5 Hit Songwriters Talk "Blurred Lines," Creativity And Copyright
In the wake of the $7.3 million "Blurred Lines" verdict, songwriters for Beyoncé, Sam Smith, Bruno Mars, and more talk candidly with BuzzFeed News about the trouble with copyright law and the inevitability of influence.
Jimmy Napes (Sam Smith, Mary J. Blige, Disclosure)
On where he gets his inspiration:
It's a lot easier to get inspired by the greats than it is to get inspired by quite a large proportion of modern-day pop music. Carole King and Burt Bacharach are the people I really look to in terms of crafting a song and what it really takes to make a great record. I like to work and rework songs until the point where every element feels right, even before you put production on it and make it more radio-friendly or whatever.
You do have to sort of isolate yourself, because if you're trying to create something inspired and original, it doesn't really make sense to be listening to pop radio every day. The worst thing you can do is repeat something that's already been done. It just feels wrong and tired. You want to do something fresh and exciting, which is why we make music in the first place.
On being accused of copying elements of Tom Petty's "I Won't Back Down" for Sam Smith's Grammy-winning 2014 hit "Stay With Me":
It's obviously not ideal, and I was shocked to find out that the melodies lined up. It wasn't intentional, but at the same time there's 12 notes on the keyboard and unfortunately sometimes things do overlap. But where I really get my buzz from is concepts, and conceptually "Stay With Me" is so refreshing because it feels like a piece of work that's quite classic, but at the same time, I don't think many people have written a song like that about having a one-night stand. It sounds old-fashioned, but it's very contemporary lyrically, which is why I think it worked.
On the "Blurred Lines" verdict:
I was quite surprised, because I didn't feel like it was justified, personally. It's just my opinion, but I didn't feel like he'd ripped off the song. They'd obviously been inspired by it, but I was a bit disappointed to hear the verdict, to be honest, because it just didn't add up to me. If you're gonna say he was inspired by that record, but actually none of the melodies or chords or anything line up, but he's still broken the rules somehow, all of a sudden you start looking at anyone who's ever sampled an Amen break. The Beatles could make a lot of claims on that basis. So it's hard to draw the line, isn't it? I think you have to be very, very specific about what justifies [an infringement claim] and I personally didn't hear it there.
On originality in contemporary pop:
There's a lot of copying that goes on in pop music, but there's so much great original stuff, as well, and a lot of it is being made right now. Hozier is a great example. When I first heard "Take Me to Church" I was just so impressed with everything about it, the lyrics everything. I remember looking straight away trying to find out Who wrote this song? because the quality was just so high. So yeah, there is music that's derivative, but then there's also excellence all the time, as well.
On whether copyright law helps creators more than it hurts them:
I think there's an argument for both sides, isn't there? If I heard someone who had ripped off one of my songs, I wouldn't feel great about it. It's not a cool thing and I would want to be compensated for that. But equally there's that saying "Where there's a hit, there's a writ," which I've learned about recently. There are people who scour the top five looking for similarities as a sort of calculated business. So I think there's an argument to be made that you can never justify stealing anyone's music, but at the same time, sometimes I feel like people can take things a little bit too far.
Emile Haynie (Lana Del Rey, Bruno Mars, FKA Twigs, Eminem)
On where he gets his inspiration:
I grew up making hip-hop music and I come from a really sample-driven background — early '90s East Coast hip-hop. So I was always into digging for records and looking for samples. That made me really get into soul music, jazz music, and also weird psych-rock records, and Italian disco records. It was always for samples in hip-hop, but I got obsessed with different instruments and genres of music and I apply that to what I do now.
On borrowing from the past:
I never want to copy anything or just do quote-unquote "retro" sounding music, but I've pulled from pretty much every genre of music over time and applied it to what I do. I don't really like when things are overly retro or forced to where it sounds like an attempt to re-create the past; I'm never really into that. But I do like using certain aesthetics and principles that were around before I was born. For one thing, I just think the late '60s, early '70s was the best music ever made. There was a sweet spot, for me at least, between 1968 and 1973 where you just had the greatest music — the sound, the way it was recorded, everything about it was just phenomenal.
