Thursday, 23 November 2017

When Do Songs Become Songs?

When we are very young it feels as though songs have always been there. In fact, some of our earliest song memories retain this sense. It seems odd that there is a person out there who sat down to write ‘Wheels on the Bus’ or ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star’, just as it seems outrageous that ‘Happy Birthday’ could be in copyright.
            Once we can talk we can make songs of our own. Kids soon start to come up with tunes. This is true folk music, borrowing lyrics and melodies from previous works and melding them with something original.
At some point we also start to like contemporary music. We begin to see films and videos of pop stars. They don’t seem to be doing much. Making music is easy.
            There is a time, however, when we begin to realise that there is a craft to songwriting. 
When does this occur?
In my case, it was power ballads that did it. My 1970’s youth was saturated with the brilliant racket of glam rock. Nevertheless, the era also had love songs such as ‘Without You’ by Nillson, ‘My Love’ by Wings’ and ‘The Air That I Breathe’ by the Hollies. To me, these songs felt composed. Their wide-ranging melodies and controlled emotional heft could not be conjured out of thin air. I knew that I couldn’t make music like this myself, and with that realization I understood that there must be someone who could: there are songwriters. It was only later, after struggling more seriously to make my own music, that I realised it’s as hard to create ‘Come On Feel the Noize’ as it is to create something quieter.
The great American songwriter Jimmy Webb recently provided a fascinating answer to the question. For him, it was record company policy that revealed the songwriter’s art:
I was languishing by the radio listening to songs, and I made a connection. Brenda Lee would have a big hit with ‘I’m Sorry’, and they’d come up with another record that sounded a little like ‘I’m Sorry’. Not too much like I’m Sorry, because that would ruin it. There was an epiphany; I became aware of the process that was going on behind the scenes. I divined this process on my own.
This flies in the face of mass cultural theory. If Adorno is to be believed, the standardization and pseudo-individualization of popular music will turn people into passive dupes. Yet here they are inspiring them. It was this industrial process that made Jimmy Webb want to become a writer himself:
Then, later, I would find out that in the industry it was called a ‘follow-up’. There was a name for it. So I was writing songs. I remember writing a song called ‘It’s Someone Else’, and I thought, ‘That would be a great follow-up for The Everly Brothers’ ‘Let It Be Me’’. And 25 years later I told Artie Garfunkel the story, because he loved the Everly Brothers, and he ended up cutting it. I was 13 years old when I wrote my first follow-up.
Moreover, Jimmy Webb was the most idiosyncratic of the professional songwriters who emerged in the 1960s. This is the man who wrote ‘Wichita Lineman’ and ‘MacArthur Park’. You can love the mechanics and you can know the mechanics, but this does not make you mechanical.


Sunday, 5 November 2017

Baby, You're a Firework

Everyone loves fireworks. On Saturday night I went to the huge display at Alexandra Palace, an annual event that is prompted by the anniversary of Guy Fawkes’ attack on British parliament, albeit that Fawkes and politics are curiously absent from the celebrations these days. There were thousands of people there. It was one of those rare occasions where you see a true cross-section of London’s population: all ages, all sexes, all sexualities, all nationalities, all races and all faiths. There’s a problem with fireworks displays, though. The first explosions are always astonishing, but how do you sustain attention over a 20-minute set? It can all start to seem a bit tedious and wasteful. At worst you feel like Aimee Mann in her song '4th of July', which commemorates America's fireworks night: ‘Today's the fourth of July / Another June has gone by / And when they light up our town I just think / What a waste of gunpowder and sky’. You know that there will be a climax at some point, but climaxing is about the only thing that fireworks know how to do.
            There is an answer to this fireworks conundrum. Why not try dancing to them? Dancing is always interesting. It can be enhanced, further still, by visual effects. The Alexandra Palace festival was sound-tracked by DJ Yoda. He was brilliant, weaving together short bursts of music from a large array of genres. He was also thoroughly modern with his faith in the past. Yoda knows the musical state of play. After 15 years of downloading services and a decade of Spotify, there is an audience that knows a huge amount of music and is open to all types. You can play anything from any era as long as it’s good and it’s right. And so we had songs drawn from the 1950s to the present day, and from styles as diverse as hip-hop, folk music, trance, post-punk, jazz-funk, soul, movie soundtracks and mainstream pop. We danced to Deodato’s version of Also Sprach Zarathustra and we danced to the Beastie Boys’ ‘Intergalactic’. The biggest hits of the night were a remix of the Weavers’ ‘Wimoweh’ from 1952 (a song, it seems, that we have all grown up with) and a brilliant segue of New Order’s ‘Blue Monday’ (from 1983) into Rihanna’s 2011 hit ‘We Found Love’ (the trance clichés of this track are irresistible). Of course the whole thing ended with Katy Perry’s ‘Firework’. Except it didn’t. There was an encore sequenced to ‘Feelin’ Good’, Nina Simone’s classic from 1964. These are great times to be a DJ. And they are great times for explosive dance.  

