Everybody borrows: Talking to songwriters about creativity

One of the unofficial requirements when you’re working on any sort of graduate level thesis is a solid elevator pitch. When people find out you’re spending a solid year working on a research paper, it’s only natural that they’re going to wonder what you’re writing on, and in order to justify all of the hermitting and reading and stress, you want to make that topic sound as interesting as possible.

Mine went something like this: “I interviewed songwriters about how they use other people’s work in their creative process—quoting other lyrics and melodies, taking inspiration from movies, that sort of thing—and I’m tying that into copyright law and creativity theory.” It still sounds a little dry, which is natural for a 100-page paper, but it sounded at least interesting enough that quite a few people have asked if they can read it. And while I don’t expect them to actually follow through on that, I figured this blog is as good a place as any to give people the option.

So, there’s a link to it at the bottom of this post. But if you’re curious and don’t feel like reading the entire thing (a wholly reasonable position, I’d say), here’s the gist of it:

We don’t really know what creativity is

At its core, copyright policy is about legislating creativity. It says that once someone expresses an idea in a certain way, no one else should be able to use that same expression without getting permission from the person who did it first. There are exceptions, but in general, what it’s doing is giving people a temporary (but pretty darned long) monopoly on the fruits of their creative labour.

That policy makes total sense if creativity is about individuals coming up with wholly original ideas, but a lot of theories of creativity say that’s not the case. Instead they say that it’s a much messier situation, one that’s more about the recombining of ideas that are already out there. Creativity, in some views, isn’t about individuals, although individuals do play a role. It’s about the relationship between the individual, all the work that’s already been created, and the people who’s opinions on creativity we hold to be valid.

Let me put that a little differently. The idea is, if you want to know whether, say, a painting is creative, you can’t just look at the painting in isolation. It might be a perfect copy of another painting, and even though you might say that’s an impressive technical feat, you probably wouldn’t think it’s as creative as the original painting. So creativity isn’t in the thing itself. There’s context involved.

There’s also the whole notion of memetics, which says that creativity isn’t something we do at all, but that ideas are sort of alive in their own right, and that they’re sort of using humans to reproduce. Basically, evolution only needs three conditions: you need a thing that can replicate, the ability for it to mutate, and selection pressures. If you’ve ever had a song stuck in your head that you feel compelled to hum, or have had a thought keep popping into your head despite doing your best not to think about it, you know that some ideas just seem to compel you to share them. That’s replication. If you’ve ever misremembered a melody, well, that’s mutation. And if you’ve heard a sort-of-interesting story but completely forgot it before telling someone else, well, there’s your selection pressure.

The idea behind memetics is that what humans are really good at is imitation, and as soon as we got good enough at imitating other people, and animals, and nature in general, we made a situation where individual ideas (memes, basically) could start reproducing and evolving.

Which is all neat, but… so what, right?

Well, the theory of creativity that’s underneath copyright law, that the best way to promote creativity is to make it harder to re-use work that other people have done, doesn’t seem to fit with how a lot of scholars think creativity actually works. That doesn’t mean that it’s wrong, but it does mean that we should maybe be questioning some of the assumptions behind the copyright system, and finding ways to figure out if they actually make sense.

Talking to artists will help us figure it out

And here’s where my contribution comes in. It seems obvious to me that, if you want to know how creativity works, one of the best ways to get a sense of it is to talk to people who engage in creative work on a regular basis. For some reason, though, that’s not really happening. It’s hard to find any studies that try to figure out how much of creativity involves “borrowing” from other works in one way or another—pretty much the only book I’ve found on the subject looks specifically at digital sampling, which is very interesting and worthwhile but completely overlooks all the other ways that you can reuse elements of other works.

So I decided that my project should at least start to fill in that gap. Time and resources being what they are, I only talked to seven people in three cities, all songwriters in Western Canada who all could broadly fit into the “indie rock” category, but only because that category is pretty broad and meaningless. In Calgary, it was Matt Masters, who writes and plays old-school country, Tom Bagley (aka Jackson Phibes), an illustrator who has a long history in the horror-punk scene in Colour Me Psycho and Forbidden Dimension, and who has been branching out into folk and murder ballads in the Agnostic Phibes Rhythm and Blood Conspiracy, and Foon Yap, who plays violin for Calgary’s Woodpigeon and has a couple of excellent solo projects as well. In Vancouver, it was Lee Hutzulak of the eerie, atmospheric Dixie’s Death Pool, and Dan Mangan, whose folk-influenced rock has been nominated for the Polaris Prize. And in Winnipeg, it was Doug McLean of power-poppish outfit The Paperbacks (and formerly The Bonaduces), and John K. Samson of The Weakerthans, one of the most prominent bands in the Canadian indie landscape.

It’s not the most diverse group, but when you’re talking to a handful of people, even if you made it as diverse a group as possible, it’s not going to be very generalizable, so I tried not to worry about that. The goal wasn’t to figure out definitively how creativity works in songwriting. It was just to show that talking to artists can provide insights that add to the discussion around copyright and creativity, and that we should be doing it more often.

