Once Upon a Time in Shaolin

wu tang

Those of you who have read some of my earlier posts will know that I am rather foolishly in the midst of trying to write an opera.  I’m pleased to say that it is very nearly finished – only a few more pages of orchestration to go.  I’ve just started to have some initial chats regarding potential performance opportunities and will let you know more when there is more to tell.

So, whilst I’m not quite ready to talk in detail about the opera, being ensconced in this process had got me thinking long and hard about the craft of  writing.  I should make absolutely clear at this point that I am not in any way a trained composer, librettist or songwriter.  This is purely a hobbyist’s pursuit and I have no grandeurous delusions as to the quality of the work I produce.  However, as you will hopefully ascertain from my other blog posts I am particularly interested in the craft, tradition, influences and learning processes attached to the world of music making; whether it be writing, producing or performing.

With that in mind I was all set to write what I thought would have been quite a cute post discussing my attempts at songwriting and composing in the past.  It would have been based around my experiences writing songs for my musical (http://oncebittenmusical.co.uk/ – check it out) and would have talked about who I was performing with at the time, what I was listening to, and how all these things molded and influenced the songs as they were written.

I love reading about all that sort of stuff – the creative process.  I find it can only enhance your enjoyment of a work.  And it’s an essential part of learning how to do pretty much anything.

But, as many of you will know,  jurors in Los Angeles last week awarded the Marvin Gaye estate damages of $7.3M for alleged plagiarism of Gaye’s hit “Got to Give it Up” by Robin Thicke and Pharrel Williams’ song “Blurred Lines”.  And here’s the thing – the songs ARE COMPLETELY DIFFERENT!  Now, I’m not here to comment on the relative quality of the songs or the appropriateness of the lyrics, etc etc – but the melodies and lyrics are not REMOTELY THE SAME!  Yes, they have a drumbeat and a bass line which perhaps share some similarities.  But this is pop music! Familiarity is why pop music is popular!  The differences in rhythmic meter, harmonic structure and melodic invention in the history of pop is minute compared to other forms of music.  And that’s fine – those are the parameters.  And the medium moves forward, built on the past. Or it doesn’t, and we just sit and watch the lawyers get wealthier.

I absolutely sincerely believe that this sets a dangerous precedent for the music industry and I’m glad that the ruling is being challenged.  Obviously I can only speculate on the case and the jurors’ conclusions but I do think a major factor in the case is the fact that Thicke and Williams had talked about their influences with regard to the song – and somewhere down the line the lawyers saw an opportunity to make a load of money.

In light of the above my desire to share any thoughts about the writing process has waned somewhat, however like the majority of people who have created anything, my conscience is clear.  The musicologists will just have to argue over my influences long after I’m gone!  Not that anyone would try and sue me – I don’t expect to make a penny out of anything I have written. In contrast Blurred Lines made a cool $16M – worth the risk for the honourable profession. And therein lies the real truth – ‘where there’s a hit there’s a writ’…

Who gets the money (minus fees) in the above case?  Not the writer, Marvin Gaye – he’s long dead.  Instead it goes to his children, who  have already  lived their lives with all the advantages/disadvantages, opportunities/prejudices that come with being the progeny of an multimillion selling recording artist.  And I want to be clear on this, I don’t judge them – the law is the law – and they are just exercising their right.  And the laws governing royalty payments are of course a good and proper thing.

Which brings me on to another topic I’d like to talk about. Royalty Payments.

Firstly a bit of history: many of the laws set up concerning royalty payments were due to the sterling efforts of Jessie Coleridge-Taylor.  Her husband Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (not to be confused with nutty poet and opium addict Samuel Taylor Coleridge) was a truly extraordinary man.  Born in 1875 to an English mother and a black African father, he overcame prejudice to become one of the most well loved and successful composers of the Victorian era. His biggest success was a choral work called Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast which was repeatedly performed all over the world, with the sheet music selling countless copies.  Coleridge-Taylor had sold the rights to the piece outright to publisher Novello so made no further money from the piece. This was fairly commonplace for composers, who of course generally didn’t have a great deal of cash flow, so money up front for work was necessary.  Likewise publishing companies shouldered all the financial risk with printing and promoting a piece that may have ended up earning them nothing. When Coleridge-Taylor died, young (partly from the exhaustion of having to rewrite from scratch his violin concerto after the only score was lost on the Titanic – don’t forget to back up your work folks) his family found themselves with no source of income.  Jessie tirelessly campaigned for her family to receive a share of Novello’s profits and as a result, the Performing Rights Society was set up to ensure musicians were paid a fair price for their work.  All good and proper and I heartily endorse it.  However this copyright endures for (at the time of writing, in the UK) 70 years after the composer’s death.  Compare this to, for example, the big bad pharmaceutical companies who have 10 years to make their money from a product before it comes off patent.  And this is after maybe 20 years of development and trials costing billions with no guarantee of the product working at the end of it all.  Perhaps this begins to explain why the drugs are so expensive.

