Hits, Writs, and Rip-Offs: "Influence" and Creativity

It is said in HOLLYWOOD that "where there's a hit, there's a writ". Meaning any time you succeed, some whack job starts complaining they had the idea first, and you're ripping them off. It's an evergreen business, and if I'd been smart, I would have gone to lawsuit school and gotten rich off of that instead of learning to play guitar and the difference between square and sawtooth waves.

Bruno Mars and Mark Ronson
Mark Ronson likes to mine the past for inspiration. He's been pretty outspoken about how he listens to old records and frequently tries to emulate them. Not straight-up copying, but copying the vibe. Like all musicians, he's got a deep appreciation for, and encyclopedic knowledge of, music.

Talented dude, and his production and skills resulted in great albums for acts including the late, great Amy Winehouse and the still-great Duran Duran.

He supposedly recorded like 3 complete versions of "Uptown Funk" that didn't work before the version he did with Bruno Mars blew up and became a hit.

So of course, Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars have been sued over "Uptown Funk". Again. (This Pitchfork article sums it up well).

The meat of the argument is copyright violation. There's some bad knowledge that "8 notes in sequence" have to be lifted. This isn't exactly true. It's a lot more complicated. But basically you should be somewhat original when it comes to composition (there's absolutely NO middle ground on sound recordings, though. If you use any tiny sample of someone else's record, you are infringing).

Given all the ambiguity, and how weird music is to begin with, there are always accusations of "you're copying my song" when what is really meant is "that sort of feels like what I did". This is also aggravated by musicians constantly listening to each other and the market and trying to figure out what's popular or will be popular. (Hint: It's very similar to what already is or was popular, except when it's not).

This isn't new. Every. Single. Musician. does this: copies other musicians. Hell, every artist does this. Every human.

In fact, if big successful bands were mean and/or had more lawyers and free time, they could make a very small fortune by going around and nailing all the up-and-coming bands that are ripping them off right and left trying to hop on the bandwagon. (If they'd been smart, RHCP and Jane's Addiction could have made a mint from early-90s Los Angeles). But that's sort of punching down, and not worth it, because most musicians have nothing to sue for.

But the upward suit, of the nobody or dead star's "estate" against current hitmaker/star? All good. And this has become a big deal in the last few years. I think it's because of a few factors:

1) The continuing decline in music industry revenues means that old bands (or more frequently, their "estates") are seeking new sources of revenue, so they're going after the crummy new acts taking what little money is available.

2) Studio technology and internet knowledge have made it easier than ever to find cool stuff from the past and figure out how to superficially and near-exactly replicate it (see also: the extreme hype around the "Stranger Things" 80s synth soundtrack, Adele, etc.)

...and you can do it without sampling, which as we all know was the subject of many lawsuits both valid and stupid.

Anyhow, let's listen to a few of these. Here's the Bruno Mars/Mark Ronson jam:

Now here's "Young Girls" by Collage, from 1983:

Like Mark Ronson, I am an artist who dissects, copies, pastiches, and, uh, collages for a "living". Yeah. There are clear similarities. Clearly Ronson and Mars heard this and said "let's do one like that".

So you get a similar tempo. The big bass hit on the one. The razor-sharp Strat chords. The vibe.

But what about the Gap Band? They sued over the same song, claiming it was close to their own "Oops Upside Your Head" from 1979:

...or this song, "Funk You Up" by The Sequence, also from 1979?

The Gap Band won. The Sequence chose not to file. Does that mean Collage should also be sued by The Gap Band and The Sequence? (For what it's worth, I think Collage has a much stronger case than either of the other two bands.) I mean, I don't really hear what The Gap Band is so upset about.

There are a whole grip of early 80s electro-funk soul tunes which are also amazing and also likely sources of inspiration. When you listen to a playlist of this stuff, what starts to strike you is not "what a spectacular range of creativity" but rather "wow, this all sort of sounds like the same song. It's a really GOOD song, but..."

You start to see how every scene and genre in pop music is variations on a theme, usually empowered by some new piece of technology, whether it's a Moog bass synthesizer, a vocoder, a Fairlight CMI, ReCycle, the Sherman Filterbank, the Akai S1000 and MPC, or Antares AutoTune.

I digress.

The last time this happened, it was Miguel's "Adorn" vs. Marvin Gaye's estate. This is because "Adorn" is pretty much "Sexual Healing", but not as good, and also because Marvin Gaye's "estate" are a bunch of litigious jerks.. Hear for yourself:

You already know "Sexual  Healing", but c'mon it's so good:

Here's Miguel's bad Xerox:

It's beyond obvious that "Adorn" came out of the gang in the studio saying "we should make something like 'Sexual Healing'", and then they did the dumbest possible thing: They made something that literally sounded like "Sexual Healing".

It's also super-obvious that "Adorn" sucks.