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Mapping Beyoncé's 'Hold Up'

When I first heard Beyoncé’s Lemonade I thought we were entering a new age of sophistication when it comes to sampling. Not only are the sampled tracks musically appropriate, they are thematically appropriate too. On this album of infidelity and heartbreak we hear excerpts of ‘Can’t Get Used to Losing You’ by Andy Williams, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' pleading ‘Maps’, and Isaac Hayes’ version of ‘Walk on By’, in which we find another protagonist who ‘can’t get over losing you’. There’s a whole lot of signifying going on.
            It would seem that the use of samples is more contingent, however. Take ‘Hold Up’, which incorporates the sample from Williams and the interpolation from ‘Maps’. This song has a complicated genesis and was not originally intended for Beyoncé. In fact, it began as nothing more than a Tweet, which was sent in 2011 by Ezra Koenig, the singer of Vampire Weekend. He paraphrased ‘Maps’, writing to his followers, ‘hold up . . . they don’t love u like i love u’.
            Three years later, Koenig was invited by the producer Diplo to contribute hooks to some loops. One of these loops featured the introduction to ‘Can’t Get Used to Losing You’. The recording was of interest to Diplo for its kitsch ska rhythm, rather than for its lyrical content. Koenig thought back to his Tweet. He introduced a new melody to his reworking of ‘Maps’. He also added a supplementary, Biblical refrain: ‘can’t you see there’s no other god above you, what a wicked way to treat the man who loves you’. Beyoncé heard this version. Koenig’s lyrics were changed to ‘no other man above you, what a wicked way to treat the girl I love you’. He has stated that ‘from there a lot of other people got involved in writing the verses, things changed, but essentially the hook stayed the same’. Even so, he was still not sure if it would make Beyoncé’s album or if he would use it instead as a Vampire Weekend song.
            It did appear on Lemonade. In the process ‘Hold Up’ was transformed. Koenig has stated, ‘The idea that those words now are contextualised by this album, by the video, by her as a performer and curator, I like it  . . . 99% of the world will always hear those words and associate it with Beyoncé now. And that makes sense . . . I wrote this hook - of course I feel some sense of ownership over what I did - but it doesn’t feel like my song, she really did bring a deeper resonance and meaning to it’. She brings new significance to the Williams sample as well. So maybe the use of those sources is not so contingent after all.
            Although Koenig now views ‘Hold Up’ as Beyoncé’s song, this is not the story told by the songwriting credits. She has had to split the royalties with 11 other writers, including Koenig and Diplo. Moreover, it has been claimed that the contemporary songwriters get minor shares in the work, while the authors of the sample and the interpolation get the majority income. From this perspective, Beyoncé is not creating a new work; she is instead giving us her version of two old ones.
            The generous shares for Mort Shuman and Doc Pomus, the writers of ‘Can’t Get Used to Losing You’, are understandable. Diplo’s loop of this recording is used for the duration of ‘Hold Up’; it is the musical bedrock of the entire track. Their credits also follow standard sampling practice: if a recording is used prominently, its songwriters will be rewarded handsomely.
            The use of ‘Maps’ is different, however. Although Beyoncé credits it as an interpolation, it is arguable that this really is the case. There is no use of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ melody or of the feel of the track. The only thing taken is the paraphrased lyrics. These were written by the band’s singer, Karen O, but due to American joint authorship rules each member of the group receives royalties for their re-use in ‘Hold Up’. But why do they receive anything at all? ‘Hold Up’ takes eight fairly commonplace words.
One reason is that their origin can be traced. Koenig’s Tweet and his openness about the genesis of ‘Hold Up’ have made it clear that the words were taken from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' song. A second is that American writers are becoming increasing litigious in this area, as the various accusations against the lyrics of Taylor Swift’s ‘Shake It Off’ attest. Ultimately, in crediting ‘Maps’, Beyoncé and her team have taken heed of the old adage that where there’s a hit there’s a writ.
There is one final quirk of copyright law. If ‘Maps’ has been called ‘They Don’t Love You Like I Love You’, the re-use of these words would probably have escaped without charge. It is not possible to copyright titles. Hence, Calvin Harris and the Disciples’ ‘How Deep is Your Love?’ does not credit the Bee Gees, and Justin Timberlake’s ‘Cry Me a River’ does not credit the Julie London song. It is also the case that ‘Hold Up’ does not credit previous songs that have used the same title. In addition, future songs called ‘Hold Up’ will not have to credit Beyoncé’s either. That’s as long as their usage is restricted to these words. If they sample Beyoncé’s recording, however, they will have to credit ‘Hold Up’ and all the other works it includes. We will end up with a recording with vast songwriting credits. Post-structuralists will be happy too. There will be multiple resonances. Listeners will variously recall Beyoncé, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Andy Williams, Mort Shuman, Doc Pomus, Ezra Koenig, Diplo and more. Bring on the endless play of signifiers!

