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On Being Derivative and Commercial

Discussion in 'Rock Lounge' started by Spike, Dec 18, 2005.

  1. Spike

    Spike Rock & Soul Archaelogist

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    Kath is one my favorite posters on the planet. For several days I’ve been rolling around a recent blog entry from ex kathedra in my mind in the manner of a wine snob at a tasting.

    You can find it here: http://www.classicrockforums.com/forum/showthread.php?p=11390#post11390

    In this gem of a post, Kath describes in her inimitable style what it means to be “derivative” and “commercial” in music. I would never be so presumptuous to assume that she had me in mind when she wrote this. But because I am certainly of the type that she so cleverly lampoons, I would like to respond. My response is of a “yea, but…” variety; I agree with almost everything she says but I feel compelled to add my two cents worth – a reflection of my inability to shuddup.

    On her first point, Kath asks:

    “how "derivative" is music? say, white brit guys playing ole american blues? the monkees from the beatles? the ramones from chuck berry? nsync from the monkees from the beatles from chuck berry? where did the blues come from? how derivative is a love song, a ballad...? how close is the wreck of the edmund fitzgerald to the medieval ballad of sir patrick spens, and how close is spens to some poor ancient sap going down with his trireme in the mediterranean?”

    Then Kath concludes that:

    “everything is derivative, in one form or another, in piece afer piece after piece, just as every human is. the problem comes, i think, when a critic uses that as an automatic put-down, as a way of writing off something outright as unoriginal. and the humor comes, i think, when said critic picks a certain spot on the human musical experience timeline as the marker for originality. ("i'm sorry, you idjuts, but the first version of 'my baby done left me' occurred in june, 1923, on a hill in arkansas.")…maybe it's just me, but none of that has anything to do with whether something's good or not.”

    As someone pompous enough to label himself a “rock & soul archaelogist,” I have a keen interest in all things “derivative.” I love history and I love tradition. I revel in the fact that “The John B Sails” was a Bahamian folk song of uncertain age that made it’s way into Carl Sandburg’s “American Songbag” in 1927; that Alan Lomax produced a field recording of it in 1935; that it was rediscovered by the Weavers in 1950; who inspired the Kingston Trio to record it in 1958; a recording that came to the attention of Al Jardine of The Beach Boys in 1966; and shortly thereafter found its way to my ear through a tinny AM radio. The fact that The Beach Boys version was derived from a long line of previous versions in no way reduces my great affection for the song. And it would be absurd to claim that the original 1935 version can’t be topped because it came first.

    Yea, I agree with Kath up to this point, but… here’s my extra two cents...

    First, while I have no problem with modern artists redoing traditional material, I am bothered when musicians knowingly ignore history and tradition by claiming undue credit for traditional material. I’m not talking about stealing a riff – that has happened since the dawn of time. I’m talking about taking credit for a song that has a history.

    Second, Kath rightly makes the point that it’s absurd to assume that the original version from 1923 is automatically superior to more recent versions. But the converse it also true. I’ve read posts on boards such as this which ascribe to an immutable law of evolution that decrees that the classic rock version is automatically superior to those that came before. To even suggest that Blind Willie Johnson was the equal of Jimmy Page on the slide guitar is met with expressions of disbelief and/or peals of laughter. The attitude is that there have been so many advances that a primitive from the 20s shouldn’t even be considered in the same breath with a modern god.

    Now, on to “commercial…”

    Kath observes that:

    “i just luvvvvvvvvvvvvvv this one. it's obvious that most critics just don't make enough money at what they do, and they're pretty damn bitter about it. we all know the put-down. artists who make money or who become popular are sellouts, sacrificing True Art (with a capital T & A) for making mindless, mammony sheep fodder.

    um, yeah. the implication? a true artist suffers in poverty for his art. if he's really great, ahem, he'll die alone and unwashed somewhere in a freezing garret with TB oozing from his fingertips and rickets reeking from his f-holes. of course, he should only become legendary after death. (lord knows he loses all credibility if he manages to taste success while he can still fucquin use it.)”


