IASPM conference Cork 2014

IASPM 2014 conference poster
IASPM 2014 conference poster

I’m en route to the UK & Ireland IASPM conference in Cork. I was at the International one in Spain last year – the branch and International IASPM conferences leapfrog each other every other year, so for 2014 we’re back in our respective countries. I’ve submitted an abstract for the 2015 conference in Sao Paulo, Brazil (about chord loops in the Eurovision Song Contest – regular readers will know this is an interest). Waiting to hear if it gets through peer review.

So here’s my abstract for the forthcoming conference. This is part of a panel about similar themes — other presenters are Holly Holmes (Chester), Dan McKinna (BIMM) and Marcus O’Dair (Middlesex).

As always I’ll live-blog from the conference where possible.

Where is creativity? Locating intellectual property in collaborative songwriting and production processes
(Joe Bennett, Bath Spa University)

Songs lie at the centre of popular music’s Intellectual Property framework. They represent the starting point for the industry’s two most important creative products: the live performance or the recorded audio artefact. In the early 20th century, US and European copyright conventions were established whereby two separate objects could be ‘owned’: the song and the sound recording, the latter being a derivative work of the former. This state of affairs, where ‘song’ and ‘track’ are separate copyrights, remains at the industry’s administrative core, and has led to awareness among creators of the economic benefits of ‘keeping a slice of the publishing’.

However, in real-world songwriting and production situations it is not always easy to ascertain who contributed to ‘writing the song’ and who acted as an arranger, performer or producer. Inferring creative contributions from the audio artefact itself is fraught with methodological challenges; from a listener’s point of view, there is no experiential distinction between song and track. Drawing on the theoretical work of Moore, McIntyre and Csikszentmihalyi2, together with interviews with professional songwriters and the author’s own experience as a songwriter and expert witness forensic musicologist, this paper argues that the artificial administrative distinction between ‘song’ and ‘track’ is simultaneously a constraint upon creators and a silent driver of creative practice itself.

2 Allan F Moore, Song Means  : Analysing and Interpreting Recorded Popular Song (Ashgate, 2012); Phillip McIntyre, “The Domain of Songwriters: Towards Defining the Term ‘Song,’” Perfect Beat: The Pacific Journal of Research into Contemporary Music and Popular Culture 5, no. 3 (2001): 100–111; Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, “Society, Culture, and Person: A Systems View of Creativity,” in The Nature of Creativity  : Contemporary Psychological Perspectives, ed. Robert Sternberg (Cambridge University Press, 1988), 325– 339.

Guardians of the legacy: why 1970s pop produces awesome mixtapes

Groot
“I am Groot” [translation: I love the way the constraints of early 1970s recording technology engendered greater creativity in many artists from the classic rock era]

 

[this article originally appeared in The Conversation, August 2014. Words: Joe Bennett.]

The top selling music album in the USA is currently Guardians Of The Galaxy: Awesome Mix Volume 1 – and has been for three weeks. Those who have seen the film will know that the track listing is based on a fictional mixtape made by main character Peter Quill’s dying mother, and given to him when he was a boy (shortly before his abduction by cannibal outlaw pirate aliens). Mrs Quill’s music tastes consisted mostly of classic pop from the 1970s, and the songs play an important part in the story.

Back in the real world of 2014 pop music, cross-media promotion clearly gives the album an advantage over other top spot contenders such as Now 51, The Gaslight Anthem and 5 Seconds of Summer. Even so, people won’t buy music unless it’s good; clearly, thousands of 21st century moviegoers have realised that four decades ago a lot of mainstream pop music was, well, awesome.

The “dadrock” era of the late 60s and early 70s casts a very long shadow over popular music’s cultural history, and it’s difficult to deny that some of these recordings have stood the test of time.

‘Awesome Mix Vol. 1’, as provided by Starlord’s mum.

In this period rock and pop music listening was, famously, the primary leisure activity (along with sex and drugs) of the postwar baby-boomers. If you were born in the spring of 1955 you would have been 17 when Bowie released The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Popular music was the ideal cheap mass-distribution retail recreation product. Unlike movies, where (pre-VHS or DVD) you had to pay every time, a single vinyl purchase would give you an infinite number of listens to your favourite song. So vinyl sales increased.

