Sunday, 29 January 2017

Slippery People

It has been hard to escape the makers of T2: Trainspotting this week.
The director (Danny Boyle), the stars (Ewan McGregor, Ewan Bremner, Jonny Lee Miller and Robert Carlyle) and the film’s composer (Rick Smith of Underworld) have been on the promotional trail. They have been discussing the original Trainspotting, which came out in 1996, as much as they have the new film. This is not surprising. As well as featuring the same cast, crew and characters as the first film, T2 constantly harks back to it. The new story touches the old one at the edges. This includes the music, which echoes the original soundtrack. Smith has included chords, textures and rhythms from ‘Born Slippy’, the Underworld song that memorably closed the original.


Much of the discussion has been about ‘Born Slippy’ itself. Speaking on the Today programme on Tuesday, Smith was asked how the song came to be in included in Trainspotting. He replied:
It was very serendipitous. Danny [Boyle] was using our album at the time, Dubnobasswithmyheadman, as what you would call the heartbeat or the tool that use to get the rhythm of the film together - without any intention of course of the whole film being about that album and the music - and took a break one day for a lunch, walked across the road, out of Soho, into HMV and saw the vinyl for ‘Born Slippy’ in the racks, bought it, as he tells me, and listened and immediately knew that that was how he wanted to finish the film.
This is a nice story, but it is not true. I know because it was one of my old friends, Neil Williams, who suggested the track for the film. He put the record straight on Friday, writing to Radio 5’s Film Review show, which was featuring Danny Boyle as a guest. Neil’s letter stated:
I was fortunate enough to be one of the assistant editors on the original Trainspotting movie. During the shoot it was my job to synchronise the picture and sound which meant I had the rare privilege of effectively being the first person to see and hear all the footage shot for the film. As these remarkable images and sensational performances came together before my eyes there was this overwhelming realisation that I was at the centre of something truly special. I remember Danny sending a music cassette from the shoot in Glasgow to our cutting rooms in London, which outlined his ideas for source music to soundtrack the film and on it were Bowie, Blondie, Björk, Brian Eno, Iggy Pop. There was also a note suggesting that we try and find dance music similar to the theme produced by Leftfield for Shallow Grave on which I was a trainee. Danny and I shared similar music tastes and we both loved the likes of Leftfield, Orbital and Andy Weatherall. I brought in a collection of CDs with track suggestions written on the cases in white chinagraph pencil, which we used to mark the edits on the film. I had a then little known follow-up single to the album Dubnoheadwithmybassman by Underworld, which was an album I knew Danny liked and I wrote on the CD ‘try track 2’. This was ‘Born Slippy’, a track which was often played at house parties I went to with my friends. There has been no greater moment in my film career than when Masahiro, the editor, told me that Danny had chosen it to be included in the film and showed me the initial edit of the astonishing end sequence. Some weeks later, after picture lock, I got a call from Andrew McDonald asking if I could come out to the sound mix and could I bring the ‘Born Slippy’ CD with me. I travelled out to the mix the same day, was asked if I could leave the CD there so that the sound technicians could transfer it as they didn’t have one. Andrew eventually returned the CD to me at the start of the next project, A Life Less Ordinary, so essentially it’s my CD that bears the now faded chinagraph note that is actually on the soundtrack of the film.
After hearing the letter, Boyle replied: ‘Ah. There you go. I remember Neil’.


