Music Business

Elvis Costello unbothered by pop star copying his riffs: ‘every musician does that’

Thrust directly into the spotlight thanks to her recent success, it is perhaps unsurprising that Olivia Rodrigo has become the target of accusations of theft and plagiarism by some of her more established peers. Not Elvis Costello, however, whose opinions on creativity and inspiration seem downright reasonable.

Guest post by Mike Masnick of Techdirt

Is there any cooler musician than Elvis Costello? Honestly, one of the more annoying things about writing about the ins-and-outs of copyright law and creativity is realizing just how many of my artistic (music, filmmaking, writing, etc.) heroes turns out to have absolutely dreadful opinions about creativity and inspiration, often ignoring how they got to where they got, and instead focusing on pulling up the ladder behind them and squeezing as much cash as possible out of others. So I’m always concerned when I learn about musician I like opining on these issues — especially over the last few years. You had the Marvin Gaye Estate cash in on a pop song that didn’t copy any Gaye song, but just had a similar “feel.” And that opened the doors to a whole bunch of similar lawsuits of aging rockers (or their estates) demanding money from newer artists.

But Elvis Costello apparently has decided to take the much more sane, much more creative, and much more supportive route. A few different artists have started whining about a new album by Olivia Rodrigo. It started with Courtney Love complaining about the promo artwork on Rodrigo’s new album being somewhat similar to Hole’s album “Live Through This.”

To be fair, Love didn’t get that upset, admitting “It happens all the time to me,” but she did call it “stealing” and saying that “not asking permission is rude” and “bad form.” I don’t think it’s any of those things. At most it seems like an homage. It might also be kind of an accident. The two sets of images are not really that close. And this is disappointing to see from Love, who twenty years ago famously wrote up one of the greatest screeds mocking record labels and the RIAA for their reaction to the internet.

But, then someone noticed that Rodrigo’s music also seemed to have homages in it. Billy Edwards said that her song “Brutal” seemed to be a “direct lift” from Elvis Costello’s “Pump it Up.” Listening to one after the other, you can definitely hear the similarities in the guitar riff, even though the songs themselves are extremely different.

But… rather than freak out about it, Elvis Costello stepped in on Twitter to make it clear that (1) he’s fine with it, and (2) this is how music works. Indeed, he points out that it’s how he wrote some of his own songs as well — “you take the broken pieces of another thrill and make a brand new toy.”

In fact, with the hashtags on that tweet, Costello notes that Pump It Up is itself a kind of remix of Bob Dylan’s famous Subterranean Homesick Blues, which itself was inspired by Chuck Berry’s Too Much Monkey Business.

As Costello rightly notes, this is how music works. Artists build on ideas of what’s come before. It’s homage, and how creativity works. You take ideas and inspiration from those who came before, and then you make your own thing out of it. And, in the long run, everyone does benefit. New fans learn the new songs — and as they get deeper into it it also helps them rediscover the pieces on which it was built as well. Only foolish people think that creativity springs forth disconnected from all else — or that every single inspiration must get a piece of whatever successful ideas newer artists come up with.

So, kudos to Elvis Costello for being quite clear in recognizing the nature of creativity, inspiration, and homage.

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