The dilemma surrounding music borrowing has plagued the music industry for decades, especially now in the digital age where an artist can pluck a song from halfway around the world, tweak it and release it as her or his own in a new language, in a new market.
Being strongly influenced, borrowing melodies and ideas, sampling and doing translations make up an ethical gray area with plain old plagiarizing being clearly wrong and illegal. Everyone seems to be fairly comfortable with covers, but then there’s always the awkward moment when the cover becomes more popular and more famous than the original and eventually replaces it in the minds of modern listeners. This goes back decades to a time when popular American music was developing. You know the song “Hound Dog,” right? Who is the original singer? If Big Mama Thorton didn’t come to mind and instead you said Elvis Presley, go do your musical history.
Many great – or perhaps just popular – artists have done it. The Beach Boys had no problem stealing rock-and-roll pioneer Chuck Berry’s signature guitar riffs, but then again, Chuck Berry lost no sleep over stealing from T-Bone Walker. Remember the Red Hot Chili Pepper’s “Dani California” from 2006? Well give Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ 1993 hit “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” a listen and realize how much former mimics the latter in terms of melody and content.
But what’s really the problem here? Of course credit (and royalties) should be given where it’s due, but in a time when a great deal of us have access to the world’s music and to state-of-the-art technology and we constantly moan that there’s nothing original anymore (debatable), what’s wrong with using bits and pieces of other’s musical creations for the purpose of making more great music? Think of mash-ups. Think of the times you listened to a song and wished that it were just slightly different. Of course there’s the possible threat to copyright and original artistic credit, but we unfortunately already have that today. However, if artists were 100% responsible, they could tweak, sample, incorporate and borrow until their ears and the ears of their listeners were satisfied.