Many popular music academics argue against the cult of authorship. They think that it is wrong to look up to musicians and composers and it is particularly remiss to regard them as having some sort of unique genius. These theorists view popular music as an essentially collaborative form and argue that little of it is wholly original.
Nevertheless, as these conflicting stories reveal, the cult of authorship will not go away. If anything, it is proliferating. It is extending beyond songwriting and performance to encompass the sourcing of music for films. The ‘Born Slippy’ saga also illustrates the centralising tendency of authorship. It would seem fitting if it was Boyle who initiated the use of the track. After all, as Smith’s story indicates, ‘Born Slippy’ became the pulse of the film, it was the inspiration for a visionary director. It was also the start of an important collaborative partnership. Smith worked with Boyle on the opening ceremony for the London 2012 Olympics, in addition to working on the sequel film.
            But it was Neil who first chose it. He deserves some credit too. The use of ‘Born Slippy’ helped to make Trainspotting a landmark film, while the film made ‘Born Slippy’ a landmark song. It had been largely ignored when it first came out. There had been a buzz about Underworld, following singles such as ‘Rez’ and ‘Spikee’ and the album Dubnoheadwithmybassman. But ‘Born Slippy’ was something of a flop. I remember discussing it with Neil when it was released, telling him that I found it disappointing. He was the only person I knew who was really into it. He was also the person who said to ignore the instrumental version, which the band original promoted as the main mix of the song. For him it was the ‘Nuxx’ mix that worked. The original single made it to number 57 in the UK charts. A year and a half later, following on from the Trainspotting movie, ‘Born Slippy’ was re-released with the Nuxx mix up front. It made it to number 2. Soon half of Britain was shouting ‘lager, lager, lager, lager’.

Thursday, 26 January 2017

Playlists vs Playlists

Listeners have generally been suspicious of radio playlists. They represent the most obvious and perhaps the most extreme example of gatekeeping within the music industries. Although they now pool diverse sources of data, the general practice has remained the same: a small committee of radio employees is responsible for choosing the entire output of the station. Music is prioritised and sorted. In many cases it is consigned to oblivion. And this is not necessarily due to its quality. The committee is susceptible to gimmicks and bribes.
            We now have streaming playlists too. These rely on even more data than the radio playlists. They are also more numerous. A radio station might only have a limited number of records on rotation. The streaming playlists cover a wider of amount of music by genre and by mood. Some of these playlists are based primarily on algorithms. Spotify’s ‘discover’ playlists, for example, are determined by music you have previously listened to. These streaming playlists do still have much in common with radio playlists, however. Ultimately, it is down to a committee, or even an individual, to make decisions about inclusion.
            And yet many people look upon streaming playlists more favourably. It feels as though they cater for personal needs. Radio station playlists, in contrast, often feel as though they are designed for an idealised and stupefied consumer. This consumer, as with all idealised individuals, bears no resemblance to anyone who actually exists.
            I prefer radio playlists, however. And this is because they engender suspicion. The listener knows that their taste is being prescribed. This process works in much the same way as canonisation. The radio listener is subjected to a body of works, which is presented as the dominant culture in the field. When it comes to the canon, it is good to have knowledge of what a self-appointed elite has determined as the best that has been thought and said. And if you are a popular music fan, it is good to know the records that have been picked and promoted to be the most commercially successful. At the same time, however, this prescription gives you something to kick against. It encourages you to search for alternatives. It also encourages people to produce alternatives.
            Streaming playlists work differently. They are an example of the internet’s tendency to produce echo chambers. These playlists are designed for a ‘you liked this, now try this’ culture. The digital realm has been criticized on this basis precisely because it streams. People only encounter media that chimes with their own views. They only come across art that reflects their pre-established tastes. These listeners don’t get to hear a central canon of works and nor do they get to hear anything that challenges their algorithmic self.
            Streaming playlists are hugely popular. They are driving the successes of Spotify and they have provided stiff competition for pop radio. This is changing the musical landscape. The consequences are not necessarily good for either the mainstream or the underground. As streaming has risen to prominence the singles charts have become moribund. They are moving very slowly and there is little public awareness of what they contain. Although there is undoubtedly a lot of commercial music being made, there is no dominant pop culture. As such, there is no rallying point for musical rebels to gather around. They don’t know what to be alternative about because they don’t know what they are alternative to.