They copped all the right sounds: 808. Synth bass. Organ-y synth for chords. But they left out some crucial ingredients.

For one, while Marvin Gaye's lyrics for "Sexual Healing" aren't exactly Bob Dylan-level, they're passable, internally consistent, and have a few good moments (the "I got sick this morning..." verse, for example).

"Adorn", on the other hand, is pretty dumb throughout, and like most modern pop songs, flits from one idea and metaphor to another, without any intention whatsoever. 

Most importantly, while Miguel is a technically fine singer, he is no Marvin Gaye when it comes to delivery. As caveman as "Sexual Healing" can be (it's basically a song that says "I'm horny, so fuck me before I lose my shit" and literally says "no, masturbation's not good enough"), Gaye's singing totally sells it in a non-creepy way and makes it loving, tender and even hot.

Ain't nobody playing Marvin Gaye on radio, and Miguel sold 500K copies - GOLD! - on the strength of his Gaye-giarism. Plus the Gaye people did pretty good in wailing on the also-terrible "Blurred Lines" for similar crimes.

These suits are not uncommon. Led Zeppelin just got hit by some band that claims Zep "stole" key pieces of "Stairway to Heaven". I can't remember the band's name, and neither can you, because even if Zep did cop the vibe, the forgotten band didn't actually write fucking STAIRWAY, Led Zeppelin did.

George Harrison got sued over "My Sweet Lord". He lost the suit, and then bought the rights to the song that won.

Perhaps the best and best-known of these suits is from the 80s (of course), and that is Huey Lewis and The News' 1982 smash "I Want A New Drug" vs. Ray Parker Jr.'s "Ghostbusters" theme from 1984.

This case was particularly notable because, unusually, BOTH of these songs were huge chart-topping smashes, endlessly played on radio at the time.

Here's "I Want A New Drug":

...and here's "Ghostbusters":

So what happened? Huey Lewis won, and big time. Part of this was that Lewis had been approached by the Ghostbusters producers, who said "please write us a hit song for the movie". Lewis was busy (writing hit songs for "Back To The Future") and he passed.

So the producers then went to Ray Parker Jr. (why???) and said "hey, can you write us something for the movie kind of like 'I Want A New Drug'?" and Parker said "sure thing".

Kaboom. Documented. Done. Payment made. Also a pretty obvious and hacky copy. Parker is a very gifted guitar player, but that is some lazy songwriting (to say nothing of his somnambulent "singing"). Didn't matter. Was still a big hit.

And Parker had some literal payback when Lewis broke the confidentiality agreement around the settlement many years later and Parker sued him.

But if you look at radio play these days, well, they're still playing "I Want A New Drug". You'll maybe hear "Ghostbusters" during Halloween and everyone will groan and say "can't you just play 'Monster Mash' again?"

Sorry. let's wrap up here.

Thing 1, the plaintiffs: There's a reason you haven't heard most of the songs claiming to be "ripped off" by the bigger hits. And that is because those songs weren't hits.

When you go back and listen, compare them to the hits, you can hear why. Mostly they're boring. Sometimes they have good vibes or a decent hook but the rest of the song is just lame or uninspiring.

The argument made in court is frequently "look, if this song was any good, it would have been a hit on its own. Whether my client listened to it or was inspired by it or not isn't the question. It's 'did my client infringe?' Success isn't illegal."

And it's true. Copping a vibe isn't illegal. Copying more than 8 notes is. Unauthorized sampling is. Most of these suits are sour grapes squeezed by resentful bitter old musicians and the lawyers who fight for them.

Even if you write a great riff, if you can't figure out what to do with it, don't be too upset if someone gets close to it and does better. There's only 12 notes, and only a few ways they go together without sounding weird.

Thing 2, the defense: There's a bigger issue here. There's an inverse relationship with how closely you duplicate an inspiration and how vital, useful, or necessary your own work is. 

The closer you get to making a perfect copy of someone else's work, the more your own deficiencies or differences will stand out.

I go back to that Miguel track and I don't think "wow, Miguel is so good". I think "Marvin Gaye was great, and Miguel is a bad karaoke impersonator who was afraid to do a straight-up cover because he knew he couldn't compare."

I listen to "Uptown Funk" and I think "this is obviously derivative of 80s electro-funk-soul, sounds like a million other songs, BUT there's something about how Ronson and Mars did it that feels fresh and fun RIGHT NOW. Probably won't hold up as a classic, though...because it's not really adding anything."

If you're going to put on someone else's leather jacket and credibilty, you need to add something of yourself, put your own spin on it, highlight something we didn't see. At the very least make us look a that old stuff with fresh eyes, not just nostalgia. 

"Talent borrows, genius steals", said Picasso. And by that he meant "if you're going to cop someone's steelo, best do it so well it becomes yours." Or else.