Mar 25 2015

Blurred Lines

In the mid ’90’s The Offspring released their breakthrough album, Smash. Not long afterwards, people began calling me suggesting that the song Gotta Get Away was a rip off of our own Hard To Laugh. A few people in the music business were suggesting litigation, thinking we an opportunity to cash in on what they perceived to be copyright infringement. I bought the album and listened to the track and it ‘sounded’ kind of the same but I didn’t think their song and mine were the same. The comparison that people heard revolved around a riff and maybe a drum beat(??). I thought the claim was frivolous and the similarities between the two songs was most likely accidental.

So everyone is talking about the Blurred Lines verdict and what it means. I am seeing posts of Mavin Gaye’s family listening to Happy, by Pharrell Williams, one of the plaintiffs in the Blurred Lines case to see if further litigation is an option. This is disturbing in several ways.

When I first heard Blurred Lines, I thought, wow that sure sounds like Got To Give It Up by Marvin Gaye. the cowbell, the groove-the feel and the sound were very close. I kind of smirked and thought little of it past that. It wasn’t until the lawsuit surfaced that I examined the songs.

My understanding of the law is that, in terms of song copyright, a song is the melody and lyrics. Since there are only 12 notes in Western music, that can get pretty dicey. But the reality is, there haven’t been a lot of these suits. Copyright infringement has needed to be pretty blatant before a judge would hand out an award. One of the most famous cases was George Harrison’s My Sweet Lord which was said to have copied the melody of He’s So Fine by the Chiffons. In this case, it’s relatively clear that the melody is remarkable similar.

That’s not the case with Blurred Lines/Got To Give It Up. The songs are not particularly similar, there is merely a comparable vibe because of the production values. Production values shouldn’t be a matter of copyright.

To me, Blurred Lines falls into the category of homage or tribute. It’s acknowledging someone else’s great art by referencing it in your own art. Like Back In The USSR by The Beatles is a homage to both Chuck Berry and the early Beach Boys. There is a band called The Spongetones who’s work is a meticulous recreation of the Beatles style and sound. Todd Rundgren’s band Utopia did an album called Deface The Music which did the same thing, sent up very specific Beatles tracks in terms of sound and style but were nonetheless original songs. Should they be sued for this?

Almost every early rock and roll song in the ’50’s was a fast paced 12-bar, very much alike in sound, style and structure. Same with so many old honky tonk songs. Apparently the great Hank Williams once said that he basically re wrote existing songs, put new lyrics on them and bingo-a legend is born. You could find 1000 12-bar blues tracks where the differences would only be apparent to a musician. Should everyone above be sued? Does everyone who uses a detuned, distorted electric guitar owe something to Black Sabbath? Does every House producer owe Georgio Morodor/Donna Summer, every Techno producer owe Kraftwerk?

So you see where this could lead. And that’s not even touching bands who wear their influences on their sleeve like power pop demi gods Jellyfish or The Rolling Stones influenced Black Crowes. There is a hilarious video by a comedy troupe from Australia called Axis of Awesome playing several dozen hit songs over the exact same four chords.

And if we want to call out rip off artists, how about Katy Perry who blatantly ripped off Jill Sobule with her breakthrough hit, I Kissed A Girl. Jill’s song had the hook, I Kissed A Girl and at a point says, ‘and I liked it’, just like Katy’s song. And what about Bruno Mars aping the hook of one of Billy Joel’s biggest hits, Just The Way You Are? The melodies in both cases are different but if all we need to show is that the songs are ‘similar’ these songs in my mind are more actionable that Blurred Lines. And should anyone be looking into a half a dozen Led Zeppelin songs that sound like old blues tracks but are ‘written’ by Page and Plant?

Copyright infringement is hot right now because of another recent case involving Sam Smith’s Stay With Me and it’s melodic similarity to Tom Petty’s Won’t Back Down. It never made it to court as the involved parties resolved it themselves. In that case, one could say the melodies had a striking resemblance. I remember thinking it was a big fuss over nothing, I bet if you dug deep you could find other songs with that descending melody. But most people would think this case had some legitimacy, because it’s the song that’s the same, not the arrangement or production. That’s a huge difference.

The biggest problem with litigation is that it’s not always about who is right but who has the best lawyer. In this case, it was clearly the Gaye family. As for the Gaye family hunting around for more copyright infringement, that’s just gross.

It should be clear that what we are talking about here is much different than sampling. Sampling is using someone’s ACTUAL PERFORMANCE in a song. If Blurred Lines had sampled Got To Give It Up, it’s a completely different case. But even sampling cases sometimes stretch the boundaries of what most people would consider fair. Read up on The Verve’s nightmarish run in with Andrew Loog Oldman and The Rolling Stones with their hit Bittersweet Symphony. That’s another blog.

The worst case scenario here is that people start to think that this is a way to make money in our ever challenging business. If the case before us now becomes precedent, then the floodgates would surely open for literally thousands of equally specious claims. That would effectively kill music production and recording. So everyone in this business should be praying this verdict is overturned in appeals court. Otherwise, things are really going to suck.