Because people were buying so much music in the ‘70s, this allowed artists and songwriters to take artistic and commercial risks. Listen to the ridiculous “ooga-chaka” intro and verse in Hooked on a Feeling – 12 bars of completely unaccompanied vocals. Or immerse yourself in the epic back story to Bowie’s “Moonage Daydream” and follow Ziggy Stardust’s ascendancy from quasi-religious alien to rock star. Would either of these be likely contenders for the top ten singles chart of 2014?

Ooga-chaka.

But all this creative freedom was constrained by technology. The early 70s saw the transition from 4-track, through 8-track, and eventually up to 16-track recording, so artists could not overdub instruments indefinitely. Synthesisers could only play one note at a time. Digital sampling had not yet been invented, the earliest sequencers could play only a few notes, and drum machines were limited to preset rhythms. So almost every part of the arrangement was played live by humans in real time.

This is important because it shows how different playing music in a band is to editing music on a screen. In a 1970s studio, if a musician made a mistake there were only two options – re-record the part, or leave it in. And studio time was expensive, so everyone had an incentive to get it right. These conditions drove strong musicianship, intensive rehearsal and (thanks to the large industry markup on retail vinyl) big rewards for those songwriters, vocalists, producers and instrumentalists who could produce great sounds within these constraints.

When a human musician is playing an instrumental part, he or she is responding, moment to moment, to the rest of the song arrangement. In the first four bars of The Five Stairsteps’ O-o-h Child, we can hear Dennis Burke’s soulful drum groove react to every note in the trumpet melody, pushing and pulling the timing and dynamics to fit perfectly into the arrangement, as his brother James holds the descending guitar chord in bar four until the exact point when the brass section decays. To listen to this recording is to experience six musicians – independently, simultaneously and together – drawing us into their soundworld for every moment of three minutes and 17 seconds.

These days it’s possible to program this level of detail into a sample-based computer workstation, but the result is usually more perfect, consistent and accurate than humans can manage. We hear the technical inaccuracies of 1970s musicians as performance subtleties, constantly reminding us of the presence of a real person at the other end of the microphone. This communicates the humanity of the band to the listener.

But we shouldn’t be luddites, nor should we rose-tint the 70s. Objectively, pop music sounds better now than ever, in the same way that 2014 movies look better than 1970s movies. We have higher fidelity, more control of the mix, an effectively infinite palette of synthesised and sampled sounds, and more accurate vocals through comping and auto-tune.

Today, 10cc would not need to record 624 voices for three weeks with a 12-foot-long 2-inch tape loop stretched around the studio just to make some ethereal backing chords. And yet here we are in 2014, watching Hollywood’s finest CGI-powered contemporary sci-fi while listening to a 40-year-old vocal recording.

Creativity thrives when given a problem to solve, and the constraints of 70s music technology forced musicians to exercise all their artistic communication skills. As Igor Stravinsky said in 1942, “the more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self of the chains that shackle the spirit”. Technological limitations collided with consumer demand to provide a golden age of creativity in popular music. Mumrock will never die.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Stairway to Heaven and Taurus – radio panel discussion

Stairway to Heaven famously uses a chromatically descending A minor chord pattern, but was it too similar to Spirit’s 1968 instrumental ‘Taurus’?

I appeared on Voice Of Russia radio this week (the Brendan Cole show), talking about the Stairway to Heaven/Taurus  allegations of plagiarism. It was a long and wide-ranging panel discussion, also covering Oasis, Deep Purple, Coldplay, Gershwin and others. The panelists were:

  • Johnny Sharp, music writer for Mojo and Q magazine,
  • Andy Millmore, head of Litigation at Harbottle & Lewis, and has acted for music companies, book publishers, as well as other clients.
  • Chris Fielden, writer
  • Joe Bennett, dean of the School of Music and the Performing Arts at Bath Spa University and head of the annual UK Songwriting Festival.

Below are some quotations from the full 30-minute discussion. The podcast can be downloaded here (28MB) or press play below to hear it in your browser.

