When writing a song there often comes a point where I find myself thinking, “Hang on, haven't I heard this riff before somewhere?”
For any songwriter with a conscience (and some integrity) this is a tense moment. No-one wants to be derivative, and yet it seems that there is something inevitable, even desirable, about creating music that is familiar. Let’s explore further.
Fact: musicians get away with imitation more than other artists. Painters who copy are derided for their mimicry, or even accused of forgery. Writers who plagiarize are pilloried and shunned for bringing the profession into disrepute.
The music world has not been without controversies. Sam Smith has been asked to please explain given that his smash hit ‘Stay with Me’ bears such an uncanny resemblance to the 1980’s Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers hit ‘Won't Back Down’. And yet, with an amicable agreement (and some naming credits), Sam and his quaint little song are back on track for a Grammy. Lance Armstrong must find it all a bit galling.
Controversy has touched even the most venerated giants of the music world. Bob Dylan is alleged to have built his fame on the theft of uncredited lyrics from earlier artists, and the mighty Led Zeppelin have been called upon to explain the similarity of ‘Stairway to Heaven’ to a tune sung by a band that they toured with in the 1960’s.
There seems little doubt that these accusations have some grounds. Yet, apart from a little bit of legal argy-bargy, and a slight roughing up in the press, the accused seem to somehow escape with their artistic reputations intact. No-one is burning their copy of 'Stairway to Heaven' in the streets quite yet.
So why should songwriters be treated with any more leniency than painters or novelists?
Music is different, somehow. Perhaps it is just simple math. Given the limitations of a 12-notes chromatic scale and a handful of accepted rhythms there is a limit to the number of possible combinations available.
Lyrics offer more scope for variety, but even there songwriters and their listeners seek safe harbour in such words as love, heart, girl, boy, baby, night and day, over and over again.
It seems therefore that, when it comes to music, it is familiarity and not novelty that we crave. Think about the concept of a chorus, which, by it’s very nature, is all about repetition. Ask anyone what kind of music they like and they will readily identify themselves as a fan of one genre or another, thereby implicitly asking for something familiar - not strange.
As for musicians, unlike the lone writer or painter, they are very much herd animals. Musicians love to collaborate and share - to play together and exchange ideas. Early blues artists shamelessly borrowed each others lyrics and riffs without any self-consciousness or fear of reproach, and to an extent pop musicians do the same today (it’s generally royalty lawyers that take umbrage).
Having said that, I still find myself cringing when I realise my own emerging song reminds me uncannily of something that I have heard in the past - sometimes the most obscure tunes, even ones I don't like. Once I realise the similarity, I will often go back and try to modify the riff to steer clear of the original - probably to the detriment of my song.
The same goes for lyrics. If I get a cool hook line in my mind, I carefully avoid Google until the song is well and truly completed. Once it is locked down, I go and marvel at all the other song versions that have been built around that lyric - nothing is new under the sun after all.
Luckily, at this stage of my musical career my songs get a few thousand listens at most so I won't be appearing on the radar screen of any big record company legal departments any time soon. At the point that I start getting cease and desist letters from a big-shot music lawyers I'll know that I've truly made it to the big time.
Bring it on!