire Weekend track ‘A-Punk’.

Compare and contrast the fiddly intro riff, clean upstroked guitar chords and the airy synth-flute break in both tracks and challenge yourself to not find similarities.

There is also this very thorny issue surrounding this Aldi advert which seems to use a Teenage Fanclub B-side without permission. ‘Kickabout’ by the Scots originally sampled an earlier track, which Aldi have also lifted, then stuck over the top of a Fanclub-esque backing track without acknowledging or indeed paying them.

But an indie-labelled band will hardly be able to afford the funds to challenge these instances in court, so are reined in to disgruntled blog posts and Facebook statements.

Will the ‘Blurred Lines’ ruling therefore have an effect upon the rampant – and if not illegal then certainly immoral – use of advertising music in the future then? The answer seems to be a resounding ‘perhaps’, with even industry insiders urging a more cautious, arguably discreet approach going forward.

“Perhaps the thought that there are consequences to the underhand misuses of creative material will cause a juggernaut of an industry to apply the brakes”

The headlines will tell you that the ‘Blurred Lines’ ruling is a terribly bad thing for the music industry. That this will be a gateway for copycat lawsuits to stampede through, whenever two songs are in the same key, or use a similar tempo, or were recorded in the same studio. A creative compensation culture, to probably not coin a term.

I’d argue however that it’s a matter of perspective. Perhaps the thought that there are consequences to the underhand misuses of creative material highlighted above will cause a juggernaut of an industry to apply the brakes and analyse itself momentarily. So far from a dangerous precedent, it could well present an empowering future prospect for previously put-upon musicians. Sure, it has so far cost Pharrell and Thicke over £5 million to find this out. But in the long term, it could well prove far more costly not for those who are inspired by artists, but those more who mercenarily pickpocket them.


A Stance On Spotify

Posted in Feature, Music, Pop culture with tags , , , , , on March 4, 2015 by David Hall

The perennially hot topic of Spotify refuses to go away and put in another round this week, with Björk asserting that her leaked new album will definitely not be making an appearance on the music streaming platform.

The latest in a long line of responses to Vulnicura’s unplanned release saw the Icelandic auteur cite reasons of “respect” as her motivation to stay away.

Her other albums remain available on Spotify.

Björk labelled the streaming service “insane”, joining a list of high profile artists such as Thom Yorke and Taylor Swift omitting their music from the Spotify library.

I get where Björk is coming from.

“Spotify isn’t making music more accessible, but is in fact introducing a new level of discrimination”

The most convenient soundbite culled from the interview “It’s about respect,” seems somewhat packaged for our consumption, but it’s one that I can get on board with. Björk in fact makes a couple of different points in the incriminating interview, which was apparently culled from an exchange with her manager. I both agree and disagree with certain aspects of what she has to say, but at least she’s doing so refreshingly free of hyperbole.

My only bone of contention is Björk’s assertion that, “It’s not about the money,” seems to somewhat tie her in knots, but she manages to undo herself with her ‘respect’ comment. She just about gets away with it. I would contend in fact contend that it is all about the money, and that streaming services such as Spotify isn’t making music more accessible, but is in fact introducing a new level of discrimination into an already murky industry.

And don’t get me wrong, I think Björk makes a good point; a far better point than Fleet Foxes’ bleating did a few years back. As Dave Grohl sort of nearly said, if you don’t like your product selling for the price it sells at, fuck off. Find a different industry, there’s plenty out there.

No, to her credit, Björk is far more measured and cerebral about it. Sure, her comments are a little airy-fairy around the edges, a little soft on detail, but she seems to genuinely have an artistic problem with it. What makes Björk, Yorke, Grohl and even young Swift simultaneously more and less believable is that I doubt any of them experience money worries.

Obviously, they don’t have to pander to anyone in making up their paycheque. But then again it could be argued that such comments smack slightly lofty perchism, an untouchable artist flipping their two cents down from their ivory tower to the huddled masses without necessarily knowing a thing about what they’re on about.

To be sure, it’s a little of both. But first and foremost, I see listeners feeling the pinch as customers being the main problem. Tune out for a second if you wish, but bear with my thought experiment here.