In the studio, though, I'd rather be talking about the emotion and what the singer is writing about and going through in life than talking about specific music references. If someone came to me and said they wanted to make something that sounds like 1972 I'd be pretty bummed, ya know? I tend to stay away from those conversations. Everybody has their favorite sound, and favorite tone, and classic albums that really inspire them, but I don't really like to talk about it too much. I don't dig it when artists come in and are like, "I really wanna do like a Kate Bush thing." For me it's like, that's just not really gonna happen.
On "Blurred Lines" and subconscious influence:
There's only so many chord progressions and a lot of songs that sound alike. [With "Blurred Lines"] I can't imagine that anybody sat down and was like "I want to do something that sounds exactly like this." These things just happen. If you look throughout history there are so many songs that sound similar and I do think it can be a real coincidence. Unless it's a sample, I've never seen anybody like straight copy a song intentionally, but I do think it happens subconsciously, it happens through coincidence, and it's always going to happen. It really only comes into play, though, when the newer song is a massive hit like "Blurred Lines." I'm pretty sure there's cases we don't hear about for every No. 1 record.
When you write songs you just have stuff stuck in your head, and I would imagine most of that comes from a weird, warped version of something you've heard in the past. It's just your own take on it. I don't think it's a conscious thing, but I do think that's music and that's art. Whether you're painting, or playing the piano, or singing a melody, you have all these things from your past swimming around in your subconscious and, whether you like it or not, you channel them.
On catching yourself copying:
I've had times where I've completely ripped off something by accident and realized it later or someone told me, "Hey that sounds like such-and-such song," and I go, "Oh shit, you're right! That didn't come to me in a dream, that came to me because I just like that song and I ripped it off." And then you've gotta shit-can it before it gets too late.
Ricky Reed of Wallpaper (Jason Derulo, Fifth Harmony, Pitbull)
On borrowing from the greats:
It can be very hard making music when you feel like everything's been done ... But the originators of Rhythm and Blues were pulling from the New Orleans jazz sound, and the originators of rock 'n' roll were pulling from rhythm and blues, and you had the white rock 'n' rollers pulling from the black rock 'n' rollers, and disco was derived from funk; so it's a chain that's been going on since popular music began. For me, personally, I do my best to try and always be pushing forward. But I don't think there's anything wrong with people pulling from the great songs of the past, by any means. That's music.
On inspiration vs. imitation:
Me and all of the writers and producers I know, we hold all of these legends in such high regard, not only do we of course not want to get sued, but we also don't want to disrespect the artists that we grew up listening to. That's really important to the community.
On accidentally copying Fatboy Slim:
I had a Cobra Starship song featuring Icona Pop called "Never Been in Love." We wrote this whole song and everyone was loving it and somewhere along the line someone said, "You know what, the keyboards in this sound like the chord progression from a Fatboy Slim song. What song was that? I can't remember. Oh well." And we just kept working. We finished the song and the ball started rolling on it. Both artists raised their hand and said they wanted the song for their project. But then when that time came the publisher was like, "OK, we're actually going to have to pay [Fatboy Slim] because this is the exact same chord progression from their song 'Praise You.'" We were like "Oh, shit. Fair enough!" And it was true, even the rhythms and the harmonies, everything. A musicologist could have looked at it and said, "This is too similar." We were having so much fun, we didn't even stop and google it.
On the "Blurred Lines" verdict:
I think the system does a great job of protecting the copyrights that are in place for songs that other artists are inspired by or sample. But the "Blurred Lines" case makes me a little nervous because those songs aren't really musically related in any way when it comes to the chords or the melodies. There's nothing similar aside from the good feeling that it gives you when you listen to it. That for me is pretty scary because it could open up a whole floodgate of people being like, "Well, this song kinda feels like this old song." What's made music great for generations and generations is that young musicians are inspired by the old dogs and make records that show their influence. If people start suing based on a feeling, that will be a dark day for creators.
I would hate to see lawsuits make things harder for producers and songwriters. The funny thing is, a lot of times musician-to-musician, we respect one another. The village elders, so to speak, respect the up-and-coming cats and vice-versa. If it was up to us, we would probably sort things out most times. But people bring in publishers, and lawyers, and estates, and all this kind of stuff and it becomes a money thing. That's when it gets scary.
