Lana Del Rey vs Radiohead: Is the quest to be original in the music industry futile?
As far as mantras go, the notion that ‘imitation is the best form of flattery’ must surely be the most contested. Copyright law has seen to that.
In the world of pop culture, the music industry would arguably take the award for best performance in this category, with commentators, fans, and critics consistently around the corner from the next opportunity to go to battle over the originality of any given song. Not to mention cringe when something is so evidently a rip-off it’s just plain offensive. We’re looking at you, Vanilla Ice:
The latest to enter this particular Hall of Fame is Lana Del Rey, who is ‘in discussion’ with Radiohead for similarities between her song Get Free and the band’s breakthrough hit, Creep. Cue the rallying cry for fans to come out in support of their chosen hero!
Rather poetically, the same song put Radiohead in a similar position back in the 90s when they themselves were sued for the track’s resemblance to another, The Air That I Breathe, written by Albert Hammond and Mike Hazlewood, who were subsequently added to the song’s credits and share its royalties, no less.
Apparently this hasn’t made Radiohead any more sympathetic to the cause of Lana with their alleged legal demands for 100% royalties from the contested track, which they have now denied.
Either way, with the law stating that anything that reflects a “minimal spark” of creativity and originality can be copyrightable, including melody, chord progression, rhythm and lyrics, it’s almost like artists have been set up to spar with each other over who inspired what, and when.
The quest to be named *the* original creator of something not only brings gravitas, but is a lucrative one. In 2015, Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams were ordered to pay a record $7.3m dollars to Marvin Gaye’s children for their plagiarism of Gaye’s Got To Give It Up. That’s what you get for stating in press interviews that the song in contention was based on the one you’re accused of copying… silly Robin.
The fact is, there are probably plenty of songs out there that sound just like Creep, sitting on albums and not reaching the ears of the masses, like Lana’s, that Radiohead will never even know about. Perhaps this is the kind of imitation artists feel flattered by, that which never makes it out of the garage and into the charts, and therefore never makes any money? Perhaps the question is whether the intention was there to ride on the shoulders of giants and make a quick buck… the jury is not yet out on Lana, but will be.
If an artist never even heard your song (though let’s face it, in this case, it’s unlikely) then should you be made to pay? Apparently, the answer to that question is yes. The altercation between Sam Smith and Tom Petty in 2015 is perhaps the perfect example of how this sort of thing can happen, with Petty himself admitting that the similarities between Smith’s Stay With Me and his I Won’t Back Down, though striking, were ‘nothing more than a musical accident’. Accident or no accident, though, Petty now gets royalties from the contested track.
Regardless of the outcome, perhaps what this case demonstrates, then, is the tricky position that songwriters find themselves in when trying to create something original. Let’s face it, the reason why we love so many pop and rock songs is because, frankly, they sound similar to the hits that came previously. It might be a bitter pill to swallow, but we’ve all seen this (or a similar) video:
This isn’t even a case of lazy songwriting or not fixing what ain’t broke; the fact is that there are limited paths to create music, especially so in the strongly formulaic forms of pop and rock – its the reason why those that represent something outside of the status quo do so well. Couple this with unconscious influence, consistent absorption, play and imitation of other music, along with feeling positively inspired by certain sounds, and you can start to see how musical accidents can happen.
You might be forgiven for suggesting that its only pop crooners, riding on the shoulders of giants, are guilty of this sort of thing, but you’d be wrong. Those who cases have been brought against include, but are not limited to: The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppellin, The Beach Boys, Oasis, George Harrison and, yes, the Ghostbusters soundtrack.
Artists have been collectively striving for originality – arguably the industry’s equivalent of the Fountain of Youth – since before anyone can remember. But surely this is futile? Even those we consider true originals – Bowie, Prince, Aretha Franklin – were inspired by something which came before them.
The best test for any true artist is how you take what came before, and creatively make it your own based on your own experience, adding and taking away that which reflects you the most. Brands do the same, so do actors, composers, and architects. This is what the greats have in common, and why the likes of Robin Thicke will no doubt be a mere footnote in the history of music.