I was starting to write regularly with various songwriters, and through every experience I learned something new. For the most part these were positive learning experiences but sometimes it could be disappointing … with a few “Oh no you didn’t” moments thrown in for good measure (for the record, in my head that sounded like Tyra Banks, it doesn’t have same impact with a Cockney accent.) On one particular trip for example, I discovered a type of songwriter I hadn’t known existed before then … let’s call him the ‘too-lazy-to-write-his-own-song’ songwriter.
I had packed my bags and headed to the south coast to write with a writing team that had previously had some success with a popular indie girl band. They had a great studio, and had clearly done well for themselves … and they were lovely guys too.
We got to work. This would begin with a good chat over a cuppa and heaped ashtray, then we’d talk about music and I’d play them some songs to give them an idea of where I’m heading, then we’d get cracking. These guys had some musical ideas already mapped out for me, but I wasn’t feeling it – the direction was way too cheesy and generic-sounding for my liking, so we wrote a song from scratch instead. The song turned out ok, although it wasn’t really a ‘Jodie song’ … it was more like an aggressive feminist ‘Shania-Twain-on-coke’ type of song … needless to say it never saw light of day and no I’m going to play it to you 😛
Anyway, I’d just been out for ciggie. I came back in, flopped on the sofa and flicked through a magazine while the guys were chatting amongst themselves. Their conversation went like this:
Songwriter A: “So who have we got coming in tomorrow”?
Songwriter B: “Some young male artist – signed to Virgin I think”
Songwriter A: “Mm ok what does he sound like”?
Songwriter B: “He’s got a Robbie Williams type-vibe going on”
Songwriter A picks up the guitar, and proceeds to work out the chords to the Robbie Williams song “Angels” … once he’s figured out the progression he plonks the guitar back down, turns round and says;
“Ok, we’ll just swap a couple of those chords around in the chorus and that will do for tomorrow. Right Jodie, ready to vocal?”
Now this scenario may not come as a surprise to many seasoned musicians. Perhaps you’ve dabbled with this technique yourself, or perhaps you’ve witnessed others use it. As a writing exercise I’ve no doubt it can be really useful, but as a means of crafting an original song, I can’t help but feel it’s cheap … it lacks creativity, soul, pride and integrity. Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve nothing against using other songs as inspiration, or even using a similar chord structure … since it’s almost impossible not to step on another songs toes nowadays, especially since The Beatles already went and wrote all the songs, but there is a big difference between that, and deliberately plagiarising out of sheer laziness.
It’s not uncommon to see this type of recycling used by major labels when it comes to artists. When they find a winning formula in a hit single for example, works they’ll often chuck out similar carbon copies of it because it’s safe and it’s a cash cow. Then songwriters and producers are instructed to “write a similar song to so-&-so but make it a bit different … more edgy / organic sounding.” Plenty of jobbing songwriters work like this day in / day out … the artist is simply a product, which they are hired to re-package in a certain way so it sells like the last one did. Many of them don’t enjoy this type of work, and why would they? It’s not fulfilling artistically, but it can pay well.
But as songwriters where should we draw the line? Really it’s down to the individual, and what you deem acceptable. I often write for other artists now, and even though I am given references for them, personally I’ll still take the same approach I do when I write for myself – I’ll always strive to write something I haven’t heard before. If I realise that I’ve robbed a melody from another song, I’ll simply detour and re-write until I find something else that I don’t recognise. Perhaps you might recognise it as something, but remember you and I don’t know all the same songs, so it’s always possible to plagiarise without knowing. But as long as it sounds original to me, I rest happy. I just don’t get anything out of it otherwise, and a pay cheque is never my incentive when it comes to music, I would have picked a different career path if it that was the case.
So if you’re a young musician or songwriter starting out in the world … do bear all this in mind. Because while referencing others in sound and song may be inevitable, useful even, because after all, what goes in does often find its way out again … when writing a song you always have a choice. If you realise you’ve just robbed a melody or lyric from another song, you will be faced with a very simple decision – you either say: oh bugger that sounds like blahblahblah, ok let’s rethink and take it somewhere new and ultimately end up with an original piece of work….or do you say: oh great that sounds like blahblahblah, ah that was massive hit right? yea that’ll do, let’s just use it … and you end up with a song that sounds a bit like something else except it’s nowhere near as good.
While you may love Bon Jovi or Amy Winehouse, they, and their songs already exist. You are unique! So you’ll always stand a much better chance of success by being something, and creating something that’s uniquely you. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it, and it’s the only way you’ll ever grow and stretch yourself as a writer. And if you do choose to sell your soul and rob Bon Jovi blind, don’t come crying to me when he slaps you with a five million pound lawsuit :-/ #itoldyouso