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Song City: Two Writers for Every Performer

How many performers and songwriters does it take to create a recording? For those who grew up in era dominated by bands, there are two common answers to this question. The first is that a band will contain more performers than writers. The Beatles, the Clash and the Smiths are examples of four-piece bands that had songwriting duos at their core. The Who, the Kinks and Oasis are bands who had solitary writers. The other answer is that the performers and the writers are coterminous. The Doors, the Stooges, the Sex Pistols, U2, REM and Elbow are examples of bands that split songwriting credits equally between their performer members.
            Neither of these methods is currently in vogue. This is, in part, because bands are a dying breed, at least when it comes to mainstream success. Instead, it is solo performers who dominate the singles charts. These artists sometimes come together in collaboration or for battles, as signalled by the terms ‘ft.’ and ‘vs.’ that litter performer credits. The charts also feature duos, trios and some girl groups. There are, however, very few ‘traditional’ groups who play recognisable instruments. The other phenomenon is that there are now very few artists who write their songs on their own. They instead work in conjunction with producers and with professional songwriting teams.
We can witness both trends by looking at the Top 40 selling recordings in Britain in 2016. 12 of the songs were by solo singers acting alone. 11 more were by singers working in conjunction with producers/DJs/EDM acts, and one of these acts worked with a three-piece funk band. One was by two singers collaborating. Four were by singers working in conjunction with rappers. One was by a rapper working alone. One was by a four-piece girl group, another by a five-piece girl group working with a rapper. Five were by producers/DJs/EDM acts working without guest vocalists. One was by a four-piece dance-rock band, another by a four-piece pop-soul band. Finally, there was one song by an old-fashioned guitar, bass and drums indie/rock band: Coldplay’s ‘Hymn for the Weekend’.  Overall, the average number of credited artists on a hit record was 2.4. If you takeaway all the ft. and vs. artists this drops to 1.75.
In contrast, the average number of writers per recording was 4.6. Only three of the songs were written entirely by outsiders. This appears to be an old idea, as two of these three songs were cover versions. Shawn Mendes ‘Stitches’ was the only recently composed song in the Top 40 for which the artist did not receive a songwriters’ share. Conversely, only four of the songs were self-contained, i.e. the artists received no help from outside writers. Mike Posner wrote his hit ‘I Took a Pill in Ibiza’ alone; Gnash and Olivia O’Brien co-wrote ‘I Hate U, I Love U’; and Tyler Joseph of Twenty One Pilots wrote their two big hits. Notably, the four members of Coldplay did not write their song on their own; they required help from five other songwriters. The reason why they are the only ‘old-fashioned’ band in these charts is because they move with the times.
Overall, six of the songs featured the artist(s) composing in conjunction with one extra writer; seven songs featured the artist(s) plus two writers; four songs featured the artist(s) plus three writers; seven songs featured the artist(s) plus four writers; two songs featured the artist(s) plus five writers; five songs featured the artist(s) plus six writers; one song featured the artists plus seven writers; and one song - ‘Let Me Love You’ by DJ Snake and Justin Bieber – was composed by the artists plus nine other songwriters. What is more, this plethora of credits cannot be put down to sampling. Only two of the songs have obvious composer credits for sampled works, and there are two more that might feature sampled writers.
            What does this all mean? Well, as my previous blog entry indicated, the money continues to be in the publishing. This economic bias accounts for the massed ranks of writers and for the growing number of solo performers. It also means that to achieve a top-selling song you have to move amongst the elite. You need to find professional songwriters to write with and you need to find successful artists to collaborate with. The digital age was supposed to bring with it a new wave of independence. Within popular music we have instead witnessed the growth of an internet jet set.

Friday, 23 December 2016

It's a Merry Christmas for Songwriters

Songwriters are earning four times as much as recording artists.
            We can reach this conclusion by using the work of Will Page, who is the go-to person for music industries’ statistics. When he worked for PRS for Music he would annually total up the British figures. Now that he is Spotify’s Director of Economics he is performing the same task on a global scale. He has discovered that our planetary music copyright business was worth $24.37bn in 2015. This represents a rise of $941m on 2014.
            In his findings, Page lists the money earned by the record company members of the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI); the income of the publisher and composer members of the International Confederation of Societies of Authors and Composers (CISAC); and the money that is going to the publishers directly. The results are as follows:

IFPI digital recordings                           $6.5bn
IFPI physical recordings                        $5.0bn
IFPI performing rights                            $2.1bn
IFPI sync rights                                          $0.3bn
CISAC performing rights                          $6.8bn
CISAC mechanical rights                           $1.2bn
CISAC private copying income                 $0.2bn
Publishing sync rights                                 $0.8bn
Publishing other                                            $0.8bn
Non-CISAC publishing mechanicals          $0.5bn

