The Dumb Silly Reason Why the “Blurred Lines” Verdict is Actually Good for the Music Industry
Yesterday (March 11), Robin Thicke, Pharrell Williams and T.I. lost a lawsuit against Marvin Gaye’s family and his publisher Bridgeport Music, which alleged that their hit “Blurred Lines” infringed on the copyright to Gaye’s 1977 song “Got to Give It Up.”
The result? The defendants were ordered to fork over $7.3 million. In total, the track, one of the biggest song of 2013, had earned its creators almost $17 million. The initial ask for damages was $25 million, so all in all, even though it’s a terrible blow to lose this kind of lawsuit, I think Team Thicke made out alright.
That doesn’t hide the reality that this is like opening Pandora’s Box. Many in the music industry are up in arms about the verdict, claiming that if two songs are in different keys, have different harmonic and melodic qualities and contain different lyrics, how can one infringe on the other? And if that’s the case, what’s to stop every musician on earth from suing every other musician on earth? Lots of songs sound like other songs.
In his testimony, Pharrell defended his creation, saying that “Blurred Lines” and “Got to Give It Up” share a “feel,” but argued that feel is “not infringement.” There was never an intention to copy, even though things may sound that way.
“I must have been channeling that feeling,” he said. “That late-70s feeling.”
Indeed. And that’s the reason why, I suspect, the Gaye family won this lawsuit. See, although “Blurred Lines” is not note for note the same song as “Got to Give It Up,” the similarities between the two tracks are close enough that two people could potentially, on first hearing them, mistake one song for the other. We’ve all been at a club or a party over the past year where DJs have played the two songs back to back, and there’s a reason for that—they sound very much alike.
Two songs that sound alike is not an uncommon occurrence, and this whole thing might have even flown under the radar if Pharrell and Robin Thicke hadn’t given dozens of interviews invoking Gaye’s name. Perhaps they were initially goaded by journalists looking for crafty headlines, or perhaps they needed an interesting angle to spin what was otherwise a fairly rudimentary, albeit enjoyable, song—but no matter what occurred, it raised a lot of red flags.
The thing is, again, that even though the two songs aren’t identical from a purely musical standpoint—at one point in the trial, Thicke even sat behind a piano to demonstrate to jurors how a few primary chord progressions are responsible for almost the entire history of popular music—there are the obvious similarities. For example, both grooves are alike, a lot of the same instruments are used (listen to the bass tones, particularly) and the percussion only slightly deviates.
This isn’t to suggest that Pharrell went in and explicitly copied Marvin Gaye. But these days it’s not uncommon for a producer or songwriter to slide an MP3 of a song into a digital recording/production program like Pro Tools, Logic or Ableton Live and build a new song right on top of an old one, only to take the old one out at the last second, because god forbid an artist has to pay for a sample clearance fee.
But while the industry thinks that this will stifle creativity, because the verdict sets a precedent that anything that merely sounds like something else is liable to be copyright infringement, the end result actually might be one that leads to— gasp!— better music. Sure, we all enjoyed “Blurred Lines” for the fun little dance number that it was, but it apes a song from 1977. Shouldn’t we be moving thing ahead?
The past ten years have been brutal for the music industry, partly because many artists are playing the sound-a-like game— i.e. this sound works, so I will make something that sounds like that— and partly because musicians have access to almost every song ever recorded at their fingertips. While that may be great for referential purposes, the future of music hasn’t really arrived yet because everyone is so caught up looking at the past.
In the years directly preceding the introduction of YouTube, which gave artists the ability to easily watch clips and listen to music that they would have ordinarily had to rummage through their parents music collections, or worse, a dusty record store bin to know about, popular music sounded nothing like it does today. It was much more down-tempo and much more urban. But today, that’s not the case. Guitars are en vogue, urban is out and pop artists have fallen back on three or four basic chord progressions— the ones that are guaranteed to work— which can be heard in almost every song. Now everyone enjoys four-chord pop songs— we wouldn’t have had the 1950s or Katy Perry without it— but it’s not exactly reinventing the wheel.
So, losing the lawsuit may be good for one thing— it’s going to force artists to be more creative and start really thinking about sonically pushing things forward, instead of relying on things that are proven to work. Artists won’t be able to just go crib some shit from some song that some artist did in 1964 and call it their own. That’s good. It protects the person who created that song in 1964 and it protects music as a vital tool for creative, artistic expression.
Now you may think I’m being overly dramatic here, but I’m not. If you look at where music stands in the greater cultural conversation right now, it ranks very low. It’s somewhere behind the new iPhone, whatever show was on television last night and, I dunno, like, the motherfucking Kardashians.
That’s not to say that there’s isn’t good music out there, but it’s so far from leading the conversation on anything that it’s hard to even imagine that one day it ever did. These days, music is an afterthought. The giants of creativity aren’t in music. They’re in technology, design, food, advertising and all sorts of other arts. But music? Music is for hucksters. Maybe it always was, but it wasn’t quite this glaring. If anything, “Blurred Lines,” a song that is essentially about— ultimately, well, nothing— just proves this point.
However, let’s be clear— Bridgeport Music is legendarily known in the music business for taking artists to court over samples. This is the same company that had the Notorious B.I.G.’s classic Ready to Die removed from stores over uncleared samples. They are vicious and they will come after you with everything they have. But to a point, they do have some reason for the lawsuit, and obviously a jury agreed with them. Sure, the songs are not exact copies, but they do sound alike, and intentional or unintentional, the folks behind “Blurred Lines” profited substantially from that similarity.
I, personally, like you, would never want to see someone have to fork over $7 million— shit, I don’t ever want to pay anyone for anything— but in this instance, you’re talking about a very specific creative idea that was, in a lot of ways, repurposed for someone else’s profit. It’s true that you can’t copyright an entire genre of music, but if you’re looking to recreate the ‘feel’ of something that already exists, and specific portions of it do remind you of that original idea, I think there is some guilt there. If I made that original idea and I knew someone could copy me but skirt the law by changing up a few notes, which is essentially what much of the history of music has been, but even more so in the past decade, I’d definitely want to sue them too.
That’s what intellectual property is. Why create anything if someone can just steal your shit, slightly alter it a bit and call it their own?
And I think really that’s what the music industry can learn from this. That it can’t steal anymore. Can’t keep looking to the past. Can’t keep relying its tried-and-true formulas. It’s too risky, too costly, too boring. Music has to innovate. Has to progress. There’s no going back anymore. No recreating a feel. There’s only new feels. And there’s only one direction— forward.
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Full disclosure: something I wrote objectively in 2013 about the song similarities was actually used by the Gaye family lawyers to help win the case.