Can you own the feeling of a track? Thomas Cox argues that dance music needs to define its own understanding of ownership and inspiration.
Anyone with an interest in music should pay attention to the broader implications of a California federal jury ruling in favour of the Marvin Gaye estate in a lawsuit claiming that Robin Thicke’s 2013 hit single ‘Blurred Lines’ plagiarised Gaye’s dance classic ‘Got To Give It Up’.
It may be too early to draw conclusions about the long-term legal impact of the case – Williams and Thicke’s lawyers have already confirmed that the duo will contest the verdict, while legal experts argue that the ruling is an interpretation of existing laws and doesn’t set any new legal precedent – but this isn’t just a legal matter. The surrounding debate raises huge questions about the nature of musical inspiration and the acceptability of drawing on existing music as an influence.
The debate raises huge questions about the nature of musical inspiration and the acceptability of drawing on existing music as an influence.
The legal details of the case have been well covered elsewhere, so there’s no need to repeat the details here (Dan Bogosian’s article for Flavorwire is a good analysis from a music theory perspective), but the crucial point to consider is that many of the arguments in the trial revolved around the question of feeling.
Even with just a cursory listen, one can hear that any similarities in the two songs are purely cosmetic. ‘Blurred Lines’ was obviously made as a homage to the classic Gaye cut, but there are no samples used. Any real songwriting similarities are nonexistent: the songs are not in the same key; the lyrics and delivery aren’t close; the tracks don’t even use similar harmonies or melody lines. The only things that line up are strictly in the realm of instrumentation and production ideas, which is something that should really frighten any producer of hip-hop or electronic music. “Feel, but not infringement” was Williams’s explanation of how ‘Got To Give It Up’ inspired ‘Blurred Lines’. “I must’ve been channeling that feeling, that late-70s feeling.” If crowd noise and a few shouts of “woo!” layered over a 120bpm four-on-the-floor beat is copyrightable, most dance music producers are in trouble.
The impact of sampling on dance music is obvious. Would drum and bass have existed if the Amen break was off limits? Even worse, Baltimore club music was birthed from the abuse of two breakbeats, the Think and the Sing Sing. While both of these genres skirt the legal issue by remaining well underground, the reuse of old sounds and ideas is directly obvious here in making something that really sounds nothing at all like the original songs the breakbeats were taken from. But what if just sounding superficially similar to an existing song was off limits, either in legal or moral terms?
what if just sounding superficially similar to an existing song was off limits, either in legal or moral terms?
Dance music as a whole, and electronic music in general, thrive from the ability to take these production flourishes and create entire subgenres from them. Where exactly is one supposed to draw the line when taking inspiration? Especially when that inspiration is more of a feeling than any specific melody or harmony, this is a very serious question.
Many people bemoan the genrefication of electronic music, but music is like books or film in this regard: there are only so many ways one can write a vampire story before it is no longer a vampire story. Similarly, there are only so many kinds of sounds one can put in a house music song before it is no longer house music. A style like drum and bass is even more restrictive, requiring similar tempo, production aesthetic, and sounds to be part of the culture of that genre of music. This has good and bad implications in the creation and continuation of electronic music. The fact that cultures and communities have used the music as their foundation is an obvious place to begin the discussion about the good, while the proliferation of Larry Heard, Kerri Chandler and other old-school house knock-offs over the past decade show the lack of creativity that can arise when sounds are abused in a derivative way.
Jeff Mills imitators are part of what led to the rise and eventual downfall of mid-to-late-90s drummy techno, due to the deluge of soundalikes flooding the market. Metro Area’s early catalogue was based on repurposing the sounds and machines of Italo Disco and Boogie Funk instrumentals into house music. 4 Hero have said in the press that they admire and take great influence from the arrangements of the great Charles Stepney, but their electronically assisted broken beats are clearly not the same as his completely analogue soul. All of J Dilla’s catalogue could basically be torn apart and found to have either sampled or taken ideas from any number of other songs, but flipping them into his distinctive take on hip-hop. There are so many more examples, too. Even putting aside any legal arguments, where should we draw the line morally in terms of inspiration?
The problem is exacerbated by the fact that the world of dance music is self-policing to some extent; rip off someone’s track and they’ll usually resolve the grievance without involving the courts (it’s a precedent that goes back at least as far as 1988, when Kevin Saunderson took umbrage at Todd Terry for ripping off ‘The Sound’ on ‘Back To The Beat’).
the world of dance music is self-policing to some extent
I keep hearing the defence of this verdict from the dance music public which is somewhere along the lines of, “What we do is underground, so it doesn’t matter anyway.” Let’s look at an example that should dispel this attitude. Maya Jane Coles blew up a few years back with her track ‘What They Say’. The moment I heard it the first thing that popped into my mind was: “Wow, this takes ripping off MK tracks to a whole new level.” She basically appropriates the entire style in which he made music, including specific sounds and instrumentation. And of course that song went on to be sampled recently by Nicki Minaj on ‘Truffle Butter’, from the multi-million-selling album The Pinkprint. Now that Coles is (presumably) making significant money from the sample, does MK have the right as well as a reason to sue? It’s a ridiculous question, but one that clearly cannot be written off at this point in time.
The entire genres of house and techno rely heavily on the relatively limited palette of the Roland TR-909 drum machine and a few other staple sounds. Both of these genres are of course rooted in the tradition of black music, which in recorded form can be followed back at least one hundred years. Examining the progress of this music shows many genres which are heavily reliant on similar sounds, instrumentation, and vibes. Starting with the blues, which uses a relatively simple harmony that has been absolutely pillaged by every single genre that has come since. Moving through reggae, disco, funk and many other genres, one can see the importance of taking an idea or a basic building block and using it to make new music, either in terms of sounds or feeling. Jazz is considered to be one of the great American artforms, and it revolves around the playing of standards which every jazz player is expected to know. Specific versions of certain standards as performed by iconic artists have now themselves become the standard by which that song is played. Moving into sample-based music, the examples are far too numerous to even begin with, but hip-hop, house and techno music are amongst the genres most closely tied to older music that has been repurposed.
What exactly do we require for music within electronic genres to be considered 'new'?
If sounds and feelings of tracks can be considered to be owned by particular artists, how should we treat artists who make use of widely available sounds? Two of Pharrell’s most famous productions (as part of The Neptunes) were based around synth presets: the Korg Triton percussion kit for The Clipse’s ‘Grindin’’ and a Korg 01/W clav preset for Noreaga’s ‘Superthug’. If other artists use those presets, the feeling will be undeniably similar. Should producers avoid sounds that have been used by other artists for fear of being accused of plagiarism?
What exactly do we require for music within electronic genres to be considered ‘new’? No form of music has ever been held to such a standard, much less one that has so much potential for reframing and reimagining existing music. The rules – whether they’re officially codified laws or community-defined moral standards – should exist to stop true copycats from getting around licensing a song or covering it, as opposed to trying to dictate how an artist can take and use inspiration from an existing piece of music. Most people seemed content with the situation as it was, where specific sounds, vibes, and feelings were open to wide use, with only the direct lifting of melodic and harmonic content being off limits. The more limits put on what counts as creativity, the worse the music will be.
Thomas Cox has been causing trouble on teh interwebs since 1996 and representing Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania since birth. Check out his grade A retweet game on Twitter.