To utilise Spotify in the way that the company’s predictably slick advertising suggests would cost a bare minimum of £9.99 per month. But hey, you want your music on the go, right? You’ll be listening using your phone then of course. If you really can’t live without knowing, this dude pretty comprehensively breaks down how much bandwidth streaming your music demands. But cutting a long story short, you essentially need unlimited data from your mobile provider to rely on music streaming as your main listening source. What, £20? A little less if you find a good deal. And I guess you’re gonna want the good stuff on tap, not waiting for apps to load or your 3G signal to pick up. Let’s charitably say you can pick up a mid-range iPhone 5S on an unlimited data contract for £30 per month. That’s forty you’re spending on Spotify already, champ; £480 per year, minimum. That’s not counting other downloads, the occasional CD you pick up, or your increasingly voracious appetite for vinyl. If you’ve got over £500 to spend then best of luck to you, but for me and I would suggest that for a lot of people, myself included, that’s a significant chunk of cash.

Music has never been about segregating people. Getting into a situation where it’s method of delivery is doing so, I would suggest is extremely negative to say the least. Certainly, any commodity is either something you can afford or not, music included, but Spotify seems to be pricing all but the more affluent listeners out of its market.

Despite their founder’s slightly spoiled brattish, dummy-spitting, toy-throwing statement aimed at Taylor Swift’s Spotify bow, the platform seems just as poor value on the artist’s side.

A wade through this some might say intentionally lengthy and complex document offers up the information that Spotify claim to pay out an average of about $0.007 per song per play. Or about 0.07 cents per song per play. So the average 12-track album would earn the artist just over 8 cents, which in the current exchange rate equates to around 5p. Uck. But wait, who listens to albums anymore? Only nobody, grandpa! Get with the times man! The kids all stream music by track these days; God, you’re so embarrassing.

This being the case, let’s go straight to the top and take for example the most-streamed song in the UK last year, Clean Bandit’s inexplicable minimal synthpop keyboard riff with song attached ‘Rather Be’, clocking up a whopping 39.7 million streams in 2014. Why, at $0.007 per play, that’s $277,900 in the bank! Not too shabby! #boom #sorrynotsorry

Yeah, 39.7 million streams. Across four streaming formats. With royalties split between four band members. Only two of whom claim writing credits in the song. Which featured a headlining collaborative artist. And I doubt the band will exactly be top of the pile once their record labels takes a cut, plus the produc-… you see where I’m going here… Maybe that’s why they took that awful, awful (I mean seriously painfully awful) Windows phone ad.

I’m not professing to be some sort of statistics genius, and I’ve wilfully ignored Spotify’s own artist page as far as possible due to the hefty weight of vested interest you can see in the form of all those glowing bright green graphs. I’m also quite aware that artists make money from other streaming services; advertising revenue from YouTube plays, for example. But to me, the sums just don’t seem to add up. Viewing Spotify as just one aspect of a multi-faceted music delivery system in which you stream some music, then buy or download those tracks or albums which you really like, also fails for me entirely.

“the membership-style method of payment is divisive in what should be an inclusive setting. It’s pricing consumers out of music”

It’s not just about money for bands in that regard, or indeed out of the listener’s pocket, but I think that returning to the two central tenets of Björk’s original argument, respect and money, are irrevocably intertwined.

It’s all bound up in numbers that don’t seem to meet in the middle. Listeners are being fleeced, either expected to subscribe to a conceptually limited streaming service, or to augment that library with further purchases. It’s like assuming every Netflix subscriber will either throw away all their DVDs and Blu Rays, or be often forced to also buy them if they really, really like that new Will Smith movie. Between what’s best for the artist and what’s best for the listener, Spotify falls cleanly through a very large gap.

So my stance on Spotify can be summarised as essentially this; I know it’s not all their fault. Everybody is out to make their respective sums of profit from the music industry – it’s a business like any other – and always have done.

But the membership-style method of payment is divisive in what should be an inclusive setting. It’s pricing consumers out of music, which is a pretty low blow for artists and the public alike.