    No disagreement from me on these basic questions of art and commerce. I’m not going to begrudge anyone the fruits of their labors. The notion that the starving artist is a saint and the commercially successful artist a sell-out is bullsh*t. If commerce flows from the art, let it flow. But – as always – I have to add a couple of footnotes on commercial practices that bother me.

    The first example is the Monkees. I do not begrudge them their commercial success, it’s just that I cannot appreciate their art. They were designed for commercial purposes by a corporate entity. Any art that was produced was an accidental by-product of an industrial process. That makes a difference to me.

    The second example is Zeppelin. Again, I’ve got no problem with their commercial success. But I personally have a problem when some folks make huge profits at the financial expense of others or by failing to give tradition its due. It conflicts with my values. Millions will defend them, as is their prerogative. But it makes a difference to me.

    In theory, I agree with Kath when she says, “none of that has anything to do with whether something's good or not.”


    But Kath also concludes by saying:

    “what's actually good then?

    ...whatever *i* like. geeeeez.”


    I agree. What’s good is whatever I like. :)

    What we like – and consider “good” – is influenced by how we personally feel about some of the issues that Kath has raised.

    What do you think?


    Spike
     
  2. kath

    kath astronomy domino's™

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    and away we goo...

    agreed. i don't mean my comments to serve as a get-out-of-paying-royalties-free card for anyone who covers a song and doesn't properly credit the source. i'm just gonna assume we are talking about zep, here.

    zep should've credited those early blues remakes.

    to be at least partially fair, all sorts of early bands covered blues songs without giving proper credit. i'm not justifying it, just wondering if there was really a clear protocol for a lot of this, or if some of these types even thought about it as "knowingly ignoring" source or deliberately stealing material as opposed to "this is a cool song, let's do it, dood." either way, the result is the same~~the original artist of a particular song should get his or her due.

    frankly, the zep i really hold dear is later stuff, when they branched out and came up with their truly distinctive weirdnesses in range, guitar, etc (my musical critical language sucketh, but hopefully yer following me.) their earlier covers are the least interesting thing to me, which would go a long way in explaining why their own brand of copyright issues aren't more of a deal with me personally...whether that's right or wrong. :D

    the trick comes when we judge the actual covers or remakes or new versions. dismiss them outright becuz they weren't properly credited, or listen to em anyway and make the call based on what one hears coming thru the headphones? as i said, my bias means i'm willing to forgive zep for a lot, BUT if it were *my* song they had done uncredited, i doubt i'd much care to listen.

    total agreement here. either extreme is just as misguided as the other.

    not to me, not really. i don't much care whether the "art" was an accidental by-product or not. i can take my happy accidents, just as i can take my premeditated..um, medication. i mean, if a roomful of monkees did manage to type out hamlet, it would still be hamlet.

    i would quibble here with yer asserting that zep made their millions solely by not crediting those early blues covers. that may've gotten em in thru the in door (and as i said, should've gotten proper due), but the huge bulk of what has made zep rich is... zep. that makes a difference to me.

    i think i may've never met someone quite with yer ability to disagree whilst being so very complimentary at the same damn time, mwhaha. i'm grateful for it. a blast, i say and i mean. :D
     
    Last edited: Dec 18, 2005
  3. Spike

    Spike Rock & Soul Archaelogist

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    Maybe that's because I really didn't disagree with anything you said -- my quibbles were with things you didn't say. :)

    Except maybe for this: to paraphrase, you say "these things are important but don't really matter if I enjoy the music." I say "these things matter enough to me that I don't really enjoy the music." I'm sure that says more about me than you. ;)

    I'll come back to a few of your other comments when I have more time for thoughtful response. In addition, I'm looking forward to a full discussion of the connections between The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald and Child No. 58. ;)

