s someone with no musical talent, I find it amazing that artists are still coming up with original melodies, and am reluctantly waiting for the day they run out. Every now and again, however, a song comes along sounding not-so-original, and often a law-suit follows.
Last week, for example, pianist Chilly Gonzales accused Top 40 golden boy Hozier of ripping-off Canadian band Feist’s 2011 tune ‘How Come You Never Go There’ on his career building chart topper ‘Take Me To Church’, suggesting they should sue. Hozier isn’t the first, and certainly won’t be the last to be accused of musical plagiarism, but the question is whether such accusations should be a one way ticket to the courtroom, or if artists should understand that occasional similarities are inevitable.
There must be a line between taking inspiration from a song, and downright copying it. In some instances, this line is blurred (no pun intended), as with the Gaye vs. Thicke debacle. In March 2015, Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams were ordered to pay over $7 million to the estate of Marvin Gaye, including $4 million damages. While there are some similarities, in my opinion, ‘Blurred Lines’ isn’t a complete rip-off of Gaye’s ‘Got To Give It Up’, and certainly isn’t as similar as some other songs that have never been sued. Moreover, Gaye being one of the most influential artists of his generation, it is presumable that his music would have influenced countless singers that have come after him. Is ‘Blurred Lines’ the scape goat, then, because it’s an awful song? Or because it was hugely successful (so successful that $3.3 million of its profit was given to the Gaye estate)?
Is it all about the money? It’s obvious that a lot of hard work goes into an artist releasing a song, which becomes a part of their legacy. It makes sense, then, for them to want compensation when their song is used, especially if the “rip-off” song gains success to the heights that ‘Blurred Lines’ did.
MUSIC INFLUENCES MUSIC. NO ONE CARES
On the other hand, some artists believe that it isn’t possible to ‘own’ their music in the first place. In October 2014, Paramore singer Hayley Williams publicly accused pop superstars One Direction of stealing the intro of New Found Glory’s track ‘It’s Not Your Fault’ for their new single ‘Steal My Girl’. On hearing these two intros, I was shocked that One Direction and their writers were able to get away with claiming ‘Steal My Girl’ as their own, when it is so blatantly the same melody as New Found Glory’s song, albeit in a different key. Chad Gilbert, New Found Glory’s principle composer, however, refused to engage with the might of the Directioners, tweeting: “Music influences music. No one cares… It’s not their fault…” Although this may have been influenced by a fear of One Direction’s fans, Gilbert’s claim that ‘music influences music’ suggests that plagiarism isn’t so much a suable crime, as inevitable. If Gilbert – whose band makes nothing close to One Direction or Marvin Gaye – is ok with it, shouldn’t the Gaye Estate be, too?
Whether you side with Gaye or Gilbert is up to you, and probably depends on whether you believe any artist has a ‘right’ to music in the first place. Either way, it seems suing an artist is a relatively easy way of making millions, especially if you belong to a musical legacy like the Gaye Estate.
Whether Feist intends to follow up on Hozier’s apparent plagiarism like many before them is unclear. What is clear, however, is that there are a finite number of notes and chords, and presumably a finite number of tunes. It must be left to the artists, then, to decide whether they deserve payment for any music they may influence, and left to us listeners to hope that decision is all about the artistry, and not about the money.