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Unchained Melodies

If you follow the rock press even a little bit you’ve probably heard about Joe Satriani’s plagiarism lawsuit against Coldplay. Seems Satriani discovered that Coldplay’s hit “Viva La Vida” shares a melody line with Satriani’s previously released “If I Could Fly.” Almost immediately, somebody posted a mash-up video on YouTube showing the two songs side-by-side, and the similarities were compelling—until someone else came on and demonstrated that the keys and tempos of the two tracks were manipulated to create an illusion of similarity.

More to the point, as pointed out on Mike Masnick’s ace Web site Techdirt, the fairly pedestrian melody line, like almost any melody line under the sun or moon, sure didn’t start with Satriani. There’s a track from Argentinian rockers Emanitos Verdes, Marty Balin’s “Hearts,” Cat Stevens’ “Foreigner Suite,” Billy Joel’s “Honesty,” and at least a dozen more that have been pointed out by clever folks on YouTube. You can go investigate your self. Well, at least you can look at the ones that have escaped the efforts by EMI, Coldplay’s label, to remove all these tattletale videos off of YouTube, the stupidity and illegality of which could be the subject of a whole ‘nother column, but we’ll move on.

Taking it from the ridiculous to the absurd, Yusuf Islam (formerly Cat Stevens) last week announced that Coldplay copied from him, not from Satriani. Islam apparently was alerted to this by his kid, and I’ll bet you a nickel his kid got hipped to it from . . . YouTube! But hey, does that mean that Satriani ripped off Cat Stevens, too? And does Cat Stevens seriously believe that he came up with that melody line first? Really?

To try to put this in a little perspective, Techdirt quoted a 1940 federal court decision in a music plagiarism case that I hadn’t seen before and that’s fabulous:

It must be remembered that, while there are an enormous number of possible permutations of the musical notes of the scale, only a few are pleasing; and much fewer still suit the infantile demands of the popular ear. Recurrence is not therefore an inevitable badge of plagiarism.

And that suits the infantile demands of my popular brain! Taking Satriani’s and Stevens’ claims to their logical conclusion, one could argue that at least 80 percent of popular music should be owned by Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Otis Blackwell, King/Goffen, Barry/Greenwich and Dozier/Holland/Dozier. And there are probably hundreds of geezers from the ’20s and ’30s who’d have a big problem with that.

There’s some interesting phenom ena going on in the music world. Record companies are shrinking and failing. The cost of making good-sounding recordings is becoming negligible—I have a decently-equipped recording studio right here at my fingertips, on my computer (not that I have any idea how to use it). People’s demand for music is, as always, insatiable, whether they pay for their music or not. Listenership is fragmenting into niches as a result of broadcast radio’s demise, Internet services like Pandora and Last.fm, and people’s ability to create massive and portable personal libraries of handpicked music.

Musicians struggle to get noticed, and the savviest are banding together, creating collectives that pool all the talent necessary to run an independent record company. Except they’re not really record companies, at least not in any kind of formal, traditional sense. These collectives are generating huge amounts of great music, presenting the music in innovative and exciting ways, and are supporting both local and visiting acts (cooperatively with other collectives) on the road and, most importantly, on the Internet. I think these collectives are just about the most important force in music today.

We’ve got a bunch of them right here, and we’ll be talking to some of them at the next CRUMBS Night Out event at the Linda Norris Auditorium on May 30. Matthew Loiacono of Collar City Records and Alex Muro of B3nson Recording Company will be on hand to talk about how they do business. Live music will be supplied by Saratoga’s astonishing band Railbird. If you haven’t seen Railbird yet they will go on at 7; the music collective panel is at 8.

Also: Get out yer hankies. Mike Pauley pointed me to an astounding set of photos by photographer Sebastien.b of the old Colonie Coliseum/Starlight Theater in decline. You can see them at www.flickr.com/photos/altuwa.

—Paul Rapp


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