Monday, 18 September 2017

La curiosa historia de ‘Guantanamera’ y cómo se convirtió en uno de los cantos más populares de fútbol

Threads become posts become articles. The discussion of ‘Guantanamera’, which I mentioned in the blog entry ‘Believe It, Chant It, Wear It’, has prompted a great piece by Katia Chornik, which has appeared on Mundo, one of the BBC’s world service websites. I’m quoted a few times, albeit that my words have been kindly translated into Spanish:
Los cantos más memorables y apasionados generalmente provienen de los hinchas de equipos visitantes
The article can be accessed via this link.


Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Recording Bias

Music copyright is elitist. Many theorists have made this claim. They have pointed to the fact that copyright law tends to equate music with its notated form. It therefore over-privileges aspects that can be written down - principally melody and harmony – while it deals unfairly with those elements that can only be loosely captured in a score, such as rhythm and timbre. It is suited to classical music; it is not suited to popular music.
There is evidence of this bias in case law. The Spandau Ballet case, for example, stemmed from a dispute between guitarist Gary Kemp, who claimed that he was the sole author of the group’s songs because he initiated them, and the other members of the band, who argued that they should be regarded as co-authors because they fleshed out Kemp’s compositions with their musical arrangements. Park J found in Kemp’s favour, noting that
A composer can ‘hear’ the sound of his composition in his mind before he ever hears it played. Beethoven could hear his music in this sense even when he was deaf. When Mr. Kemp was devising his songs the sound which he had in his musical consciousness must surely have been the sound they would have when performed by Spandau Ballet, not the sound they would have when sung by Mr. Kemp alone to the accompaniment just of his own guitar.
This decision rested on the conception of the genius romantic composer.
            It should nevertheless be remembered that most songwriting agreements do not come to court. In addition, songwriters are free to make their own decisions about musical worth. They can credit groove and timbre if they want to. In fact, common practice amongst hip-hop and R&B composers is to give 50% of the compositional credits to the author(s) of the rhythm track. If there is an elitist bias, it is at a judicial level; it is not enforced by the legislation itself.
            There is a classical music bias that has been overlooked, however. Academics have focused on the copyright in songs. They have not addressed the elitism of sound recording copyright, which it could be argued has had more profound effects. It is in this area that the bias is legislatively embedded.
Sound recordings have regularly been equated with film in copyright law. There is a fundamental difference, nonetheless. Films have the possibility of two copyrights. There is one that recognises financial and organisational skills, which is awarded to the producer, and another that recognises the original creativity in films, which is usually awarded to the director. In contrast, there is usually only one copyright in sound recordings. It recognises financial input and organisational skills, and is commonly claimed by the record company.
Why is there no creative copyright in sound recordings? Classical music can take some of the blame. Film directors have been awarded a copyright because of their genius. These auteurs take the base material of the film script and convert it into a new artistic work (this conception of directors is itself a reflection of the romantic bias of copyright law). If sound recording were to receive a similar copyright, evidence would need to be provided of creative individuals who take the musical composition and by virtue of their ‘personal and original character’ create a new work, which can be judged to have artistic merit of its own.