It is size of the collections and the increase in the money that has attracted headlines. Nevertheless, Page is also keen to point out that there is ‘a misconception about the David-Goliath relationship between labels and publishing’. The publishers are not dwarfed. The overall income for songwriting copyrights is $10.4bn (42.7% of the total), while the income for sound recording copyrights is $14bn (57.3% of the total). According to Page:
When you factored in all the monies that flow to PROs [Performing Rights Organisations], publishers and songwriters, they were much more neck-and-neck in true value than often perceived. However, how that money then flows from firms (labels, publishers and collectives) to individuals (artists and songwriters) is an entirely different conversation.
Page does not enter into this dialogue and it is easy to understand why. It is hard enough getting the total income figures from industry organisations, but at least this information is available. In contrast, the contract details of songwriters and recording artists remain private. As such, it is difficult to determine the percentage royalties that they are receiving from their publishers and record labels. Moreover, these royalties vary from country to country and from artist to artist. These royalties have also varied through time. Songwriters and performers who signed contracts in the 1950s or 1960s, for example, will generally be on lower royalty rates than artists who are signing contracts today.
But the conversation is still worth having. It provides a means of assessing the relative prosperity of songwriters and recording artists. And while the precise details of contracts are not known, some general figures are available. If all artists were on contemporary UK contracts, the splits would look something like this:

Sound Recoding Copyright $14bn
IFPI digital recordings            80%-85% record labels/15%-20% recording artists
IFPI physical recordings         80%-85% record labels/15%-20% recording artists
IFPI performing rights             50% record labels/50% recording artists
IFPI sync rights                        50%-85% record labels/15%-50% recording artists

Songwriting Copyright $10.4bn
CISAC performing rights                           20%-25% publishers/75%-80% songwriters
CISAC mechanical rights                           20%-25% publishers/75%-80% songwriters
CISAC private copying income                  50% publishers/50% songwriters?
Publishing sync rights                                  15%-35% publishers/65%-85% songwriters
Publishing other                                            15%-35% publishers/65%-85% songwriters?
Non-CISAC publishing mechanicals            20%-25% publishers/75%-80% songwriters?

Although some of these splits can only be estimated, these percentages would place the income of songwriters far above that of recording artists. Their take home would be something like $7.75bn, while the overall copyright income for recording artists would only be $2.1bn.
Songwriters would also be in a better position than recording artists when it comes to non-recoupable royalties, the money that cannot be used to pay off advances. At least £3.4bn of the songwriting income would be free from recoupment. In contrast, the only element that would be non-recoupable for recording artists would be the $1.05bn earned from their 50% share of the IFPI performing rights.
            These total figures would have to be reduced, however. At least half of the worldwide copyright income is derived from back catalogue. Consequently, there will be many recording artists and songwriters who are on less favourable percentages than presented here. However, even though the totals for songwriting and recording would come down, there would be an even greater bias in favor of the writers. Old recording contracts tend to be more punitive than old publishing contracts are. The percentages for the artists are proportionally lower and the terms of the contracts last longer. Moreover, songwriters have been guaranteed at least 50% of the performing rights income in most territories for over a century. This is the biggest single income stream and it is non-recoupable. In contrast, recording artists in many countries are still not guaranteed equitable remuneration for performing rights income. Although this 50% share is now mandatory throughout the European Union, this has only been the case since the Rental and Lending Rights Directive of 1992.
            The money is still in the publishing.

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

From Where to Despair?

Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Hot Chocolate's 'It Started With a Kiss' have much in common. Hamlet is brilliant and yet there is something wrong with it. T.S. Eliot put his finger on it: ‘Hamlet (the man) is dominated by an emotion which is inexpressible, because it is in excess of the facts as they appear’. For Eliot any emotion in a work of art must have an ‘objective correlative’, i.e. if a character is feeling something strongly, the reasons for that feeling must be found in the work of art itself. He outlines ‘a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion’.
            And so to Hot Chocolate. ‘It Started With a Kiss’ starts out simply enough. Errol Brown sings the verses in his sweetest voice. We are taken back to his youth; he is stealing kisses with a girl in the back row of a classroom. The two of them promise to marry, but she is only eight years old and he has just turned nine. In a later verse they reach the ages of sixteen and seventeen respectively. The tune is still sweet, even though Brown realises that he can no longer hold on to her love. The choruses take us from these childhood memories right up until the present day. The music is lilting, numbing us to the slight foreboding in the lyrics. ‘It started with a kiss’, Brown trills; ‘I never thought it would come to this’.
            Nothing prepares us for what follows. ‘YOU DON’T REMEMBER ME, DO YOU! YOU DON’T REMEMBER ME, DO YOU! YOU DON’T REMEMBER ME, DO YOU! The tune jolts suddenly and there is utter despair. Brown is so in excess of the facts that you worry about his state of mind. You hope to dear god that no one has left a bare bodkin lying around.
            There is a difference between Hamlet and ‘It Started With a Kiss’, though. What spoils Shakespeare’s play makes the Hot Chocolate song. In fact, one of the great pleasures of popular music is when an objective does not correlate. It is the strange gaps in songs that give the listener room to enter in.
I’ve been there, Errol. I’ve been there.


Sunday, 6 November 2016

Blurred Lines: What's Goin' On?

