We’re all cover bands now

Is the New York Philharmonic just a cover band? After all, rather than writing and performing their own material, aren’t they just rehashing old tunes by Mozart, Stravinsky and Beethoven? One of the conceits of underground music scenes, is that the performers are genuine creators. While they might lack technical proficiency, they write and perform their own material. However rough it sounds, at least the audience is getting something original.

Or maybe not.

In the New York Times’ Measure for Measure blog, anti-folk artist Jeffrey Lewis confronts the horrible myth-rotting truth: "All aspects of creativity are basically reconstituted bits and pieces of things we’ve seen, heard and experienced, finely or not-so-finely chopped and served in a form that hopefully blends the ingredients into something ‘new.’" He wonders whether song-writing is really more like song-composting:

I am often shocked to discover that a song I’ve written has been a blatant unconscious rip-off of somebody else’s song, either in its structure, or lyrics, etc; if I’m lucky the other person’s song is not particularly popular or recognizable!

Sometimes I realize this as soon as I’ve come up with it: "Oh, I can’t use that great chorus I just wrote, I guess it’s the same melody as that Gnarls Barkley song." Sometimes I don’t realize until years later where the ingredients of a song came from. Discussing this with a few friends of mine, we decided to make "unveiling" mix tapes for each other — tapes that would reveal the original songs we had, knowingly or unknowingly at the time, been "inspired by." (”Inspired by” is sometimes known as "illegal infringement of copyright," depending whether or not you’re in a court of law!) I already knew some of the songs I would have to put on my own "unveiling" tape; I was well aware that certain songs I’d written had been "inspired by" (since I’m not in court) bits of other people’s songs…

… Thus so many of us snobby “real” artists are just cover artists in disguise, taking various devious steps to confuse our listeners into praising our “songwriting.”

But in an age when entire albums are assembled by sampling other people’s recordings is this really so shocking? Bands like the Dandy Warhols gleefully perform their heists in plain sight. When they want to rip some Lou Reed they helpfully title the song (Tony, This Song Is Called) Lou Weed. What could be more honest than that?

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Paul Norton
Paul Norton
13 years ago

If you can strum G, A minor, C and D in that order on an acoustic guitar, you’ve got “Unchained Melody” (Righteous Brothers and many others, “Joey” (Concrete Blonde), “Stand By Me” (Ben E. King and many others) and “I Will Always Love You” (Dolly Parton, covered by Whitney Houston), along with any number of other songs.

That said, Lewis’s basic complaint (that supposed musical creativity actually consists of rearranging lots of individual pre-existing parts) can be answered by the argument that a musical composition, like many other composite entities in culture and nature, possesses emergent properties (i.e. it’s more than the sum of the parts) and that there is genuine creativity involved in putting the parts together in a way which optimises those emergent properties.

On the other hand, John Stuart Mill is said to have fallen into a deep and prolonged depression after determining mathematically that the number of melodies which can possibly be composed is not infinite. The question is whether we’ve exhausted all the melodic possibilities yet.

FDB
FDB
13 years ago

Fuck this bullshit.

The man’s a writer. Did he invent all those words?

TimT
13 years ago

Peter Sculthorpe tells the story of how he once asked his piano teacher, ‘Will the world ever run out of tunes?’ His piano teacher replied, ‘Does God ever run out of faces?’, which apparently alleviated the young composer’s fears.

This may, or may not, explain why for the rest of his life Sculthorpe appears to have returned repeatedly, if not obsessively, to a few small fragments of melody.

I’m not sure what the point of Mills experiment was. All music has limitations, sure; it’s limited by musical scale, by the amount of instruments involved, and so on. But there’s no real reason why a melody can’t go on and on forever, like an endlessly extended Wagnerian leitmotif, being repeated, and meditated on, and enriched. As in, for instance, the Tristan and Isolde overture.

FDB
FDB
13 years ago

Mill’s maths only show a limit to the number of abstracted melodies in any case. Timbre, harmonic context, social/historical context, tempo, rhythm, anyone need any more?

Laura
13 years ago

Oh, amen FDB. Only the most trivial of artists ever think they’re inventing something new. Music, poetry, it’s all defined by the operation of inherited, shared forms. Originality is defined retroactively by the appearance of subsequent imitations (ie copies make originals) and creativity needs raw material to work upon. What kind of musician tries to avoid using inherited musical language, and then acts disappointed when he realises his latest tune is actually the rhythmn changes?

