The man awakes in his cave, wipes the corn out his eyes while shuffling around his man cave. He then walks to the entrance of the cave awaiting the news from the neighboring caves. He waits, waits, and waits until he hears the faint sound of news. Apparently like this cave dweller of land’s past we all know the fateful outcome of the copyright infringement lawsuit against Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams. They were found guilty of flagrant usage of Marvin Gaye’s great boogie down anthem “Got to Give It Up.” The song “Blurred Lines” used the same bass line and drum break sequence in order to give it that party feel akin to the song by Marvin Gaye. In his recent article: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/12/arts/music/whats-wrong-with-the-blurred-lines-copyright-ruling.html?_r=0 on the verdict New York Times columnist Jon Caramanica laments the fact that this was an antiquated interpretation of music making. The verdict followed the sheet music, but Caramanica adds, and I agree, that the current state of music making is very different from the past. Gone are the days of the Brill Building where songwriters competed in order to peddle their songs to the young singers and groups. The modern interpretation of music making is complex due to the vast technological chasm that we leapt into a few decades ago. However, has music always been pure and original or is it all borrowed from previous sources? This quandary has been explored by many scholars and popular writers, but it should be re-examined in light of this verdict.
Music is always created in a context where place, time, and the state of affairs all impact its creation. Johann Sebastian Bach, the great German organist, choir master and composer who lived from 1685-1750, created these magnificent pieces every Sunday for his church. He was influenced by the Renaissance and the musical modes of the chants. However, we take for granted the fact that he was virtually unknown outside of the Germanic lands until after his death. What propelled him to be considered the father of the Baroque period? It was Mozart who, influenced by this master, pushed for his music to be played and used ideas from his compositions. It was Mozart who championed Bach’s music being played in the concert halls of Vienna. Right there we see an influence, and it’s no surprise that Mozart used certain modes and notations in order to bolster his material. Did Bach mind? Probably not, but we see the influences, both conscious and unconscious, and how they are constantly re-interpreted.
The entire case against Thicke and Williams revolves like a whirlwind around Marvin Gaye’s song “Got to Give It Up.” The song was created, chiefly by Gaye, in a hybrid situation where he was surrounded by friends and family at the studio. The song was recorded for his upcoming album Here, My Dear, which would pay off his debts to his first wife and daughter of Barry Gordy Jr. Although some critics lump it into the disco phase of Motown artists, this song is not disco. The song has a funk and R&B feeling while the track has a lot of sounds and voices, including a friend who he shouts out by the name of Don. That’s Don Cornelius of Soul Train fame. The point of this is that Marvin Gaye had the idea for the song and its lyrics, but it was the group effort by these fellow travellers and musicians who lifted the song off the ground. So the question beckons as to was this purely Marvin Gaye alone? And even more so, was it Gaye’s property that was violated or the group itself that should all be compensated. A parallel to this is the case of Rap music sampling beats while solely crediting James Brown. Brown was a prolific singer, composer and musician, but he took all the credit for every note played, which scholars know was unfair to the rest of the musicians.
The greater mystery surrounding this controversy is the complexity of music, and its intangible nature. Music is thought up or comes from a spark, is created, and then it flies off into the ether, never being the same again. Musicologists and scholars from various disciplines have grappled with this notion for the past two decades. Two recent works have thrown more complexity into the issue with regards to the racial barriers as well as the drive for financial success. Karl Hagstrom Miller’s great book Segregating Sounds: Inventing Folk and Pop Music in the Age of Jim Crow discusses these complexities. The book shows how the recording industry has always had a keen eye on its audience, dating back to its infancy in the late 19th Century. They had various streams of income mainly from live recordings, studio recordings and publishing. He argues, through the use of original source material, that it was this industry that created the “black” and “white” categries, which remain pervasive and salient to this very day. It is ironic how cyclical the music industry recycles these successful models. The big companies of the past provided the guidelines that were still used by MTV, VH1 and BET.
Another recent feat of scholarship argues in the same vein. David Suisman’s Selling Sounds: The Commercial Revolution in American Music, argues that with the rise of music as big business these lines became far more rigid. The blurred lines of music are far more obscure than we think. The question then beckons as to what is original music. These questions of copyright have been brought to court before, and the first cases that came to my mind included rap songs that sampled sections of songs from the days of yore.
The cases of De La Soul and Biz Markie set the precedent for the friday night showdown between music and the law. Although it should be known that rap music wasn’t the first genre of music to be sued for lifting literal sections of recorded music onto new interpretations. One example is the a 45′ record released in 1956 titled “The Flying Saucer Parts 1&2” by Bill Buchanan and Dickie Goodman. It’s the earliest example of what we consider a “mashup,” which featured these samples of popular songs amidst a report of a visit from a flying saucer. It’s a first of its kind where the samples compliment the main thread of the track, in this particular case being news of flying saucers. Some of the samples on the record include “Open Up That Door” by Nappy Brown, “The Great Pretender” by The Platters, “I Want You To Be My Girl” by Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, “Long Tall Sally” by Little Richard, “Poor Me” by Fats Domino, “Heartbreak Hotel” by Elvis Presley, “Earth Angel” by The Penguins, “I Hear You Knocking” by Smiley Lewis, “Tutti Frutti” by Little Richard, and “The Magic Touch” by The Platters. Interestingly enough the people who created the track were sued, but the lawsuit was quickly retracted. Why? Once it came out more people heard these songs, had them in their heads, and ended up buying them raising revenue for the original recordings. This was usually the case when it came to covers, but the logic remains that the sample would create the incentive to find the original.
De La Soul was sued in 1989 by the group the Turtles for using a sample from their 1969 hit “You Showed Me.” The De La soul track that sampled the song, titled “Transmitting Live from Mars” from their debut album 3 Feet High and Rising, is a minute long with an ominous feel as it segues into the next song. The most interesting thing about the case was that none of the members of The Turtles actually wrote the song! Unlike the case against Biz Markie By Gilbert O Sullivan, this seems rather perplexing. There are also vast amount of recordings that never reach stardom that are sample laden. Madlib’s first Quasimodo Album The Unseen is filled with an, pun intended, unseemly amount of samples that were probably never cleared, but who cares he ain’t famous. When the law gets involved it becomes a contradictory, ingenuous battle, that is extremely biased and racist. The intervention of the courts also eschews the fact that the history of the music business, up the present, has been built on illegalities and criminal intentions. The criminal element was in the guise of mob connections, exploitation, and financial gain at the expense of the real artists. The business isn’t called shady for nothing.
Music is always light years ahead of the so-called system. When the Recording companies were banned from recording music in the early 1940’s the system was reacting to unpaid wages of union musicians. However, this boycott hurt the musicians more than it helped. This shows that the industry is always three steps behind the music. These complications and various factors blur the true intent of music. Music is heard, music influences, and music is a creation that prods artists to create something better. The Beatles were influenced by many artists, and no lawsuits were filed when they used classical pieces in their pop music. The yellow brick road leads us down two paths, One is a form of imitation through musical flattery, and the second points to the true rooted nature of music. It is always created outside of a vacuum, and it always pushes for more variation, more artistry and more style.