Conversely I think that the 70 year ruling for music publishing means that too much of the financial risk has been transferred from the copyright owner to the performer, or concert promoter or radio station owner.  Particularly in the classical world, if it costs to put on a piece of new music and it’s less likely to attract a large audience because it’s unknown we end up in a vicious circle of “safe” programming.  This can particularly be seen in the opera houses where an increasingly dwindling number of different operas are put on again and again purely because they are considered box office draws.  So we end up in this weird feedback loop where stuff that is popular is only popular because it’s popular.  And of course the pop world will take even fewer risks which is why we end up with a relatively small number of performers making vast amounts of cash from increasingly unambitious music choices.  So, the rulings brought in to help the Jessie Coleridge-Taylors of the world have ended up profiting an increasingly small group of people.

I suppose we should marvel that “Blurred Lines” is still capable of making a ridiculous amount of money in this day and age.  In this increasingly acquisitive world, as people suffocate under the weight of more and more ‘stuff’,  the thing more and more people are divesting themselves of is their record and cd collections.  Streaming technologies have pretty much rendered obsolete the need to own or pay for music at all, especially if you aren’t too fussed about sound quality.  The music recording has pretty much been rendered worthless. In fact, getting people to pay for music in any form is becoming harder and harder – and once again we’re back in that inevitable world of ever decreasing ‘safe’ choices.

Legendary hiphop collective the Wu Tang Clan have come up with an interesting concept regarding the perceived financial worth of music.  The mysterious box at the top of this blog post is the one and only copy of the Clan’s album, “Once Upon a Time in Shaolin”.  It will be exhibited in galleries like a major artwork.  People will only be able to listen to it through headphones after being searched for recording devices.  After being exhibited it will then be auctioned off to the highest bidder.  Once bought, the buyer will not be allowed to release the product for 88 years.  The idea of course is to try and rekindle in people’s minds that music has artistic and commercial worth in a similar way to, say, a painting by Van Gogh.

But there is a flaw in the logic…  The reason an artwork sells for an extraordinary sum is precisely due to it’s uniqueness rather than the quality of the work. Also, inherent in this is the understanding that seeing a reproduction of a work is in some way not as fulfilling an experience as seeing the real thing,  hence why millions of people flock to the Louvre each year to see the Mona Lisa despite every single one of those people having already seen the picture in reproduction form. Ironically their postcard almost certainly gave a clearer view than the one they’ll get in the Louvre!   Conversely, every copy of a recorded music album is (and is supposed to be) identical to the original, so the burning desire of the wealthy collector to own something unique becomes impossible.  Therefore is “Once Upon a Time in Shaolin”  actually being sold as a piece of art rather than a piece of music?

However the musical artist has one up on the visual artist – they can provide a the unique experience of a live performance.  This is still the most emotionally involving and spiritually moving way to experience this most visceral of art forms. Therefore unlike  a painter or sculptor who has “made it”, a successful musician has to keep on working and performing until the day they die to satiate their audiences’ desire for unique emotional experiences.  Ironically, the visual artist can actually see the worth of their work increase the less they produce!  In fact, if you happen to own a Damien Hirst dot painting the best way to force an increase in it’s value is to hire someone to murder Damien – then watch the value of his art skyrocket.  Just to be clear I’m NOT advocating you do that!

And then bizarrely, the pleasure that people derive from having something other folk don’t have, doesn’t apply to music.  At least, I don’t think it does.  If I like a piece of music, a band or a singer, I want everyone else to know about it and love it too.  Isn’t everyone a bit like that?  In a strange sort of way, our own self worth and the way we judge other people is wrapped up in the music we – and they – listen to.

So there we go, a strange dichotomy – music, both priceless and worthless. And maybe that’s always been the problem.  How do you put a price on something that’s priceless.  Happy Listening! xx


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