Don Arthur
Don Arthur
13 years ago

Maybe what some audiences really crave is honesty and authenticity. If they believe a performer is playing something written for them by a professional hit-maker they are unable to make an emotional connection with the artist.

Original music can help strengthen the impression that the music comes from the heart. When the singer’s voice rasps or cracks, the roughness is a sign that they are overcome with emotion.

People seem to be able to form intense emotional bonds with others who they have never met. I still remember when Princess Dianna died. People who’d only ever read about her in magazines and seen her on TV broke down and cried. Imagine what would happen if she was discovered in some small central American country and it turned out she’d staged her death for the media.

James Farrell
James Farrell
13 years ago

Only the most trivial of artists ever think theyre inventing something new.

Not bad, Laura. I had to check that it wasn’t a Wilde aphorism.

Shaun
13 years ago

And I bet Mills was only thinking of Western tonality as well.

What FDB said is most correct. I was listening to a CD in a car the other day and did a bit of mental deconstructing of the various riffs that made up a tune. The riffs by themselves variations of quite common ones found in a lot of rock songs. But with a bit of rhythmic variation, a few melodic twists and careful placement in the song, it did not sound derivative.

And sampling can be very creative. “Paul’s Boutique” by the Beastie Boys is just stunning. It can be a lazy producer’s way out but in the right hands there is a lot of art in combining beats and sounds to provide a backing for a new tune.

Guido
13 years ago

I think it was also Sculthorpe that said that going to a classical music concert these days is like going to a museum. The pieces are mainly from the 19th century or older.

But this is what most of the people subscribing to concert series like. I remember when I had the time and the money to subscribe to concert series, that when avant-guard pieces were played by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra it was greeted with unenthusiastic muted applause. I think that the MSO as other orchestra have tried to offer contemporary music series with limited success.

In regards to popular/rock music there must have been some point in the early 80’s when originality stopped. There was a huge change in the early 60’s which found an echo in the punk/new wave era of the late 70’s but I couldn’t discern any new impetus after that (maybe I am just becoming old). Lots of recycling and lots of sampling. You get bands like Jet which sound almost exactly like the 70’s bands I grew up with.

There was a band in the 80’s called ‘pop will eat itself’. Maybe that is the case.

JM
JM
13 years ago

Paul (#1), chord sequences are not copyrightable as they lack “sufficient originality” which is a legal doctrine to determine whether a work involves sufficient creativity to merit protection (Somewhat like the patent law concept where an invention has to include an ‘inventive step’ of a certain degree of novelty and not be ‘obvious’)

There has been a lot of argument about this over the years, so much so that databases (eg. the phone book) were not originally copyrightable and Australia introduced new legislation to protect database collators such as Yellow Pages.

What confuses people on this issue is that a *performance* is separately copyrightable, so that the Righteous Brothers (for example) can protect their performance (and recording) of Unchained Melody.

Samplers don’t so much lift the music as the performance (in fact, they often steal such small portions that even the melody is lost) and that’s what gets them into trouble with copyright law.

Bass lines are similar (or at least many are) and in the 1980’s the KDF used this “loophole” to steal a bass line as the main riff for their Tardis/Dr. Who song (can’t remember the title, but they wrote a great little book about it)

FDB
FDB
13 years ago

JM:

Song title: Doctorin’ The Tardis
Book: The Manual: How To Have A Number One The Easy Way

Guido:

“There was a huge change in the early 60s which found an echo in the punk/new wave era of the late 70s but I couldnt discern any new impetus after that (maybe I am just becoming old)”

Well, you’d know better than I how age is affecting you, but one thing that’s struck me is how in the 60s, 70s and 80s some of the most experimental and original stuff was in the charts. The record companies were leading with the real ground-breakers (in many cases), whereas now the combination of video-killed-the-radio-star and lazy play-it-safe major labels means that the charts are full of almost 100% pap. Types of music that I like (which is basically everything but trance), but the shittest, tamest examples from each genre.

Shorter me – there is still plenty of new, new-sounding music out there, but the industry is structured to prevent yo hearing it. I think of it as a classic case of homogenisation caused by overreaching for a poorly-understood global market. Instead of, y’know… doing some marketing.

David
David
13 years ago

Guido, I’m with FDB on new music. I’m fortunate in that two of my sons like music, are still young enough to be seeking out new stuff, and have taste overlapping my own (although I don’t much care for most of the rap they want me to listen to). Occasionally I’ll find something they like, too. There is new stuff around that’s worth listening to, but as FDB implied, you won’t hear it on the radio.