work the mic

Are You Ripping Off Other Artists?
(Hint: The Answer is Yes)

July 1st, 2014

Whenever my band and I are working on new songs, we'll play through some chords, and I'll hum whatever melody pops into my mind. Without fail, my lead guitar player Matt will say "that sounds just like that song from so and so." It absolutely kills my creative flow, and I usually have a mini-meltdown and insult him as revenge. But guess what? I need to get over it. And if you ever find yourself experiencing something similar, so do you. Why?

Because, in the words of director Jim Jarmusch:

"Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination... ...things that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic." Here's the best part: "Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent."

Jarmusch then quotes director Jean-Luc Godard who said:

"It's not where you take things from - it's where you take them to."

Now, Jarmusch and Godard are two men who have created some of the most "original" films in the history of cinema, and their statements perfectly translate to the music industrial complex. Take this quote from Woodie Guthrie:

"The words are the important thing. Don't worry about tunes. Take a tune, sing high when they sing low, sing fast when they sing slow, and you've got a new tune."

"If you believe the work you've created is totally original, you need to listen to more music."

Everything a human creates is built on the foundation of the people who came before you. If you genuinely believe the work you've created is original, that means you need to listen to more music, because eventually, you're going to come across a song that gives you a sinking feeling in your stomach when you realize that, yeah, someone else did it first.

There's a famous saying: "good artists copy; great artists steal." I'd like to give credit to whoever came up with that quote, but, if you do a little research, you'll find that it has a long history of different forms and variants that are attributed to several famous creators. The reality is, we have no idea who ACTUALLY said it in the first place.

And when you come down to the core definition of art, that's really what it is - a copy of a copy of a copy. We're all stealing. We just use a nicer word for it: "inspiration." If you really want to find the original author of anything you've done, at some point, you'll come to a pre-human who saw a painting that another pre-human made, and was "inspired" to recreate it. He may have changed his version slightly, but the idea wasn't truly is.

bob dylan by adams eberwein

Let's look at two more quotes. In a brilliant TED Talk that helped to inspire this post, Kirby Ferguson says:

"Creativity comes from without, not from within."

My advice to you as a creator is, embrace your complete lack of originality. Reject the myth that you're only an artist if you're "original." Here's one last quote... Derek Sivers, the creator of CDBaby, one of the most successful businesses in the music industrial complex said:

"Humans are imperfect mirrors... you know that song you love, that you wish you wrote? Copy it. ...even if you try to imitate something, it will turn out much different than the original. Maybe better."

There are trillions of songs at this point, and there are probably trillions of humans throughout history who have created all kinds of art for the entirety of human civilization. There are millions of other rock bands, millions of other acoustic singer-songwriters, rappers, even re-mixers, all making music every day for the past however many years. You literally cannot create something new. It has all been done. And that's okay.

Let's face it: Bob Dylan ripped off Woodie Guthrie. The Beatles ripped off American blues. Your parents ripped off the Beatles in their high school garage bands, and you'll rip off the things you listen to. That's okay. We should all accept this fact as a community of creators, and just get on with our lives.

Take your inspiration from everywhere, ANYWHERE. Go to art museums, go to festivals, go to your grandmother's house, and translate the things you experience through your artistic filter. And the next time someone says to you, "that sounds like that song from 'Radiohead' or whoever..." own it! "It's a great song, and it inspired me. If YOU want to copy it, go ahead!"

UPDATE: I came across a study in the journal "Nature" which shows that since 1955, musical diversity is decreasing.

(If you like what you've read, please share or quote freely. I appreciate your support.)