You may have seen a news story doing the rounds recently that Mick Jagger and Keith Richards had given their songwriting credits for Bitter Sweet Symphony by The Verve back to Richard Ashcroft. That followed two decades of Ashcroft not receiving any royalties for the hit song he’d written back in 1997. All because of a 5 second sample of an orchestral version of The Last Time, written by Jagger and Richards in 1965. The case was brought by Allen Klein whose label owns the rights to all Stones songs from the 1960s and ended up with Ashcroft having to relinquish 100% of the royalties and the songwriting credits changed to Jagger/Richards/Ashcroft. The argument from Klein was that The Verve had exceeded the 5 second sample he had given permission to use. So it truly was bitter sweet for The Verve as they haven’t been able to make any money off their most recognisable song for two decades.
And we’ve seen it with Ed Sheeran being taken to court twice, Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne being added to the songwriting credits to a Sam Smith song, Led Zeppelin being sued over Stairway to Heaven and the list goes on and on and on. The thing is, there are only so many notes available to use. Yes, there are multiple octaves and you can sharpen or flatten the note but there is still a finite number of them to use. Inevitably with a finite amount of notes available to use, songs will sound similar sometimes. Musicians and songwriters are like magpies. They will hear something that sounds good, remember it and it will usually pop up in one of their compositions.
I think the rise of sampling in popular music has led to a rise in lawsuits, especially when Vanilla Ice sampled the bass line from Under Pressure for Ice Ice Baby. The fact that he didn’t even ask permission is what sparked off the whole debate. But sampling is a very different thing, and when done with the permission of the original artist can be very beneficial to both artists. Madonna did this very well with her 2005 song Hung Up, which prominently sampled Gimme, Gimme, Gimme by ABBA. Madonna personally sought the permission of Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus to use the sample and they got a credit on the records as they should have done. Madonna didn’t write a new part, she lifted an existing part from another song and wrote new lyrics and a different song structure. The fact was that Queen and David Bowie received a significant amount of money in unpaid royalties would have been very interesting to a number of artists’ estates.
I can understand the desire to protect your songs and the work you’ve spent potentially decades on, but there has to be some sort of common sense involved. If any song can have some artists’ estate immediately suing the songwriters and performers, soon enough we are going to be in a complete abyss where no-one will be able to write anything because everything will be derivative of something else.
There was an interview I saw recently from the BBC with Ryan Tedder, the singer with OneRepublic and a songwriter with many of the biggest artists in the world. While he slammed these ‘ludicrous’ lawsuits, he also shed some light on some trouble he had while writing with the Jonas Brothers, when they had to spend thousands of dollars on musicologists to prove there was no link between the song they had just written and another hit song by Portugal the Man. And he said something that I think gets to the heart of this matter. Tedder said: “I know John [Gourley] from Portugal the Man and he never brought it up – which tells me it’s probably the publisher trying to make a landgrab.”
Make of that what you will.