——–

JB: “The whole issue basically hinges around a four-bar piece of music played using a descending minor chord pattern…
“Yes, I believe he [Jimmy Page] copied it. […] It’s a riff he had access to, it’s a riff he heard recently and it’s not the kind of thing that would be terribly similar through coincidence.  The issue is whether the thing being copied was in fact owned by Randy California in the first place. Can you copyright a minor descending chromatically in half bars?”

AM: “Actually, I’m not sure that I completely agree with the way Joe has characterised the question here because I think it’s pretty clear that any musical work, any literal work which it’s a fairly low threshold of originality does belong as a matter of copyright to whoever created it. If it is entirely commonplace and standard and gone before then there’s nothing knew and original. But once you hit that low threshold you’re the copyright owner in that work…
“And then the two questions become – one is, was there as a matter of fact copying? From what we know of the evidence in this case is suggestive of the fact that there could have been copying or maybe subconscious copying – a concept that was recognised in the George Harrison ‘My Sweet Lord’ case where it was found that Harrison didn’t know that he was copying but nonetheless he was subconsciously…
“So let’s assume that Randy California gets them on that, and then the question is – is it a substantial copy? And that’s the legal test – is there a substantial reproduction here? And then you start getting into quality questions about what has been taken, what has been saved and what’s been reproduced.
“This is actually a very difficult question… I think the original could well be owned by Randy California notwithstanding that is a descending minor chord pattern because it’s the particular minor chord pattern in which his copyright subsists. Has that substantially been taken by somebody else?”

CF: “With the Led Zeppelin example, to me it sounds way too similar to be regarded as just gaining inspiration. The Randy California version actually sounds like a Led Zeppelin song played wrong and I know it’s Jimmy Page that’s supposed to have copied it – I think the line should be drawn where getting inspiration is a theme or a feeling, but when you actually take the riff of the song I think that should be regarded as plagiarism.”

JS: “The only people that have really been open about it [plagiarism] is someone like Noel Gallagher – he’s always been like ‘oh I like that’, ‘I love that’… And he got nailed for it for a song which was left off their second album, which was very similar to ‘Uptight’ by Stevie Wonder. It was originally included on ‘What’s The Story Morning Glory’ and had to be taken out…”
“…There are not a lot of musicians who do it. It’s incredibly common for musicians to be accused it [plagiarism].
“You look at any Amazon review of an album and someone will say – ‘I can’t believe that they get away with this track, it must be obvious to anyone with ears that this is a complete rip-off!’ Everyone thinks they hear echoes of another track… And a lot of the time musicians hear that.”

“A few years ago Joe Satriani – the rock guitarist, had sued Coldplay because he claimed that they had taken a little snippet of melody from one of his endless self-indulgent guitar noodles. You listen to it and really it was like ‘mate, you’re dreaming.’
“This is a man who like a lot of musicians has a very large ego and believes he doesn’t get the credit he deserves. He sees a band like Coldplay who get a certain amount of critical acclaim, although not everywhere, But Satriani obviously looked at that and thought – ‘I see my influence everywhere, they’re all ripping me off!’ It’s amore in his head that reality.”

“In regards to Led Zeppelin doing this – if hadn’t been Jimmy Page I might have been prepared to say – well yeah, it’s just a minor chord pattern. It’s not an uncommon pattern of chords – the descending pattern of chords, and even the fingerpicking – the sort of 1-2-3-4 is hardly uncommon in the folk tradition. The fact is, Jimmy Page has form – a lot of form, when it comes appropriating other people’s work. Now whether that would count in the court of law is highly debatable, no doubt.”

JB: “Well coincidences can take place and in the case of the Joe Satriani track I think that idea starting on a minor ninth chord with the melody and then over the C chord – that was the melodic fragment he was picking up on. My personal view is that it is not beyond the realm of coincidence that two composers separately could come up with what is a relatively simple harmonic and melodic idea over two phrases.
“The challenge with this kind of issue, and particularly the Randy California issue, is that everybody hears music subjectively.”
“When a listener hears a piece of music they’re listening to quite a lot of information going into their brain, not just the thing musicologists write about typically – melody, harmonic context, i.e. the underlying chords and that which could be notated, but they’re also hearing the production, they’re hearing the instrumentation.
“So for example, had I played you the Randy California track using a brass band arrangement, it would be technically the same composition and the same piece of intellectual property in terms of music publishing, but it would sound completely different because it would be played by a brass band.. So, the reason that a lot of people hear similarities can be influenced by something as simple as instrumentation, and because I’m sitting here with an acoustic guitar and have played both examples on the same acoustic guitar back to back, that rather enhances their similarity as composition in terms of listener perception.”

