Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Not such a blurry line after all

“Without change there is no innovation, creativity or incentive for improvement.” — William Pollard, Quaker writer and minister

IN RETROSPECT, the title of the song Robin Thicke and Pharrel Williams "wrote" was prophetic. There were some blurry lines, but on March 10 a US District Court jury clarified them by ruling that Blurred Lines plagiarized Marvin Gaye's 1977 hit, Got to Give It Up, and awarding his heirs $7.3 million.

I'm doing a little Gaye happy dance.

For starters, I'm a huge Marvin Gaye fan. The man was blissfully talented, creating hits that included I Heard it Through the Grapevine, Can I Get a Witness and How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You). Tragically, he was shot to death by his father in 1984 at age 44.

The sublime Mr. Marvin Gaye

Just as important to me, however, is how much I loathe Thicke and William's malignantly misogynistic version. You can look it up on You Tube if you want, if it still exists out there. I hope it doesn't.

Instead I enthusiastically share a brilliant send-up of Blurred Lines created by three female law students I wrote about in a September 15, 2013 post. Watch it instead.

The reaction to the verdict by some has been apoplectic; the LA Times ran a subhead that read, "How the 'Blurred Lines' case could have chilling effect on creativity."

Personally, I think Pharrel and Robin deserved a spanking. I liked Pharrel's I'm Happy. In fact I wrote a blog post celebrating the song, but then I started listening to some of his other work, and frankly, what I've heard of it sounds repetitious.

As to why that might be the case, another quote from the LA Times sheds some light on Pharrel's "process." 

"Alone in a Burbank studio, Pharrell Williams started by 'surfing around' for a drumbeat…Once he got a 'groove' going, he later recalled, he let it speak to him. When he found a melody 'that sticks and shimmers,' it told him what the song should be about, and he started scratching down lyrics. In all, it took less than an hour, Williams testified this month."

I'm guessing that the reason it took him "less than an hour" (Paul said, "That's not composing music, that's tinkering.") and the reason it "stuck and shimmered" was because he'd heard it before. I'm not saying he intentionally copied Marvin Gaye's song, but maybe it sounded so right because it had already been so. Musical geniuses capable of instant brilliance exist to be sure, but I don't think that's what we're talking about here with Mr. Williams or Mr. ThickeThey had a catchy tune . . . which they borrowed.

It's possible to give a nod to someone else's past work and influence without purloining it. Jazz musicians do it all the time when they insert a couple of bars into a solo quoting a famous tune, but it's a brief reference that honors, not rips off, another musician, but I'll admit I'm biased. I'm married to a professionally trained musician, and I hang out with a bunch of them. They've invested in attending music school and put years into learning the mechanics as well as the art of building a tune. 

It's ironic that this case was indeed about blurred lines — the line that divides being influenced by and stealing. It can be a blurry line, but at some point it's crossed, and repercussions are due. 

Perhaps instead of having a "chilling effect" on musical creativity, this ruling will serve stimulate it. If so, it will be welcome because what's happening now in pop music is pretty awful, creatively speaking.

Paul found the below two pieces of evidence. The first talks about the wretchedness of lyrics; the second is a video demonstrating the sameness of popular country tunes. Below both of these, is a New York Times article about the recent jury finding in favor of Marvin Gaye's heirs. 

From the blog Seat Smart:

Lyric Intelligence In Popular Music: A Ten Year Analysis
By Andrew Powell-Morse
May 18, 2015

Popular music lyrics are dumb. No really, I’m not just saying that. As easy as it is to mock the quality of lyrics today, there’s some real science behind looking at how dumb they truly are.

How exactly did I go about this?

I turned to the Readability Score. It uses writing analysis tools like the Flesch-Kincaid grade index and many others to create an average of the US reading level of a piece of text. I plugged in song lyrics (punctuation added by me, since most songs lack it altogether) and out of the machine popped out average grade level, word count, and other very interesting metrics.

All told, I analyzed 225 songs in 4 different datasets, resulting in 2,000+ individual data points. How’d I choose them? If they spent at least a few weeks (3+) at #1 on the Billboard charts for Pop, Country, Rock, and R&B/Hip-Hop for any given year, they made the list.

While the results are certainly enlightening, it’s important to note that this data doesn’t touch on the meaning of a song, the metaphors, how the words connect with the artist’s personal story, etc. to create deeper meaning. These numbers are fun and interesting, so just enjoy them.

What did the data tell us?

So much for lyrics. How 'bout the melodies? From Sir Mashalot.

‘Blurred Lines’ Infringed on Marvin Gaye Copyright, Jury Rules

By Ben Sisario and Noah Smith
March 10, 2015

For the last year and a half, the music industry has been gripped by a lawsuit over whether Robin Thicke’s 2013 hit “Blurred Lines” was merely reminiscent of a song by Marvin Gaye, or had crossed the line into plagiarism.

A federal jury in Los Angeles on Tuesday agreed that “Blurred Lines” had gone too far, and copied elements of Gaye’s 1977 song “Got to Give It Up” without permission. The jury found that Mr. Thicke, with Pharrell Williams, who shares a songwriting credit on the track, had committed copyright infringement, and it awarded more than $7.3 million to Mr. Gaye’s family.