Mar 12 2015

Much Music/MTV


I very recently did an interview about Much Music and it brought back, mostly, great memories.

When I was much younger, I would choose the bar I drank at by whether they had an American feed of MTV. Music wasn’t as ubiquitous as it is now, especially on TV. In it’s infancy, MTV played a wide variety of videos, partly because there wasn’t a ton of videos yet and partly, I suspect (or maybe believe), because they wanted to. My hope is that most people go into business ventures with the best of intentions and only later, money and power and outside interests corrupt them.

Those were great days, a TV station that played music 24 hours a day!!!! I would positively tingle at the thought of getting to see bands ‘play’ their songs on TV. MTV was the epitome of cool and the cry I Want My MTV echoed across America and even north to Canada. New artists burst into the mainstream and MTV started breaking bands and introducing new music, especially post punk/new wave bands to the masses. MTV acted as a real alternative to radio. One of the best features were the specialty shows, 120 Minutes, which featured alternative and independent artists and Headbangers Ball-a heavy metal show. And MTV played hip hop long before the radio did.

Soon, Canada had its own 24 hour video station, Much Music. Initially, Much Music followed MTV’s programming of new, innovative music mixed with the hits of the day. They also had niche shows; their metal show was called the Pepsi Power Hour and they played indie/alt videos on City Limits. They also had Spotlight, which was a full half hour of videos by one artist where you could see a few deep cuts. Eventually they programmed Soul In The City and Electric Circus which featured urban and dance music.

In the channel’s infancy my band, the recently christened, The Pursuit Of Happiness, had recorded some demos at our buddy Scott De Smit’s house on his 16 track Fostex. Another friend, Nelu Ghiran, who worked at the National Film Board offered to shoot a video for one of the demos, I’m An Adult Now. We finished it and brought it over to Much Music with the hope that they would spin it on City Limits. The next day, we got a call saying not only would they play it on City Limits, they were actually going to add it into full rotation. The rest, as they say, is history. MTV in America played a remade, much more expensive version of I’m An Adult Now which had a great deal to do with our success there as well.

Anyway, enough of the bio. Fast Forward. Eventually, both MTV and Much Music succumbed to commercial pressures and in many ways became more like commercial radio stations, though I will say that they occasionally went outside the box with their programming and made stars of bands that might not of ‘made it’ on commercial radio. I’m thinking of System Of A Down as an example.

Later, about 10 years ago, I remember traveling through America with my wife and watching MTV before bed.  They weren’t playing videos but instead, these weird youth-oriented reality shows. We’d watch Jackass and a bunch of others who’s names escape me now. I actually thought they were kind of funny and almost good. Jackass, of course, was awesome and Johnny Knoxville became my new hero. The idea of reality shows wasn’t new at MTV. They started with The Real World many years earlier. My claim to fame with that show was running into one of the original cast members who told me she was a fan of ours because she bought a car that had one of our cassettes jammed in the tape player so she was forced to listen to it.

In subsequent road trips to the USA, the reality shows on MTV seemed to be getting dumber and dumber or maybe the novelty of them just wore off on us. Eventually MTV moved up to Canada and some of these shows came with them. Apparently, MTV Canada wasn’t able to show videos due to CRTC regulations that only allowed Much Music to do that. So the reality shows were really all they had. The success of the reality show paradigm soon influenced Much Music programming as well and that was the beginning of the end. I completely checked out from music television and whenever I passed through the dial it seemed like they weren’t even playing reality shows anymore. Those had been replaced by either reruns of former network shows like The Gilmore Girls or else something to do with vampires. I will say that Much Music still played more videos than US MTV did but that’s probably not saying much.

I am not writing this to criticize Much Music or MTV but rather to say a heartfelt thank you to them for all they did in terms of helping my career and, mostly, for all the entertainment. Being able to watch music on TV and see and hear bands that I never would have seen or heard without MTV/Much Music was fabulously exciting for the younger me. Before 24 music television, the only music you’d see on TV were occasional reruns of Midnight Special or Don Kirsheners Rock Concert or someone lip syncing on a talk show. What was great about music television was that people in small communities who didn’t get a lot of concerts or maybe even a decent radio station could have access to great bands and music. It united kids in both the US and Canada and that, to me, is a great thing.

To paraphrase The Buggles, You Tube killed the Video star. Now that music videos are accessible on your computer whenever you want and on demand, music television has lost its status. This is time marching on, unavoidable however nostalgic people like me might get. It may be that MTV and Much Music were being proactive by cutting down on music and may have seen this coming. Or some would say that nature abhors a vacuum and You Tube filled that when music television abandoned music. It doesn’t matter, it’s too late anyway. Fortunately, the AUX Network is picking up some of the slack but only some of it.

So, Much Music and MTV-it would be hard to overstate how much joy and excitement you gave me over the years. I can’t imagine there will ever be TV stations that would offer kids as much as you did.