In March 2015 a jury in the US found against Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke in the ‘Blurred Lines’ case, deciding that their composition had infringed the copyright of Marvin Gaye’s ‘Got to Give it Up’. To many, this decision feels wrong. Songwriters, in particular, have been outraged by the outcome, arguing that it sets a dangerous precedent for their profession. Trying to work out why it is wrong is a complicated and convoluted matter, however. Let me attempt to count the ways:
1.     Copyright legislation is based on the notion of originality
US copyright law states that ‘Copyright protection subsists . . . in original works of authorship’. British legislation states similarly that copyright is owned by ‘the person who creates’ the ‘original’ work. In both instances copyright is betraying its debts to Romanticism and the notion of individual genius. It is this aspect of creativity that the Gaye family sought to emphasise when celebrating their victory. They argued that true artists, such as Marvin Gaye, work ‘creatively from a blank slate in the crafting of their song to ensure originality and the integrity of their creation’. They claimed their action was ‘protecting the legacy of original artistry’ and that it was ‘encouraging future artists to also aim for new ground’. They were against magpie artists such as Williams and Thicke, whose only aim was to ‘write a song with the same groove’ as ‘Got to Give It Up’ and who failed to give ‘credit where credit is due’.
2.     Popular music is not original
Songwriters have been outraged by the decision in the ‘Blurred Lines’ case because it fails to understand that most new music steals from old music. There is nothing that is wholly original. Following the verdict, Williams stated, ‘If we lose our freedom to be inspired, we’re going to look up one day and the entertainment industry as we know it will be frozen in litigation ... Everything that’s around you in a room was inspired by something or someone. If you kill that, there’s no creativity’. More recently, over 200 songwriters, including Danger Mouse, Earth, Wind & Fire, Linkin Park, the Black Crowes, Jennifer Hudson and R. Kelly, have grouped together in support of the appeal that Williams and Thicke are making against the verdict. In their amicus brief they have stated ‘All music shares inspiration from prior musical works, especially within a particular musical genre. By eliminating any meaningful standard for drawing the line between permissible inspiration and unlawful copying, the judgment is certain to stifle creativity and impede the creative process’.
3.     Popular music turns a blind eye to some aspects of borrowing, but is vigilant about others
Traditionally, songwriters have felt free to be ‘inspired’ by other artists’ rhythm tracks and by the timbre of recordings, but have been wary of lifting anything melodic or harmonic from another songwriters’ work. The ‘Blurred Lines’ case stands this on its head. It went against Thicke and Williams because they incorporated the groove and feel of ‘Got to Give It Up’ into their work. This is the issue that has upset composers. Jim Irvin, a writer for Lana Del Ray and David Guetta, has stated ‘Yes, there’s a sonic resemblance, but Pharrell and Thicke are paying homage to an atmosphere, using some of the colours of the arrangement, not copying the substance of the chords, melody or lyric’. Meanwhile, the amicus brief points out that ‘Got to Give It Up’ and ‘Blurred Lines’ ‘do not have similar melodies; the two songs do not even share a single melodic phrase’. It condemns the wrongheaded jury who decided in the Gaye’s estates favour just because the two songs have a similar ‘feel’ or ‘groove’.
4.     These biases of songwriting credits are elitist and racist
Previously, when disputes about songwriting credits made it to court, the majority of cases have found in favour of the composers of the main melodic and harmonic parts. Popular music scholars have objected to this practice on two grounds. First, it favours the elements of music that can be captured in a written score. It thus has a high art bias and ignores the fact that much popular music is centred on nuances of rhythm and texture - elements that come to the fore through the recording process. Second, it is racist. Simon Frith has stated, ‘Copyright law defines music in terms of nineteenth-century Western conventions and is not well suited to the protection of Afro-American musicians’ improvisation art or rhythmic skills’. Matt Stahl has claimed similarly that ‘US copyright’s focus on words and melody privileges certain forms and makers of music and disadvantages others along racialized lines’.
5.     Williams welcomed the high art and racial bias of case law
One quirk of the ‘Blurred Lines’ case was that it was supposed to be determined on the basis of the sheet music rather than the recording. This is because ‘Got to Give It Up’ was released in 1977. As such, the sound recording was copyrighted after the drafting of the US Copyright Act of 1976, but fell under previous legislation because the Act had not yet been implemented. Earlier US legislation did not recognise a copyright for sound recordings. It stipulated that any copyright infringement lawsuit had to be determined on the basis of the written composition, as deposited in the US Copyright Office. Williams sought to take advantage of this situation, arguing that the sheet music of ‘Blurred Lines’ is completely different to that for ‘Got to Give it Up’. He demanded: ‘Anybody that plays music and reads music, just simply go to the piano and play the two. One's minor and one's major. And not even in the same key’.
6.     It is possible to give songwriting credits for feel and groove
Although case law has its biases about compositional credits, copyright legislation offers no specific guidance. Any aspect of the music can be credited, including the work of the rhythm section and the skills of the producer. In addition, these songwriting shares can be of any size, ranging from less than 1% to the whole of the work. There is a history of conventions, however. The original division set out by most collection societies was to divide the songwriting royalties 50/50 between the authors of the lyrics and the composers of the written score. This norm was established in era when sheet music sales were dominant and there were few writer-artists. New practices emerged in response to the rise of self-contained, self-composing groups, as well as to the ascendancy of sound recordings in the market. A convention developed amongst bands to divide songwriting royalties equally between each member (the Yardbirds and the Doors were pioneers here). In more recent years, a hybrid style has appeared, whereby all band members are credited but the composers of the lyrics, melody and harmony will gain higher copyright shares than the rhythm players. A further model has grown in response to the growth of digital recording. In genres such as EDM and contemporary R&B it is common for a producer-composer to create a backing track, which will then be sent to ‘topliners’ who will add melodies, harmonies and lyrics. Here it is common to divide the royalties 50/50 between the producers and the topliners. As such, half of the songwriting credits are being awarded for feel and groove. Finally, there is a long tradition of falsifying credits. It is possible to award shares to participants that exceed their compositional contributions. It is also possible to award shares to non-composers. This practice goes back at least as far as the inter-war period, when performers such as Al Jolson would be given a songwriting cut as a means of encouragement to perform a tune.
7.     The songwriting credits for ‘Got to Give It Up’ and ‘Blurred Lines’ were determined by different conventions