If we look at popular music, we can see this happening all the time. Records are valued as much for their production values and the recording ability of the musicians as they are for the underlying song. The producer and the musicians are not following the written instructions of a score; they are making musical and sonic decisions of their own. In contrast, when we turn to classical music, we are not meant to hear the recording studio as a compositional tool. Instead, classical music production is dominated by the ‘concert hall ideal’. The recording is supposed to sound as close to a live performance as possible. The job of the record producer is to be unobtrusive. Similarly, the job of the performers is to follow the score. Their creative genius should be submerged; they are obeying the instructions of the musical composer.
Sound recording copyright has been legislated with classical music in mind. Recording activity has been deemed to be passive at best and damaging at worst. As such, it is not considered worthy of a creative copyright of its own. It is beyond the bounds of the Berne Convention, the international agreement that assesses the creative rights of authors in literary and artistic works. In 1908, British delegates to the Convention suggested an author’s copyright in sound recordings, similar to the one that was being created for films. Their proposal was rejected. Other delegates believed that sound recording was a ‘travesty’, stating:
the composer suffers at present moral injury, from the fact that his work is usually deformed by the necessities of adaptation to the instrument [the gramophone]; the orchestration is re-arranged, melodies are modified because certain notes register badly; ‘scenas’ are cut, and arranged to suit the length of playing of the disc.
In Britain in the early 1950s, members of Gregory Committee assessed the legislation of sound recording copyright by attending the recording of a Mozart symphony. They reported that there was a ‘very high degree of skill (in part technical, in part musical) called into play in recording music’, but concluded that recordings ‘approximate more closely to industrial products than to original literary or musical works’. As such, in the consequent 1956 Copyright Act there was only one copyright in sound recordings, which was awarded to the manufacturer. This remains the case in current British legislation. The Copyright, Designs and Patents Act recognises the director and the producer as separate authors of a film. When it comes to sound recording, however, there is a solitary recipient of copyright: ‘the person by whom the arrangements necessary for the making of the recording ... are undertaken’.
Brazil, Chile, China, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Iceland, Peru, Turkey, Uruguay, Zaire and the countries of the European Union all recognise two copyrights in film. They have one that recognises creative skill, while the other recognises the producer’s duties. In contrast, Ghana is the only country that recognises two sound recording copyrights.
It could be argued that this issue crosses the lines of the copyright in sound recordings and the copyright in songs. If recorded performances and record production were recognised as composition, then this artistry could be absorbed into songwriting credits. In many instances, in fact, this already happens. For example, the majority of hit songs in the UK charts last year were co-authored by professional songwriters, recording artists and (sometimes) record producers. Nevertheless, it can be argued conversely that these credits are the result of a defect in copyright law. In many instances composition, performance and production continue to be separate skills. Musicians and record producers are only documenting their artistic practice as composition because the law gives them insufficient recognition elsewhere. If there were a creative copyright for sound recording it would enable this artistic practice to be recognised appropriately. The elitist bias of legislation would be properly located and addressed.