Taiwo Hassan of Christian Rich (Earl Sweatshirt, Childish Gambino, J. Cole)
On "Blurred Lines" and the constraints of pop:
There's only 12 scales in music; there's only so many chords and so many arrangements, so you're bound to run into other people's ideas. The thing about the "Blurred Lines" case is the lyrics and most of the production weren't taken into account, which seems wrong to me. Personally, I can't believe they lost that case. It's baffling.
[As a songwriter] you just have to focus on being creative and not think too much about what other people are doing. Do what you do, then you can go back and ask whether it sounds too similar to something else. But in general, I'm all for just putting out dope, creative stuff and dealing with the madness later.
On inspiration vs. imitation:
When Mustard came out, those guys who did [Iggy Azalea's] "Fancy" song were obviously copying him. That was obvious. No shade to those producers, because I think it's an incredible song, but it was obvious they just listened to him and said "Oh let's make a song like that and just get a big hook on it."
But on the other side of it, as a songwriter, you have all these musical references in your head from when you were 10 years old. So, for example, when I'm making a beat or writing a song, I have Michael Jackson melodies in my head sometimes. I might end up writing something that feels like Michael Jackson, but it's just inspiration. And there's a difference between inspiration and copying. The law should know how to differentiate between the two.
It's impossible to avoid being influenced. When you're 2 or 3 years old, you don't even know that you're listening to Phil Collins or Genesis in the background. If you do a record 30 years later, you don't realize you got that feeling, those ideas from Genesis. You're just making music.
That shit happens all the time to everyone. They can't even remember where they got the idea from, it's just in the air. The only way to avoid it is to quit doing music and go and do something else.
The-Dream (Beyoncé, Rihanna, Mariah Carey, Mary J. Blige, Usher)
On inspiration vs. imitation:
In my household growing up, it was Otis Redding, and Sam Cooke, and Michael, and Prince — that stuff has a way of getting into your head. My head is kind of like a jukebox, but I think it only puts me in the realm of greats. I never bite anything. I'm definitely inspired [when it comes to] what I think a hit should do and how it should move you, but I try to make sure that I'm pushing the envelope, even if I have to fail three times to get there.
It's a conscious effort to stay pure, and clean, and new as an artist. There's nothing new under the sun, as my grandfather always said, but there is such a thing as being original in how you pull the notes from the stars.
On being copied:
There's definitely a lot [of people who sound like me], whether it's the way I say certain things or the tone that's used, or an "Ayy" here and there. I understand that how I used it is how someone else is using it. Somebody will call me and say, "Hey, did you do this song?" And I'll say, "No." And they'll say, "Well you should have, or you should have someone call them." But no, it's no biggie to me. It's definitely flattering and I really appreciate it as long as it doesn't go too far where it's just another song of mine.
But sometimes [copying] helps the culture get to the next thing. "Umbrella" started a trend of a whole bunch of analogy songs about love, if you think about it. So it helps us get to those songs, and I love some of those songs to death. So I'm happy that it could fuel that particular thing in another songwriter or an artist or whatever.
On why pop has a copying problem:
There's nothing and no one that really celebrates originality. Not in a pop space. When you're growing up and the things you see on TV are imitations, you're going to imitate because that's what gets you on TV. Nobody celebrates when people do something really new.
And some people need money to pay bills. They may have songs that they love to death but no one else loves, so if they have the ability they go and make a record that sounds like another record. That's just us as listeners being so close-minded that there's no place for artistry.
You can say hey let's go out on a limb and make something that sounds like nothing you've ever heard before, but truthfully, if you go and play something like that for radio or for a label — they definitely can't take chances because they're not making money. There are only a few of us who are really in a position to push things forward.
On sampling from the greats:
There's certain people that we've asked for certain things and they're like, "Nah, we're not giving you that," and we're like, "OK, well cool and we make something new." It's fine. It's no big deal.
And there's certain people who are just happy that you even remembered them. They're like, "Sure, man. Go ahead and put that on the bridge if you want to."
I remember on my first album Love/Hate we had a record called "Ditch That." In the bridge going into the next song, we put a little of the "The Humpty Dance" record in it. It was crazy — we were trying to bring that '90s urban pop sound back. And it was just us paying homage, it wasn't that we had a lack of ideas. But they were like, "No, you can't use it." So we went, "OK, cool." And now you don't miss it in the record. You would never know.