CF: “The Beatles in particular came up with very-very original songs for their time and had a very unique sound. While they might borrow ideas and get influence from rock and roll and other stuff that was around at that time, they definitely put their own stamp on it. I don’t think that you could regard what they did as plagiarising, but it was taking influence and producing original music.”

JB: “A lot of my academic research is investigating the psychology of the creative process – exactly how do people come up with melodies? There’s a lot of romantic mystery attached to it in the mainstream media and of course songwriters maybe have a bit of a vested interest in mythologizing the process in that way.”
“Every creator of music has heard previous music and is creating new material in that context. So when I interview songwriters they tell me that it happens all the time that they accidently, inadvertently or even deliberately compose fragments for their own song that they’ve taken from other songs… But normally that’s avoidance of plagiarism – a normal part of the creative process. You just go – oh that sounds a bit similar, I’ll tweak it until it doesn’t.”

AM: “The issue that we come across again and again is the dichotomy between an idea and the form of expression of an idea… And you see that in all forms of copyright works, it’s not just music.
“But at what point is what has been taken – the inspiration, as against down at a level where it’s the particular way in which that idea is expressed. It’s a real problem for the courts to grapple with any particular case and therefore it’s a real problem for artists and music companies when they’re looking at issues like this…”
“I think the answer ‘I wasn’t aware’ is probably not a defence… A court can find that you were copying and reproducing and that’s the test – were you as a matter of fact copying without intending to, maybe even without realising?
“The answer seems to be yes you can. You’ve got to have pretty compelling evidence to show that that particular track was around so much and you’d heard it so often that it was somewhere there in the back of your mind that you’d be regurgitating it without even realising…”

JS: “When you combine a musical pattern and also a lyric which quite often Led Zeppelin have done then that’s when you haven’t really got too much of an argument. Again it was something that Noel Gallagher has done several times – the song ‘Whatever’ goes ‘I’m free to do whatever I want’ and Neil Innes of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band said that he [Neil] basically stole that from ‘I’m free to be an idiot’. As far as I know Neil Innes now has a credit on that one, along with the other ones that Noel Gallagher has given credits away to. If Neil Gallagher was going to steal the melody, he might have gotten away with it, but to actually steal the first two words? Then you’re in trouble.”

CF: “Most times when you come up with a song that you actually want to borrow a part of then you approach their publisher and ask permission to do so. I’ve done that before in bands that I’ve been in – we did a cover of Mr Sandman which is obviously a very old classic song. We approached the publishers and they approached the writers and they gave us permission to use it.”
“…We basically did a cover of the entire song but did it in a very different way to the original. The original is all very happy-clappy and we were doing a darker version of it. So we sent them a recording and they wrote back and said – yeah, you’ve got permission to use it… And they would get a percentage of royalties from it.”

AM: “It’s an expensive thing to do as a claimant and it’s an expensive thing to defend as a defendant. And I hate to say it, being a lawyer, but it is one of the areas where typically the people who really succeed are the lawyers and therefore it lends itself to early resolution.”

JB: “It’s all in the ear of the listener isn’t it? It’s dependent on the way people receive it – to some people things will sound very similar, to other people not.”

Celine Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey To The End of Taste

CD cover
Celine Dion’s My Heart Will Go On (1997) is the song used by Carl Wilson to frame an in-depth discussion of musical taste in his 2007 book ‘Celine Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love’.

