Are legal suits the right bastion for artistic development and music industry growth?
The past couple of weeks have seen legal cases filed against Drake and The Weeknd for musical appropriation. Drake has been accused of sampling a jazz track without permission and The Weeknd for copying a song written by a trio of British songwriters. The pair have publicly lashed back denying all allegations. Drake has now taken it upon himself to launch a counterclaim.
These allegations are another thread in a tapestry woven by lawyers in 2013 when Marvin Gaye’s estate sued Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke for their hit song “Blurred Lines”. This was followed by a series of lawsuits against mainstream artists like Ed Sheeran and Lana Del Ray.
In one case, Sheeran avoided a lawsuit by adding TLC’s “No Scrubs” songwriters to the credits of hit single “Shape of You”. Clear comparisons had been made between the melody in the pre-chorus of “Shape of You” and the main hook in the chorus “No Scrubs”.
Obviously, there needs to be a line drawn in the sand as to what is reasonable, as artists need to be protected; but, at what point does an upward trend of legal cases of this nature begin to stifle creativity?
Musical ideation isn’t plucked out of thin air, maybe contrary to popular belief. All artists are inspired by others, and good music isn’t reinventing the wheel. Ultimately, there are only 12 keys and many songs are destitute to a finite number of progressions – readers familiar with music theory will know the I IV V progression – it’s in most songs. It sounds good. Even the monolithic Beatles are guilty of appropriating ideas. They used the intro of Johnny B Goode, by Chuck Berry to write three songs. Then we have Oasis who were clearly inspired by the Beatles and took the trippy synthetic hook from “Strawberry Fields Forever” to write “Let It Out – and it’s unashamedly obvious. More recently, Arctic Monkey’s “Arabella” was slated for using a riff undoubtedly similar to Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs”; an element to the track which the Sheffield band are openly honest about in terms of their influence. The point here is: artists use each other as reference points to write. It’s a natural process of songwriting.
Have We Gone Too Far?
Of course, this isn't unheard of – Richard Ashcroft was famously sued upon the release of “Bitter Sweet Symphony”. However, the number of these cases is growing at an alarming rate. We are more interested in the shifting focus of these cases, which has moved beyond specific drum lines and samples, to “feel” and “vibe” – loose legal terms that could threaten musical freedom.
Perhaps it is because it is harder than ever to make a profit in the music industry. The digitalisation of music distribution has changed the A&R journey. However, we question whether huge legal suits are always the right bastion for artistic development and music industry growth.