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Is Equitable Remuneration Equitable?

The journal Popular Music and Society has recently published my article ‘Is Equitable Remuneration Equitable? Performers’ Rights in the UK’. If you do not have access to the journal via an academic institution, it would usually cost £28 to read it. However, the following link allows the first 50 readers to access the work for free: http://www.tandfonline.com/eprint/i9cDVrJXSAWuYhm8gciC/full.
            The article has its roots in an entry for this blog, which in turn formed the basis of a talk I gave at the ‘Working in Music’ conference about the Musicians’ Union, held at the University of Glasgow in January 2016. The abstract is as follows:
British musicians receive ‘equitable remuneration’ when their recordings are played in public or are broadcast. Performers’ rights are weaker than those of songwriters, however. This is largely because songwriters are the first owners of their copyrights, whereas performers rarely own the copyright in their sound recordings. This article concerns the remuneration of musicians’ labor. It looks at the legislative evolution of performers’ rights in the UK and addresses the influence that songwriters, record companies, and the Musicians’ Union have had on this area of copyright law. It argues that performers will only achieve legislative parity with songwriters if the ownership and conceptualization of sound recording copyright are reconfigured. This copyright should be awarded to performers for their creative labor, rather than to record companies for their financial and administrative endeavors.

Saturday, 15 July 2017

Where is the Public Interest in Business-to-Business Licensing?

At the end of June I spoke at the 19th Biennial IASPM Conference in Kassel, Germany. My main theme was blanket licensing and how it is under threat: some artists are refusing to licence their songs to streaming services; some publishers are withdrawing their repertoire from broadcast licensing; and Blockchain technology has been proposed as a means of individually licensing the use of music in venues, shops, hotels and industrial premises, as well as for individually licensing broadcast and online. For me, these developments are not good. If blanket licensing goes, the public will lose its democratic access to music. Artists will suffer too: the winners will no longer compensate the losers.
            My talk drew on a blog entry from last year and it could be considered out of date. Twelve months ago there were many celebrity holdouts from Spotify and there was much talk of 'windowing', i.e. restricting the availability of new releases. Today, this is no longer the case. Spotify has become an aspirational brand. Artists, record companies and publishers are no longer restricting their content on this streaming platform.
            This latest phase does not detract from my larger point, however. Blanket licensing is being eroded. We will miss it when it’s gone. You can access my paper via my academia.edu page.

             