    Spike
     
  4. Drummer Chris

    Drummer Chris Senior Member

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    I think in Zeppelin's case this is what happened,
    in the earlier days right up to '73-they didn't know how huge they were going to be (especially considering how huge they have been album sales-wise especially post-death of the band)
    The signs were there but they really didn't have massive success until 1975 when they became the biggest rock Band in the world (all their albums going back onto the charts and sell-out tours)
    By the time they were huge, it was probably a massive PR mistake to expose borrowed songs and partial riffs and lyrics here and there from the earlier albums.
    It's easy to think of song copyrights etc...in the PRESENT TENSE (circa 2006); but what was really happening in the business 30 years ago in 1976?
    Anyhow; they did get taken to court on a few lawsuits, (I don't know them all)but what is really interesting is how many people seem to think we are dealing with current business and legal trends and even current lawsuits when this all happened very long ago and was completely a DIFFERENT TIME PERIOD!
     
  5. newdawnfades

    newdawnfades Senior Member

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    I think it WAS a different time period but it didn't make it right for original artists having to take them to court to get credit. It was wrong within the context of THAT TIME too. No one was faulting them for making the slipup, but for not making the ready correction was a grave error.
     
  6. Spike

    Spike Rock & Soul Archaelogist

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    A clear protocol is a good idea. The first part is easy. A blues song covered by a copyright is accorded the protection of law. You don't claim credit for someone else's copyrighted song without ending up in court. The second part is harder. I don't thing there is any legal way to stop contemporary musicians from claiming credit for traditional blues (or folk) material that has long been in the public domain. This is more of an ethical, than a legal issue. If a musician has a proper respect for tradition, they will indicate that the song is (Traditional; arranged by....) rather than claiming authorship.

    Spike
     
  7. Martha Washington

    Martha Washington eat it! it's GOOD for you

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    BUT, if I steal someone's christmas lights and put them on MY christmas tree...
    is my tree still pretty?
    is it less pretty?

    is this the dumbest question of the day?
     
  8. Martha Washington

    Martha Washington eat it! it's GOOD for you

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    can I think of an even worse metaphor?
    you know, I think I can!

    Weird Al Yankovich!

    Weird Al decides he wants to set The Knack's "My Sharona" to music and change the lyrics to "My Bologna".
    why?
    I don't know. You'll have to ask Al.

    Does Al owe The Knack money?
    I don't know. I'd guess yes but that's really not my line.

    so, I guess I'm aiming for an 'art and commerce' statement here.
    I think Al and Zep and Grandma Moses should do whatever the little man in their belly tells them they should do. THEN, when people are counting up the money, it should be somebody's job to see the money goes where it should go. if they decide wrong, they will be reminded, one way or the other.

    sure, 'the art guys' have a responsibility to be upfront with 'the money guys' but that's really as far as it goes for me. people have made mistakes and have hopefully learned from them. I think it's cool that somebody related to somebody makes money every time I hear 'The Lemon Song' or something.


    who really knew this stuff would turn out to have the shelf life it has?
    I'm glad it does and am glad it's doing some good for somebody. Sure, it's a shame that things weren't straight right out of the gate but LOTS of people discover those artists through this music.

    I think, in the long run, maybe things are richer all around.
     
    Last edited: Dec 20, 2005
  9. Martin Q. Blank

    Martin Q. Blank The Happening

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    Kath, I totally agree that everything's derivative. People who are under the impression that what they do is 100% unique are delusional at best and egocentric nimrods at worst.
     
  10. Martin Q. Blank

    Martin Q. Blank The Happening

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    Well, Al always credits the original composers when he does a parody, so I'd assume they also receive royalties. In fact, I believe he also seeks their explicit permission before doing a parody. I know that when he first started out he wanted to parody Billy Joel's "It's Still Rock And Roll To Me" and Billy wasn't into the idea, so he let it drop.
     

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