Gaye is listed as the sole composer of ‘Got to Give It Up’. On the recording itself he performs lead vocals and some of the backing vocals. He also plays keyboards, synthesizer bass and percussion. Gaye is not the sole performer on the track, however. There are two guitar players, a saxophonist, a tambourine player and a drummer. Although Gaye is credited with putting together the ‘vocal, rhythm and synthesizer arrangement’, these are not the aspects of the composition that earn him his sole composer credit. In fact, the arrangement of a work cannot be copyrighted under US law. Gaye instead received 100% of the compositional rewards because he wrote all of the lyrics as well as the main melodic and harmonic parts. His family emphasised this point in the court case, which they claimed was ‘was based entirely on the similarity of the basic musical compositions, not on “style” or “feel” or “era” or “genre”’ (thus contradicting their other comment that Williams and Thicke lost the case because they wrote a song ‘with the same groove’ as ‘Got to Give it Up’). Moreover, it has been acknowledged that the feel of ‘Got to Give It Up’ is not original. Gaye was attempting to recapture the atmosphere of Johnnie Taylor’s hit, ‘Disco Lady’. He did not give Taylor any songwriting credit for this inspiration and neither did he credit Taylor’s rhythm section. ‘Blurred Lines’, in contrast, does give some acknowledgement to the creator of the song’s groove and feel. It also includes some false accounting. Thicke confessed that he was ‘high on vicodin and alcohol’ during the songwriting sessions. He has stated, ‘the reality is, Pharrell had the beat and he wrote almost every single part of the song’. This includes the words, which Williams has admitted are wholly his own. Despite his paltry contribution, Thicke was given 22% of the songwriting royalties for the song. Meanwhile, T.I. was given 13% for his rap, and Williams claimed the remaining 65%. Williams has stated that he gave Thicke his share because ‘This is what happens every day in our industry ... people are made to look like they have much more authorship in the situation than they actually do’.
8.     Gaye was rewarded in ‘Blurred Lines’ case on the basis of elements of ‘Got to Give It Up’ he did not claim to compose
Although the ‘Blurred Lines’ case was supposed to be decided on the sheet music alone, it appears that the sound recording of ‘Got to Give It Up’ did influence the jury’s decision. The judge permitted a stripped-down version of the recording to be played in court. In their appeal against the verdict, Williams and Thicke have stated that ‘the court erroneously allowed the Gayes’ experts to testify about the sound recording anyway, including by playing their own musical excerpts based on the sound recording’. There is little lyrical, melodic or harmonic similarity between ‘Blurred Lines’ and ‘Got to Give It Up’. The main correspondence lies instead with the rhythmic feel and the disco style. ‘Blurred Lines’ sounds like ‘Got to Give it Up’; it does not sing like it. As we have seen, songwriting credits can be given to the rhythm players who have developed a groove, and they can go to producers of a recording. This is not what Gaye did with ‘Got to Give It Up’, however. His compositional credit was based on the aspects of music that can be captured in a written score. Nevertheless, Gaye’s estate has been awarded $7.4m in damages for copyright infringement due to the fact that the recordings of ‘Blurred Lines’ and ‘Got to Give It Up’ have sonic similarities.
9.     Songwriting copyright is rigid
Although the ‘Blurred Lines’ decision is legally unjust, it is not the technicalities of the case that have caused outrage amongst songwriters. Many of them believe that an original recording, rather than sheet music, constitutes the essence of a work. In addition, many of them do credit rhythm and feel in their songwriting splits. Rather, what is problematic is that this decision flies in the face of their everyday practice. Moreover, their everyday practice is not accounted for within the law. Songwriting copyright has proven to be flexible in one way. The conventions of registration have changed over time to accommodate new technologies, changed working methods and differing forms of agreement between contributors. And yet songwriting copyright can also be rigid: there is usually only one way that a work can be registered. This is problematic, as a song can be utilised by different people in different forms. For songwriters there is the sheet music and the original recording. For song borrowers there are cover versions and samples. For song stealers there is plagiarism. In each of those instances, different aspects of the composition can come to the fore. The original recording is usually uppermost in most songwriters’ minds when it comes to sorting out the splits. As such, works registrations will regularly credit aspects of songs that are only present in their first recordings, including their feel and their groove. When we turn to the other forms that a song can take, the stress given to these aspects of the recording can rise and fall. Covers usually remain faithful to the original lyrics of a song and they often stick closely to the principal melody and chords. Their employment of rhythm and feel can vary widely from the original recording, however. And yet, there is no provision within copyright law that accounts for this fact. Sampling is the opposite of cover versions in one respect: it usually concentrates on the rhythm or texture of a recording, rather than its melody or harmony. It also has different injustices. Many sampled recordings are old; consequently the drummers and the producers are rarely credited in the original songwriting splits. Sampling is similar to cover versions in one way, however: the splits cannot be revisited in light of these emphases. If ‘Blurred Lines’ had sampled ‘Got to Give It Up’ directly there would have been general acceptance that the authorship of the latter tune should be credited. Any sense of injustice would instead have been focused on the fact that Gaye would be the only contributor to the sampled work to receive a royalty. ‘Got to Give It Up’ was not sampled, however. The ‘Blurred Lines’ case instead rested on whether or not Williams and Thicke had plagiarised Gaye’s song. Although plagiarism can come close to sampling – particularly with soundalike recordings and ‘interpolations’ of works - songwriters think about it in a different manner. As the amicus brief indicates, many of them are upset by the ‘Blurred Lines’ decision because it has suggested that it possible to plagiarise a song’s feel or groove. A group such as the Doors might register a work to all members of the band, and a songwriter-producer such as Williams might incorporate rhythm and production into his attribution of shares, but neither will expect to ‘own’ the rhythmic elements or the production style. It is accepted practice that they can be mimicked and copied. In contrast, songwriters are more vigilant when a melody line is copied or lyrics are stolen. There are a number of reasons for this. One is that there is still a hierarchy of musical elements, which places melody, harmony and lyrics as the most important. There is a corresponding hierarchy within groups: it is rare that the bass player or drummer will be the leader of the band. Another reason why plagiarism cases are not made in this respect is because many bass and drum parts are not original. The same patterns and methods are used in multiple songs. This has been made possible because songwriters do not commonly launch plagiarism cases when these elements are simulated. This is only convention, however, and it is not possible to provide a separate registration of a work that will outline which elements of a composition songwriters will pursue in a plagiarism case and which they will chose to ignore. The ‘Blurred Lines’ case goes against songwriters’ practice. It has caused alarm because the Gaye estate won.