Nona and Frankie Gaye, two of Marvin Gaye’s children, are to receive $4 million in damages plus about $3.3 million of the profits earned by Mr. Thicke and Mr. Williams. The decision is believed to be one of the largest damages awards in a music copyright case. In one of the few comparable cases, in 1994, Michael Bolton and Sony were ordered to pay $5.4 million for infringing on a 1960s song by the soul group the Isley Brothers.

Since the “Blurred Lines” suit was filed in August 2013, while the song was still No. 1, the case has prompted debate in music and copyright circles about the difference between plagiarism and homage, as well as what impact the verdict would have on how musicians create work in the future.

Mr. Thicke’s lawyers had argued that the similarity between the songs — both are upbeat dance tunes featuring lots of partylike atmospherics — was slight, and had more to do with the evocation of an era and a feeling than the mimicking of specific musical themes that are protected by copyright.

But speaking to reporters after the verdict was announced, Richard S. Busch, a lawyer for the Gaye family, portrayed the ruling as a refutation of that view.

“Throughout this case they made comments about how this was about a groove, and how this was about an era,” Mr. Busch said. “It wasn’t. It was about the copyright of ‘Got to Give It Up.’ It was about copyright infringement.”

Neither Mr. Thicke nor Mr. Williams was in court on Tuesday. But in a joint statement, they said that “we are extremely disappointed in the ruling made today, which sets a horrible precedent for music and creativity going forward.”

Howard E. King, a lawyer for Mr. Thicke and Mr. Williams, said that his clients were considering their legal options but he declined to be more specific. (Noting the fame and fortune of Mr. Thicke and Mr. Williams, however, Mr. King — a wry voice inside and outside of the court — said that the verdict “is not going to bankrupt my clients.”)

The jury decided that while “Blurred Lines” infringed on the copyright of “Got to Give It Up,” Mr. Thicke and Mr. Williams had not done so willfully. Clifford Harris Jr., better known as T. I., who contributed a rap in the song, was found not liable. According to an accounting statement read in court and attested to by both sides, “Blurred Lines” has earned more than $16 million in profit.

The case was unusual not only for its large damages award but for the fact that it reached the level of a jury verdict at all. Music executives and legal experts said that while accusations of plagiarism — and accompanying demands for credit and royalties — are common in the music industry, it is rare for a case to progress so far.

“Music infringement claims tend to be settled early on, with financially successful defendants doling out basically extorted payoffs to potential plaintiffs rather than facing expensive, protracted and embarrassing litigation,” said Charles Cronin, a lecturer at the Gould School of Law at the University of Southern California, who specializes in music copyright.

The eight jurors in the case were instructed by the judge, John A. Kronstadt of United States District Court, to compare “Blurred Lines” and “Got to Give It Up” only on the basis of their “sheet music” versions — meaning their fundamental chords, melodies and lyrics, and not the sounds of their commercial recordings.

That led to several days of esoteric analysis by musicologists for both sides, whose testimony was often vociferously objected to by the lawyers. The disputes involved passages as short as four notes, as well as mash-ups pairing the bass line of one song with the vocals from the other.

Yet the case also had plenty of star power and revelations about some of the more unseemly practices of the music business. As part of his testimony, Mr. Thicke performed a piano medley of “Blurred Lines” and tracks by U2, Michael Jackson and the Beatles in an effort to show how easily one song could be shown to sound like another.

He also said that he had been high on drugs and alcohol throughout the recording and promotion of “Blurred Lines,” and that while he claimed a songwriting credit on the track, it was Mr. Williams who had created most of it.

“The biggest hit of my career was written by somebody else, and I was jealous and wanted credit,” Mr. Thicke testified.

As news of the ruling spread Tuesday afternoon, some legal experts expressed worry about the precedent it set. Lawrence Iser, an intellectual property lawyer in Los Angeles who was not involved in the case, called it “a bad result.”

“It will cause people who want to want to evoke the past to perhaps refrain from doing so,” Mr. Iser said. “Rather than helping to progress the arts, it is a step backward.”

For the family of Marvin Gaye — who died in 1984 — the jury’s verdict was welcome. In one of the twists of the often complicated case, Mr. Thicke and Mr. Williams sued first, seeking a declaration from a judge to protect them against infringement claims that they said had been made privately by the Gaye family. Nona and Frankie Gaye quickly countersued.

When the verdict was read on Tuesday, members of the Gaye family — who were present at court throughout the trial — exulted and shed tears of joy.

“I’m really grateful,” said Janis Gaye, Marvin’s former wife and the mother of Nona and Frankie Gaye. “I hope people understand that this means Marvin deserves credit for what he did back in 1977.”

1 comment:

  1. Wow, interesting. I liked Happy too - still do. But stealing the work of another is despicable. I was happy to hear this verdict. C&W music has always sounded repetitive to me. I don't care for most of it. In fairness though, lots of our favorite music didn't have great lyrics. Often without the energy of the music they just sound stupid. It's the combination of music, lyrics and the culture to which they are "born" that makes them meaningful. IMHO.