The Impending Famine by Matt Hicks

What is it to “find ones voice” in both writing and performing?

This is a huge question for many performers and songs writers young and old in this day and age. It is also associated with a considerable amount of anxiety.
Just this week we heard that Ed Sheeran is being sued by the family of Ed Townshend who wrote “Let’s get it on” because Sheerans song “Thinking out loud.” Copied the heart of this Marvin Gaye song.
It is the second time in two years that someone has been sued for plagiarising Marvin Gaye songs. To me it sums up what is wrong with our increasingly warped view of songwriting as an industry and as a pass time. I am not suggesting we give up ownership of one’s songs or creations. Artists have a hard time as it is making a living from writing and performing, but I I can’t help thinking that law suits such as this only serve to starve creativity and “finding ones voice”.  And whilst this is a situation only likely to affect the song writers who make the most money, may I remind you that it wasn’t long ago that Ed Sheeran was holed up in a cottage writing songs with Amy Wadge as an unknown hopeful.
The idea of ownership of music and lyrics is not a new idea but the extent and depth of how one can be sued is. If we used today’s law, you could probably sue every blues player that exists through linking their music to a previous artist.
Music is a communal activity. Admittedly whilst there is something very fulfilling about belting out your favourite song in the shower, chances are you’re imagining an adoring audience. We make music to be listened to and responded to. This is why over hundreds of generations , it has served as such a good medium for telling stories.
I once played “drunken sailor” in a gig once. During the middle of the song a Morris dancer stopped me abruptly and very aggressively pointed out that I wasn’t playing or singing it in keeping with its recording as no 322 in the Roud Folk song index. I was genuinely in fear for my life at the point but it did inspire me to go back and look at the history of the song. What amazes me was how it had literally evolved as it was passed through merchant and fishing communities, changing according to the people that owned it for themselves to tell their own stories. It seems almost perverse then that it should be laid down in stone or ink on a copyrighted page never to change again. The story is over, the song becomes historical as opposed to heritage and part of our future. The young no longer keep it treasured because it has no relevance to their identity of being.
That’s the price we pay for ownership of a song. Whilst it may well end up recorded and revered, actually I wonder whether it could ever be immortalised as much as a song such as drunken sailor which has been sung and adapted over hundreds of years.
So the major issues to me are. In a climate of ownership and copyright, how is someone going to feel able to imitate, innovate, and absorb those that have come before them? I will always maintain that I would probably have never found my songwriting and performing voice without Neil Finn, Ray Lamontagne and Kelly Joe Phelps. I have been hugely influenced as a song writer by Norah Jones and Tom Waits. I dare say that should one of my songs ever make money, there might be grounds at some point to sue me. It’s unavoidable because music and its genres rely on imitation and a natural desire to carry on a tradition. To find a platform on which to tell a story. If the threat of legal action looms at every corner of the song writing process, we risk losing a heritage of creativity that has existed almost since the dawn of humanity.
Yet interestingly there are some areas of the music industry where this isn’t an issue. It would seem that in the world of dance music, there is a forum through which imitation and plagiarism are almost requirements . I don’t know how this works but somehow the copyright lawyers are holding back because everyone knows his approach makes the most money. This kind of takes me to my next issue. Community.
The music industry has taken songwriting to the point where it is highly individualised. One name is attributed to one person. And yet if you look at the credits you will often see a team of songwriters. Music is best written in community. Music exists to bring people together and it thrives on performance, interaction, innovation, celebration. It transcends generations both past and future. I guess this is why I love bluegrass and folk music so much. Music that spawns from generations of families and communities jointly owning a genre or technique or song. It is why the ukulele community is so precious to me. We are seeing a sea of excellent writing emerging without that craving to bag it up and lob it onto the music industry cart. At least not at the moment
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2 Responses to The Impending Famine by Matt Hicks

  1. Harry Parker 15th August 2016 at 11:00 am #

    Great post Matt. I’m reminded of Jeff Lynne and Tom Petty suing Sam Smith recently. Following that line, Lynne could’ve sued Lennon for using the melody of his ‘Big Chief Wooly Bosher’ (1969) on ‘Beautiful Boy’ (1980). https://youtu.be/i2BKh2GW7wA
    It’s crazy and does stifle creativity: I’ve often changed a phrase when I realised I’d ‘heard it before’.
    I like the approach taken by Charles Schulz (The Snoopy cartoonist)

    “I do see people using ideas, which I’ve done for a long time. Well it’s just a pattern of thinking; I don’t say that it’s stealing. I know it’s not stealing; it’s just a pattern of thinking.”

    Interview in 1987 published in The complete Peanuts 1950 – 1952

  2. Alan Thornton 8th November 2016 at 4:03 pm #

    Imagine if someone could prove that they had legally claimed the ‘ice cream chords’ before anyone else. They could make a life’s work of suing other people or other people’s estates.

    Think of the little bit of money that Robert Johnson made for recording his songs.

    If this isn’t something that you do to make a living but to live your life more fully, you’ve won.

    I’m pretty sure that none of my family won’t have any reason to pursue the course above but I hope they don’t do so.

    By the way, where does Jeff Lynne get off? The Beatles didn’t sue him for the half of the ELO songs that he used their melodies for.

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