Everybody borrows

To repeat what I just said, none of my findings are meant to be conclusive statements about How Creativity Really Works. But there were a couple of things that kept coming up that seem worth sharing, and if it turns out that they do represent a wider view, show some problems in the way copyright works right now.

First, creative borrowing is very, very common. Everyone I talked to had either quoted another work in their lyrics, or quoted something musically—a guitar lick, a chord progression, a vocal melody, a drum part. They do it consciously and unconsciously, and generally see it as an entirely normal part of the creative process. There are differences in how much borrowing they thought was appropriate, what sort of sources they were interested in borrowing from, and whether it was important to credit their sources, but it was present in all seven songwriters’ work.

If you factor in less direct types of borrowing—allusions, for example, or borrowing “the feel” of another song—it’s even more common. The way Dan Mangan put it was that

If you’re a person who creates things, then whatever you’re barfing into the world is going to be comprised of whatever you’ve eaten.

Or as Doug McLean said,

It’s extremely common for people to pick out bits of melody and use them for their own. I think that’s probably the basis of popular music in general. But I think that periodically people get hung up on originality or those kinds of things as being one of the top three most important things about making music, whereas I don’t think it’s even in the top 10.

Second, the borrowing comes from a huge variety of sources. In a previous project, I talked to a dancer who “lifted” all of the movement from a film from the 1950s and built a new story around the same physical gestures. I’d never thought of movement as something that could be quoted, but then that’s exactly what made that project interesting.

In my interviews here, I found that songwriters have many ways of using other works in their creative process without it being obvious in the finished product. The songwriters borrowed phrases from technical writing and titles from unproduced films, included lyrical allusions to films and musical references to other songs. They re-used song structures, unconsciously borrowed melodies, transposed chord changes and imitated vocal phrasings. They tried to capture particular atmospheres or energy, borrowed rhythms and lifted melodies from the public domain. They even found ways to take inspiration from visual art, philosophy, film and political rhetoric, with none of this borrowing striking the songwriters as at all unusual.

Some of those uses are clearly allowed under current laws, but a lot of them aren’t, necessarily. But if it turns out that’s just how creativity works, it seems counter-productive to write laws that are designed to make that sort of borrowing more difficult.

Third, and maybe most tellingly, I found that pretty well no-one I talked to really knew how copyright law worked, because they didn’t feel it was relevant. Copyright was seen more as an economic tool that applied to people working on a much larger scale than them. This one is really important, because one of the major historical arguments behind copyright is that it exists to provide an incentive to create—that without copyright laws, putting massive amounts of time and effort into creative endeavours wouldn’t be worthwhile, and culture would stagnate.

But, if the people who are actually creating works don’t particularly know about copyright and don’t see it as a factor in what they do, that points to a major disconnect between the theory and reality. There are almost definitely works out there that would not have been created if copyright wasn’t there to make them profitable, but there are also works that would exist if we had never come up with the notion of intellectual property rights. Which means that it’s a question about balance—making sure that we’re restricting as few freedoms as possible while still making sure that we’re not depriving the world of potentially incredible new works.

The whole point

Here, I’m just going to straight-up quote the last paragraph of my thesis, because it sums up the argument I’ve spent a bit over a year working on:

If we hope to improve our understanding of the creative process in order to better understand how to legislate creativity, then speaking to artists about these practices is essential. Further study with larger, more disparate groups of musicians—songwriters working in a wider variety of genres, from broader geographical locations, of different backgrounds and different economic standings—can only enrich our understanding. Whether the goal is a more accurate theoretical foundation, more practical policy or even just further fodder for philosophical discussion, artists’ own views and voices must take on a more central role in the conversation.

I honestly think this is hugely important. Right now, we’re legislating based on ideas about creativity that are hundreds of years old. They might be true, but they also might not. It may turn out that the approach we have to copyright law right now is the best way to promote the creation of new culture, and to make the world a more vibrant place. But it might turn out that it’s actually counter-productive, that we’re stifling more creativity than we’re encouraging, and are keeping valuable new ideas from spreading. The only way to figure that out is to have a better understanding of creativity, and talking to artists seems like a pretty intuitive way to build that understanding.

The thesis goes into a lot more detail on all of this. There’s a brief history of copyright law that tries to explain why it showed up in the first place, and a slightly more thorough rundown of creativity theory. If you just want to know what the songwriters think, you can skip to the last three chapters and ignore the rest. If you’re just looking to skim, chapters 4 and 5 are by far the most interesting, I’d say, and have the most quotes. Or, y’know, don’t read it at all. It’s a 100 page academic paper, and even though I tried to make it as readable as I could, that’s not going to appeal to everyone. In any case, if you’re curious, here it is:
(The feature image on the main page is Brandon Bird’s Two Warriors Emerge from the Sky, speaking of artists who make fantastic use of creative borrowing…)

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