Cross-generational feuds are the most interesting ones because they throw into sharp relief how our music culture has changed. Today: Don Henley of The Eagles aired his grievances about Frank Ocean’s sampling and Okkervil River’s covering of his work. It should first be noted that neither of these things were done with permission, but they also weren’t being sold. Frank Ocean’s “American Wedding,” which samples the instruments of “Hotel California,” was distributed for free on the nostalgia, ultra mixtape and Okkervil River’s rendition of “The End of Innocence” was the cap on Golden Opportunities 3, a free covers EP. So no one was making any money off of Don Henley or even remotely taking credit as original creators. Still, Henley says:
Mr Ocean doesn’t seem to understand US copyright law. Anyone who knows anything should know you cannot take a master track of a recording and write another song over the top of it. You just canít do that. You can call it a tribute or whatever you want to call it, but it’s against the law. That’s a problem with some of the younger generation, they don’ t understand the concept of intellectual property and copyright.
For his part, lead singer of Okkervil River, Will Sheff, penned a response in Rolling Stone. He writes:
Woody Guthrie took the melody from the Carters’ “Little Darling Pal of Mine” and he wrote “This Land Is Your Land.” Robert Johnson took the already-existing blues tales about selling your soul to the devil and they ended up incorporated into his whole image. Bob Dylan took the Scottish ballad “Come All Ye Bold Highway Men” and used it for “The Times They Are A–Changin’.” Nina Simone transformed the ridiculous Morris Albert MOR ballad “Feelings” and improvised re-written lyrics, stretching the song over the 10-minute mark and creating something harrowing from it.
I became convinced that the soul of culture lay in this kind of weird, irreverent-but-reverant back-and-forth. And I concluded that copyright law was completely opposed to this natural artistic process in a way that was strangling and depleting our culture, taking away something rich and beautiful that belonged to everyone in order to put more money into the hands of the hands of a small, lawyered few.
What Sheff is talking about is the cultural conversation — artists learn from and influence each other, work inspires more work, and every piece of art is a response to another like a beam of light in a hall of mirrors. A piece of art owes its existence to what came before. But an anti-copyright free culture is a little farther than that — and it only works in a non-existent utopia.
The Pitfalls of Free Culture
I’m uncomfortable with Sheff’s argument that copyright is an oppressive force. Copyright law has its problems — for example, Disney’s ability to keep raising the legal ceiling to resist sending Mickey Mouse into public domain, after building their empire on public domain, seems to be against the spirit of copyright. But let’s not forget that it’s also a way of claiming your voice in the cultural conversation. It prevents larger machines from ripping off small artists. This kind of reverence for copyright is more common among illustrators and visual artists, who are all too used to seeing their work stolen without compensation by big brands like Urban Outfitters.
This matters because in Sheff’s ideal free culture, where art is completely free of ownership, only the financially privileged are able to continue making art. If no one can claim exclusive rights to their work, art becomes a classist field because only those that can afford 0 income can continue to sharpen their craft. Everyone else, needing to pay rent, will either drop it or lose time for it working a day job. Copyright makes sure their work can’t simply be reappropriated.
Copyright also matters because sometimes restraints can act as useful prompts. As thrilling as adaptations can be, it’s always more exciting when someone is forced to say something original. One of the greatest works in the medium of comic books is Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, which stars original characters. But it wasn’t always intended to be that way. It was supposed to star Charlton Comics characters like the Blue Beetle and The Question, and reckon with their characterization and history. Freed from those bounds, Moore & Gibbons created deeper, complicated and varied creations, and the result is a crowning achievement of the form.
I’m not saying that Ocean & Sheff haven’t made a career out of stirring, original work or that Henley is correct; this is just a critique of free culture. Henley is only correct in that he absolutely has the legal right to control how his art is viewed, even if it’s awfully short-sighted, narrow minded, and a bit of a dick move. It’s not a besmirching of his pedigree, it’s an opportunity. Copyrights protect your voice, but harmonies are always beautiful.
Any interaction with his work is viewed as interference.
Everyone stands to benefit from cross-generational partnerships. Look at the revival of Giorgio Moroder, who is suddenly getting premiere remixes and high profile gigs, thanks to Daft Punk. Look at the eminently cover-friendly Leonard Cohen, who enjoyed a second wind & career revival circa 2009. With the rise of Jeff Buckley’s cover, its prominence in Shrek and constant American Idol renditions, suddenly Cohen became a name to young people. Suddenly he could enjoy a successful new album in 2012, a spot at Coachella in 2009, a major world tour and coverage in media outlets that might otherwise forget him. Cohen was never going to be a footnote — but he would’ve been a past-tense artifact of music history, instead of a current, vibrant part of its modern fabric.
I know The Eagles don’t technically need a second wind in their career. They’re still selling out arenas, but they’re arenas in Bakersfield, California, stocked with 50 year old white couples. I don’t mean to be ageist, and that audience is as valuable as any other, but why wouldn’t you want that loyal base and reverence among a young tastemaking demographics? Why would you want to seclude yourself into such a small, insular world? Henley reveals his mindset in a quote from the interview:
We work really really hard on our material. We spend months writing it and years recording it. You don’t go into a museum and paint a moustache on somebody else’s painting.
Any interaction with his work is viewed as interference. Most of us who grew up in a youth culture of covers and remixes are able to see clear lines between an original work and a loving reference. Most of us would see it as drawing a mustache on a print out of a painting, not a painting itself. Henley’s ego won’t allow him to.
It’s a shame, too. It’s completely within his rights to burn these bridges, but he’s limiting his art’s lifespan. Everyone’s audience evaporates eventually, and passing its appreciation to new generations is how it replenishes. Sheff and Ocean are, in effect, leading people with modern tastes to a gateway to appreciating The Eagles. They’re asking people to consider Don Henley. It’s a shame that he would prefer to be behind thick glass, roped off from visitors, and tucked away in the corner of a museum.
Justin Pansacola is a writer living in Los Angeles. At the University of California, Riverside he received his degree in Creative Writing, not English, although he has resigned to the fact that no one cares about the difference. You can follow him on Twitter @wordcore. On some nights he looks up at the moon and wonders if you’re looking at the same moon, too.