What’ll the Blurred Lines Verdict Mean for Music?

Been thinking about the law suit Marvin Gaye‘s estate just won against Robin Thicke etc. The Washington Post theorizes that this suit means record labels will be wary of releasing anything that closely resembles music already released.

That can be an exciting thing for those of us bored with radio-friendy copycat sounds. Just this week I posted a track-by-track revisit to Radiohead‘s The Bends and contested that the album’s greatest weakness was reliance on the predominant sound of its mid-90s period: sterilized grunge rock as authentic as the homespun decor at Applebee’s.

Imagine for a second that Applebee’s could be sued by businesses who started the practice of decorating with genuine authentic regional items before Applebee’s copied the idea (badly). All of a sudden, those Applebee’s folks had better find something that doesn’t look like anyone else’s place, or they’re hit with more court time.

So, to avoid the pain and press of a law suit, WaPo says labels will be constantly looking for something new. Which is great, in theory. If the paper is correct, then labels will scour just about every place where music is being made, trying to find stuff that’s a hit while being different from anything else. We may see an unprecedented amount of creativity and risk-taking actually embraced by the big guys, which is something they haven’t done in at least a decade.

Nowadays, what if an R&D rep from Atlantic or Columbia comes into the office Monday and says, “You guys. I heard something over the weekend I’ve never heard before. It’s totally revolutionary,” and then his boss retorts “Oh yeah? How many people were at the venue?” R&D says, “Actually we were the only ones there, but let me tell you: completely unique.” Currently that’s the worst R&D pitch anyone could make.

When Fictionist was recording their album for Atlantic Records in 2012, the suits kept trying to pull strings via the producer. Whatever was on the radio at the time — Mumford & Sons, or Of Monsters and Men — they’d not-so-subtly suggest that Fictionist sound like that as well. They were terrified of not selling music, instead of being terrified of squelching the talent and gifts that made the band special in the first place.

But in the near future the same label execs, fleeing potentially huge court cases thanks to the Gaye estate victory, might say, “Hey, let’s record it and release it, and get behind it. If it sells only a little, it’s better than putting out safe music that also puts us at risk of losing millions.” Boom, a band that no one would have heard a couple years ago because they weren’t “radio friendly” is now discovered by new fans across the US, North America, Europe.

Here’s the thing: to be fair, I know it likely won’t be that simple. Whether those big-label folks still know how to take risks on music remains in serious doubt. And their big-numbers game might push them to keep releasing music that’s risky from a litigation point of view. Maybe the “Blurred Lines” case is the meteor that spells the the extinction of those big-name dinosaurs, and the rise of boutique record labels who can change direction much faster than the behemoths.

So here are some outlandish-sounding scenarios:

What about artists who want to pay homage or set a specific historical tone? Marvin Gaye’s family must have those folks all tied up in knots in their creative process. (Maybe more than the record companies!)

And what about the musicians who’ve already been around, whose sound is largely derivative from existing magic? What about people who’ve already released a body of work and have no way of taking it back? Are they screwed because their inspiration came before this case set what could be a huge new precedent? Have they unwittingly opened themselves up to thousands, even millions in damages just because somebody older did it first?

Well, if that’s the case, I have some news for a few bands:

  • American Authors, get ready to face Imagine Dragons.
  • Muse, feel the wrath of Radiohead.
  • You too, Keane.
  • Sheepdogs, you’re about to lose everything to every southern-rock band there ever was.
  • Same for Green Day and all punk bands.
  • Creed, pay up to Pearl Jam.
  • My friends Fictionist, watch out for Peter Gabriel.
  • The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, it’s coming from all sides. Smashing Pumpkins, The Lemonheads. Prepare yourselves.
  • Beck, you’re going to be forking out to everyone who came before you. But don’t worry, you’ll make it back from everyone who came after.
  • They Might Be Giants… actually I think you’re safe.
  • All of Nashville, welcome to a whole big cluster cuss.
  • Congrats, Chuck Berry. You’re a billionaire.
  • Actually, we’re all dead.

Now this is silly talk. At least I hope so.  I’d say that no one would actually go after subsequent artists just for a buck. Or at least I would have, until Marvin Gaye’s family came along.

But really, let’s carry this out to the end. If replication and even homage become unviable, and if newness becomes paramount, I have to try imagining a world more splintered musically than even today. Which, thanks to democratized digital production and distribution, is already so widely varied that I can’t wrap my head around even half — a third, a tenth — of what’s going on.

Artists rail against being labeled. How soon, realistically, would they get their way, by de facto judicial mandate? How soon could an artist be ignored if their sound matches anything existing? At what point is a record store not able to categorize the new music it’s selling?

Is it possible that there is an end to genre?

In the post-apocalyptic scenario I’ve imagined, what other bands do you think would sue, and who would face law suits? Comment below and let me know. Like really, I want to hear it.

Photo: Ambism

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