Monday, 3 July 2017

Fear of Musicking

There is a bias amongst some popular music academics. They are for musicians and they are against songwriters. This is not borne out of a need to venerate the incredible playing ability of certain artists, quite the opposite in fact. The desire is to move away from the idea of ‘artists’. Musicians can be viewed as workers. Theirs is a job of honest graft. In contrast, it is songwriters who carry with them the bourgeois notion of the creative genius, operating at a remove from society. This viewpoint is made clear in a recent call for papers for a ‘Working in Music’ conference:
As with any artistic production, music is also - and perhaps mainly - work. Such an idea is opposed to the romantic mythology from the 19th Century which conceives of artistic activity as coming from transcendental inspiration, impossible to rationalize, and of the artist as an exceptional being whose ‘talent’ would be irreducible to sociological analysis.
What we should be value is the work (the physical effort that is expended in making music) and not ‘the work’ (the musical product that is credited to an author). Christopher Small, with his neologism ‘musicking’ is key to this notion. He believes that we should think of music as a process - and thus a verb - rather than as an object - get rid of that noun!
To music is to take part, in any capacity, in a musical performance, whether by performing, by listening, by rehearsing or practicing, by providing material for performance (what is called composing), or by dancing. We might at times even extend its meaning to what the person is doing who takes the tickets at the door or the hefty men who shift the piano and the drums or the roadies who set up the instruments and carry out the sound checks or the cleaners who clean up after everyone else has gone. They, too, are all contributing to the nature of the event that is a musical performance.
I’m in agreement with much of this. Music is social; we should take genius down a peg or two; songwriting should not be placed above performance in the musical hierarchy. This outlook generates some questionable claims, however.
            First, there is the idea that the practice of musicians is out of step with the legal and commercial perceptions of music. Simon Frith has recently argued that ‘The law treats music as a work, a commodity, intellectual property, something that can be owned and exploited’, whereas ‘Musicians think of music as a process’. But do they always think in this manner? The recording industry may have declined in recent years, but the goal for many musicians is still to make a recording. They also want to have credit for it. These musicians do think of music as a noun. Frith once described the process of popular music as resulting in an object:
The ‘industrialization of music’ can’t be understood as something that happens to music but describes a process in which music itself is made – a process, that is, which fuses (and confuses) capital, technical, and musical arguments. Twentieth Century popular music means the twentieth century popular record; not the record of something (a song? a singer? a performance?) which exists independently of the music industry, but a form of communication which determines what songs, singers, and performances are and can be.
I would argue that this still remains the case, regardless of the academic vogue for musicking.
            Second, there is the desire to conflate music-making processes. It is argued that the division of labour into composition and performance is a classical music conceit. Popular music, in contrast, witnesses a confusion of these roles. Musicians compose as they are playing; songs are produced communally. Frith stresses this point in his recent article, stating that ‘The law assumes music is authored, created by named individuals’, whereas ‘Musicians know that music making is an essentially collaborative, a social process [sic]’.
            Music making is certainly collaborative and the divisions between composition and performance can be blurred. This does not mean, however, that they are the same thing. Few popular music songs are notated, but most of them are written. This is most obviously true of the lyrics. The words are honed and they are crafted, and it is usually an individual who does this. It is also true of the music: chords and melodies are usually developed by individuals or by small teams of writers; they seldom emerge whole during the rehearsal process.
            There is, of course, the question of whether the chords and melody should be valued above other elements of music, such as rhythm and the timbre. Frith believes not. He argues that ‘The law describes music in terms of notes and tunes’, whereas ‘Musicians think of music in terms of sounds and textures’. Again, though, do all musicians think in this way? There are a lot of performers who still believe in songs, and there are many who believe (perhaps conservatively) that lyrics, melody and harmony should be given greatest compositional accord.
            The idea that performance and composition take place simultaneously is in some ways outdated. It harks back to the idea of the rock group: a band of musicians who work up their material in rehearsal or in the recording studio. This is not modern practice. Most contemporary hit records are made by solo artists or by collaborations between solo artists. These musicians usually have a hand in writing their songs, but they do not write them on their own. We live in an era of professional songwriters. Their job is to work on the notes and tunes. It is somebody else’s job to work on the performance.
            There is, however, one modern example where the lines between performance, composition and recording are truly blurred. This is the lone, electronic artist who writes, edits and records their material on a digital audio workstation. Ironically, this type of music making is the least social or collaborative of all.
            Finally, we come to attempts to solve the legal dilemma. If the law is an ass when it comes to performers, how do we make it into something better? One proposal that has been put forward is to regard performance as composition. Richard Arnold has argued for this. He believes that ‘in the field of popular music many works are created in performance rather than being written down first’. Lionel Bently’s solution is to forgo the conventional compositional copyright for popular music and instead have a copyright in the ‘original work of sound’:
The effect of this would be to save copyright law from being asked to invent ‘musical works’ (and, indeed, ‘performances’) in circumstances (as in much of rock and pop – but not all) where the musical artefact is created in the recording studio (and subsequently marketed, appreciated and consumed) by way of such recording.
This idea is problematic in two respects. First of all, it ignores the fact that many songs are not written by the recording artists. As noted above, it is rare today for hit songs to be worked up in a studio like this. Bently’s idea is also unworkable in respect of cover versions: artists whose songs have been covered are not likely to welcome the covering artists as co-composers. The second problem with this proposal is that it posits composition as the desired musical goal. Copyright will give due respect to performers, but only if they cast themselves as writers. Isn’t this where we came in?