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Remember You're a Sex Pistol


Album, the 1986 record by Public Image Ltd has recently been re-released. Reviewers have referred to its making as ‘one of the most bizarre episodes in [John] Lydon’s extraordinary story’, noting that the singer employed ‘a raft of top-flight session players’, including Ginger Baker, Tony Williams, Steve Vai, Bernard Fowler and Ryuichi Sakamoto. Lydon enjoyed confounding people. He has stated that he ‘needed the support from people like the Ginger Bakers, and to be reminded that people really fucking respected what I was doing’. Their encouragement made him see that he was not ‘an enormous, talentless boring lump’. He also enjoyed the fact that Sting thought that the record ‘was the best album I’ve ever made’. Nevertheless, the public were ‘confused’ by Album and his record company was ‘nonplussed’. Apparently, punk and session musicians are opposites.
            But is this really the case? The Ramones provided the template for American punk. Their strongest influences were the girl group records of the early 1960s (which were performed by American session musicians) and the bubblegum pop of the Bay City Rollers (which was recorded by British session musicians). The influence of these predecessors is transparent. The Ramones recorded an album with the girl group producer Phil Spector (who employed session musicians for some of the guitar parts as well as for the strings). Their song ‘Blitzkrieg Bop’ is modelled on the Rollers' ‘Saturday Night’.
The Bay City Rollers also served as Malcolm McLaren’s template for the Sex Pistols. This was true from the launch of the band (prior to hiring Lydon, McLaren drove to Scotland in search of a Rollers-type singer) to the time of their demise (in 1980 he looked back upon the Sex Pistols, saying ‘I was always concerned to make them as much like The Bay City Rollers as possible’).
            And we should not forget the Chris Spedding rumours. It has been suggested that this session musician played guitar on early Sex Pistols’ tracks. Spedding also played guitar on the Wombles’ hits. What matters most about this story is not that it is true, but that it is plausible. The Sex Pistols were not averse to session musician practices. After his sacking, Glen Matlock was rehired as a session bass player. Steve Jones also had a session musician’s mentality as he laid down layer after layer of guitar for Never Mind the Bollocks and also played the bass.
            It is not hard to see why the connections between punk and session musicians have been overlooked. They fly in the face of punk’s DIY ethos. They should not be ignored, however, and we should consider whether doing it for yourself and getting someone else to do it for you really are so different. These networks should also encourage us to rethink the Wombles. Are they the missing link between glam rock and punk?