Music: Holes in the safety net
Free Press Music Columnist
Some folks would have you believe copyright law is a safety net for artists. It allows them to create, confidently assured their works will not be stolen and re-used for great profit without their participation.
But if copyright law is a safety net, it is one with great, gaping holes — through which have fallen many a hapless creator.
Take Clyde Stubblefield, for example.
“Clyde who?” you may be asking, and there’s no shame if you are. The man is hardly a household name. He is not rich. He lives in Madison, Wisc., on dialysis which he gets with the assistance of Medicare.
But if you are a fan of modern pop music (especially hip hop), you’ve heard Stubblefield’s work, probably a thousand times. He is likely the most sampled drummer of all time.
It was Stubblefield who sat behind the drum kit during the recording of some of soul star James Brown’s most famous recordings. He played on “Cold Sweat,” “Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud” and “Tighten Up.” He also provided the drum break for “The Funky Drummer,” a loose, mostly instrumental jam recorded by Brown’s band in 1969 and built on a unique drum rhythm Stubblefield created spontaneously in the studio. Stubblefield’s break in that song is regarded by many as the most sampled drum break in the history of pop music, having been used in songs by Public Enemy, LL Cool J, Run DMC, Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, R.E.M., Prince and Sinead O’Connor, to name just a few.
Nowadays, every time that break gets used in a song, some money passes hands. But not a dime of it gets to Clyde Stubblefield, the man who created it.
Let’s look at another example. Do you like “Glee?” You know, that lightweight show (which will soon enter its sixth and final season) about a group of attractive and Autotune-enhanced youthful underdogs who, armed with luck and pluck, buck the odds weighed against them every week by singing their sweet, young hearts out? Well, when it comes to exploiting the loopholes of copyright law, “Glee” is the “Murder, Inc.” of music. Not once, not twice, but at least four times, the show has been caught stealing famous arrangements of pop songs. The most notorious instance occurred last year, when it was discovered that “Glee” had copped Jonathan Coulson’s 2005 folk arrangement of “Baby Got Back.” Coulson, having acquired only a statutory license when he recorded his genteel version of Sir Mix-A-Lot’s 1992 ode to booty, had no legal recourse (although he may have laughed himself to the bank when his re-released version outsold the “Glee” cover by a large margin). Coulson’s case came after three previous instances of “Glee” having taken innovative arrangements of older songs from other artists, usually without attribution or compensation of any sort. And, as the 20th Century Fox lawyers who defend the TV show know all too well, they are within their legal rights to steal like that, because cover arrangements are another hole in the copyright safety net.
So kid, listen up. You wanna make it big in the world of pop? Don’t pick up a drumstick or strap on a guitar. Get a law degree. Because when it comes to the high wire act that is the music industry today, the only Wallendas who never fall are the lawyers.
Craven Lovelace is the producer of the Notes Blog & Podcast at http://cravenlovelace.com/notesblog. He also writes about popular culture at the Cravenomena blog: http://cravenlovelace.com/cravenblog. You may find him on Facebook as well.
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