Archive for the Pop culture Category

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.

On An Absence

Posted in Feature, Pop culture with tags , on May 21, 2013 by David Hall

Social networking is the reason that No School Like Old School has been on hiatus for so long. Given, not the sole reason, but it takes up a not-inconsiderable slice on the pie chart. The full reasons are long and complex; the fact that most writers, like most creative contributors particularly in online media, are expected to work for free, is a big part of this. Whilst employment is not in and of itself the number one consideration in life, providing for oneself and one’s family is a practical goal in and of itself. People volunteer and do work outside of paid employment all the time, whether to better themselves or to give back to a community or to provide a service that would otherwise be absent. You’re reading the product of this right now; although I do this of course for pleasure, it is nonetheless ‘work’. But it can’t be reasonably expected of anybody to put this ahead of paid employment. Since No School went on hiatus, I have moved to a relatively secure job and into a flat of my own; this isn’t something that any amount of writing could realistically have procured me. I could be the greatest writer in history and not be in the same position. We work to produce the optimal conditions to care for ourselves and those in our immediate moral sphere. When those conditions can or should be altered, we work to alter them. No School was originally a means of doing so. Now it can be again.

Anyway; social networking, and on to the main point I wish to make here. I began to notice that posting No School articles on my personal Facebook account produced very little feedback of any kind. Very little compared to, say, somebody’s ill-informed opinions on current affairs, three hundred and twenty seven thousand photos of their children or a ‘Luk @ dis LOLZ!!!1’ video-share. Interest in my generated content was minimal. In laments terms, nobody gave a shit. Maybe I should’ve had a thicker skin about this, but somehow it felt wrong to be trumped by a misspelt status update.

Sidling gradually around to my point, let me begin by saying that those who produce content have always been in the minority compared to those who consume content. There are of course many more records sold than there are records, many more listeners when compared to band members. And distribution of content has never been stronger. But production of content has never been so under-appreciated. None-visual, that is written content, has been the greatest loser in this. The cultural capital my chosen form of communication is being eroded, in a situation I can only liken to well-stocked library of books from which people systemically and enthusiastically borrow. Every person finds something they like in each of the books, tearing out the page to show to a friend, before returning the borrowed book to the library. Others agree or disagree, scrawling their acquiescence or dissent onto the pages before again returning the borrowed book. Patently before too long, most pages are gone, and those that remain are illegible. Even if you disagree with this analogy and prefer to think of it differently, the argument follows. Say people borrow books from the library and photocopy the pages before returning them, with annotations or sharing done via their copies. The eroding effect still occurs, and the result remains that there is no point in having the books if all that is shared is facsimile and comment. New books are produced slowly, many are of poor quality, whilst some are seized upon and disseminated throughout the community. In the act of tearing pages, producing copies of pages or annotating pages, in this analogy we are left with a devalued, decontextualised book which nobody can fully read and is not replaced.

What I’m trying to expose here is that comment is never synonymous with creation. The intellectual capital is not being put back into the processes that produced the content in the first place, which is in the first instance unsustainable and secondly culturally disastrous. Let’s not be fooled into thinking that comment can replace content. User comments are the bane, the scum of the internet. Navigate to any random, relatively widely-viewed Youtube clip and give it six comments until a user comment is an outrageously out-of-context insult, or a sickeningly earnest rebuttal from another rubbernecking user, which is debatably almost as unwelcome.  It is however just a symptom of the true problem, which is one of convenience. Ours is a culture in which we seem to have lost our collective patience, our depth of field. We seem to have come to a position where the meme is mightier than the sword. The amount of written, ‘article-based’ content has ebbed to a new low. People want convenient content which can be taken in, processed and appraised literally at a glance. They want comment because comment is quick and easy. A comment takes just a few seconds to formulate and criticises at best a small aspect and at worst the gist or general thread of an article. It agrees or disagrees in generalities with specificity. Pinterest is a prime example of the re-blogging culture which I find so damaging, in which users create and contribute little, recycling material without giving anything back to the mix. Our online culture these days, to use the P2P jargon of a decade gone by, is one of leeching. To return to the library analogy, the shelves are running bare. Or rather, they’re teeming with triviality and vacuous diversion rather than anything of substance, anything truly worthwhile.

We seemed close to saturation point a short time ago in that there were so many music blogs promoting so many new bands that none (of either) really stood out. It was difficult to tell who to believe, who to follow and it’s only relatively recently that opinions are beginning to find themselves curdling around consensus once more. We have realised the endless, endless push to find ‘the next big’ thing, to break or cover a band or performer ‘before they were cool’ is both futile and counterproductive, although it remains widespread. It’s no good if critics come to a certain conclusion precisely because nobody else has done so, and this has been recognised. But we have instead come to a different impasse now, with content being shared in greater abundance, but with increasing profligacy. Differing information exchanges have produced a different result and sharing of creative content has become an exercise in recycling by users who have no intention of ‘putting back in’.

Sustainability is a condition that we have to work towards in many areas of our society. I’m no climate scientist but it seems beneficial to seek this state of affairs, which is an end in itself, and not only in environmental affairs. But I am a writer, and therefore a content provider, and suggest that this is one of the many areas of our culture in which we must work towards sustainability. We must do this by replacing the cultural capital that we consume in our daily online lives, not just via comment but by creating content. We must be conscientious in the way we consume our content, which is unique in that, unlike media and entertainment such as music, movies and videogames, its users and producers are one and the same people. Like other avenues of sustainability, this must begin with a grassroots change in attitudes before larger organisations can have an effect. Larger organisations and websites such as Pinterest clearly remain on a trajectory opposite to that described here, an ascending rather than descending parabola. Content production had always been a DIY enterprise, and now needs to be more than ever.