My gast was unutterably flabbered earlier this week when record producer Bangladesh ‘revealed’ that Beyonce does not write her own songs.
Actually, no, it wasn’t. I’m lying, just as the record business has lied to us about this matter of songwriting credits for as long as any of us can remember and, indeed, way back beyond that.
In the words of Bangladesh himself, “It really doesn’t matter if Beyonce is actually sitting there physically writing the song. Even if she’s not, it don’t mean she can’t. She might not have the time.”
OK. let’s try this in a slightly different context. “It really doesn’t matter if Beethoven actually sat there physically writing The Ode To Joy. Even if he didn’t, it don’t mean he couldn’t. He might not have had the time.”
Let me repeat that final clincher. “He might not have had the time.”
Visions of old Ludwig Van swim into my mind. He’s just dashing off to an urgent meeting in a Viennese coffee shop to launch a new line of Ludi-V sneakers, or maybe a Vanman aftershave. Clearly, then, no time to write an immortal melody. He shouts to his missus. “Sorry love, must dash. Could you just knock off a fabulous melody, arrange it, orchestrate it and, oh, if anybody asks, just tell them that I wrote it.”
Hmmm. Grrrrr. Hack. Blood. Spit.
The way Bangladesh explains it, the only reason that I, for example, didn’t write Yesterday, Moon River or Sweet Child O’Mine, is probably just that I didn’t have the time?
Truth to tell, of course, I’m not naive enough (is any of us?) to have imagined for one second that Beyonce wrote her songs.
It has been common practice for the music biz to lie about who writes songs ever since the invention of copyright made it possible to earn cash money for fitting words to a tune.
Back in the day, when music was just kind of in the air for anyone to use, it was common practice to re-use someone else’s tune, dress it up in a slightly different arrangement, and call it your own work. Baroque music is jammed to the gills with identical melodies lifted by one composer from another. Folk songs frequently re-used the same tune and major chunks of old lyrics.
It might be annoying, but it wasn’t a legal problem because there was no copyright and not a lot of money to be earned anyway from the actual melody.
Orchestral composers tended to be paid lackeys of rich courts. They were on the staff. There was no question of them earning gazillions in royalties because there was no royalty system for music until 1831.
Yes, there was money to be earned from sales of sheet music, because publishing royalties (ie ongoing payments for stuff printed on paper) had been established much earlier, but the development that really upped the ante and transformed the ownership of music rights into a billionaire-making business was the arrival of the gramophone record.
Once those groovy little biscuits started selling like cakes (hot, cold, who cares? It’s about numbers.) the little matter of who ‘owned’ the music on them became really significant.
Most composers in the 1920s and 30s – especially blues and folk composers – still regarded music as something that was in the air, something universal, common property or something that was transmitted to them/through them from the lord, (let’s not get into how mad that concept was) rather than as something that one individual could own.
Music publishers, of course, knew better. It became standard practice to have such composers assign their copyrights to the publishing houses. The publishers got rich, the composers starved.
Starvation, misery and poverty of course, were a constant source of inspiration for songwriters. Thus the music publishers were clearly doing them a huge favour by allowing them to enjoy the creative benefits of this situation.
By the 1950s, hick songwriters were still no wiser, so names such as Elvis Presley (performer) and Alan Freed (deejay) were routinely added to the composer credits of songs which they, as Bangladesh has now made so luminously clear, just “didn’t have the time” to write themselves. What they did have, however, was a path to the lucrative market place. Thus, songwriters were thrilled/dead chuffed/obliged/pressured to give up a portion of their copyright earnings in order to achieve the kind of sales an Elvis could bring them. The logic is obvious. 5% of $1m is better than 100% of nothing.
Things took a further twist in the 60s when record buyers began to perceive it as important that an artist should write his or her own songs. Blame it on The Beatles and Bob Dylan, mostly.
Record consumers wanted to believe that the artists they bought were not part of the old Tin Pan Alley system where specialist craftsmen wrote songs and specialist singers sang them.
The 60s generation wanted authenticity. They wanted the songs to be the voice, the thoughts, of the artists they loved.
This was fine in the case of The Beatles and Bob Dylan who actually could write songs (let’s put aside Bob’s numerous plagiarisms for the moment).
Before long, hip music lovers felt that The Searchers, for example, were not as cool as The Beatles, because they did not write their own songs.
By the early 70s singer-songwriter was the tag everyone aspired to. To be such a creature was to be the real deal. Authentic. Sincere. Confessional. Soul-baring. Whatever.
Since then, the practice of pretending that singers write their own songs has become so commonplace that most consumers barely even give it a moment’s thought.
As the market for music spread out across the world, artists who might once have regarded themselves as successful if they sold a lot of records in their home territory, were now raking in cash from all corners of the globe. Gold discs were once a big deal. Now it’s multi-platinum or nothing.
Today, creating the illusion that a singer writes his or her own songs is an absolutely standard part of the image-creating machinery. You can think of it as being like the make-up they wear to look good in the videos. Or the fabulously expensive clothes they troll around sleazy bars in at night. Or the charities they so publicly support, usually shortly after they’ve been exposed as toads in some tabloid scandal. It’s all about image.
For Beyonce (or whoever) to ‘write’ ‘her own’ songs is just another element in fabricating the image which sells an artist’s products across the globe.
Ultimately, of course, the problem is much bigger than whether or not Beyonce writes ‘her own’ songs.
The problem is that the lie is so universal, so commonplace, so widely accepted, so corrupting of all the values that we like to imagine our culture, our society, is built on.
It’s a lie which, yet again, exposes big business as perfectly willing to trade and profit on our desire for authenticity by lying to us about it, and by routinely cheating creative people along the way.
Worse, it’s just one of countless lies which have become so intricately woven into our social fabric that we no longer even bother to rail against them. To go a bit metaphorical (bear with me on this one) they’re the dropped stitches and torn strands in the increasingly shapeless woolly jumper of society. Eventually the jumper will simply disintegrate. It might still exist but it will be useless. Sure as hell, it won’t provide us with any warmth or comfort.
These are the lies fed to us by cynical governments, by individual politicians, by business leaders, by corporate bodies, by spin doctors and, ashamed as I am to have to say it, by a battered and despairing media which repeats and mouths and exaggerates all of those lies to help sell magazines and suck in viewers and listeners and surfers to tv and radio and the internet.
Copyright lies are just another one of those.
And as long as we just accept them, we will continue to deserve every lie we get told.