Today I’ve been at the University of Bristol with scholars from the Severn Pop Network. We were discussing Carl Wilson’s book Celine Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey To The End of Taste. It’s an interesting read, using CD’s work, biography and persona to drive a discussion of what we perceive as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ music and why, and how this contrasts with demographic and literal popularity of a pop product. I personally find Wilson’s lack of musicological comment to be slightly annoying (he makes almost no reference at all to the musical content of the works, or the works of the other artists he uses for contrast – for example, Elliott Smith). Wilson’s own musical prejudices (as he very occasionally admits) are obvious in the book, and he never attempts to quantify his reasons for disliking Dion’s work. He does, however, get into a fascinating discussion of Dion’s Québécois cultural background and the way the French-Canadian music industry’s economic evolution in the last 20-30 years has contributed to its content. I found it to be a very entertaining book, and not terribly academic, apart from the allusions to Bourdieu’s concept of cultural capital in chapter 8. I just get irritated when people talk about music without mentioning the music…

——-

Here’s a playlist of some of the music cited (and implicitly cited) in the book.

Here’s a few relevant citations, and a video from Steve Almond providing his own take on the discussion of taste and fandom.

Bourdieu, Pierre. “Cultural Reproduction and Social Reproduction.” In Knowledge, Education, and Cultural Change: Papers in the Sociology of Education, edited by Richard K. Brown, 71–84. London: Tavistock, 1973.
Frith, Simon. Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music, 1996.
Salganik, Matthew J., Peter Sheridan Dodds, and Duncan J. Watts. “Experimental Study of Inequality and Unpredictability in an Artificial Cultural Market.” Science 311, no. 5762 (2006): 854–56.
Washburne, Christopher, and Maiken Derno, eds. Bad Music: The Music We Love to Hate. New York: Routledge, 2004.
.

 

 

 

 

Eurovision 2014 live blogging

eurovision-2014-logo[This is a live blog – hit ‘refresh’ in your browser at the end of each song throughout the evening and the most recent one will appear at the top. As in 2013, each song will be scored as we hear it. Geeky musicological commentary will be added wherever possible. As always I’m going to try to pick a winner.]

So, here are my predictions. I am typing this at 22:04 on the night (before voting begins), and will, as in previous years, leave my (inevitably wrong!) top 3 here for posterity, and afterwards will post the actual winners below these. If you’re reading this you can stop hitting refresh now. I got two of the top 3 right in 2012 and all my top 3 were in the top 5 last year, and got the winners right for both years. I’d like to see the UK do well of course but I can’t honestly say we’ve got the best song. For me, it’s between The Bearded Austrian Lady, Swedish Apple-Z Chordsmiths and The Dutch Cowboys, although the Danes’ Bieberisms are in with a chance too. I’m going to play safe and put the Swedes at the top. But #3 could be Austria or Denmark. What to do…? I’m going with Austria – the 007/beard combo swings it.

Predictions 2014:

  1. Sweden – Undo
  2. The Netherlands – Calm After The Storm
  3. Austria – Rise Like a Phoenix

———–[edit 23:28]———–

I got the top 3 spot on for the first time! Admittedly mine were in a different order. The actual order was this:

  1. Austria – Rise Like a Phoenix
  2. The Netherlands – Calm After The Storm
  3. Sweden – Undo

—————[ends]————-

26: United Kingdom – Children of the Universe (Molly)

The loop is ii IV | I V | in F# major and the title hook is very well used here. The fact that the melody is constantly descending in each chorus phrase means that, for me, it seems to keep running out of energy at the end of each line, and the singer then needs to belt out the high C# to lift it again. But this is better than many a UK effort and I’m pleased that we’re writing better material this year. Although if it wins I imagine the Swedes will be miffed (Molly wrote it with Anders Hansson).

64%

25: San Marino – Maybe (Forse) (Valentina Monetta)

Songs inspired by real people: interview on BBC Radio Ulster

 

Image
Carly Simon in 1972; the You’re So Vain identity debate continues to this day.

Here’s me and singer-songwriter Katie Richardson participating in a short interview/discussion about songs that mention real people, as broadcast on BBC Radio’s Good Morning Ulster today. For the full ‘You’re So Vain’ debate see Carly Simon’s website.

Joe Bennett and Katie Richardson on BBC Radio Ulster, 8 May 2014 (MP3)