February 4, 2019 Musicology No Comments

First, what’s a soundalike?

Imagine for a minute you’re in advertising. You’re working on a campaign; a commercial maybe. You’ve been trying to figure out the perfect messaging and visuals, and you’re ask yourself, “what about music?” And then a song pops into your head, a familiar song that everybody knows and relates to, and it’s gonna be perfect for your commercial. So, you start planning how the other elements will play alongside it. It’s the centerpiece around which your other elements revolve. Great, it’s all coming together!

BUT…

Right around the time you get all of that figured out, you find out the licensing for that track will cost a fortune. Or worse yet, you find out the recording artist has NO interest in being associated with your product or brand at any price! So do you go back to the old drawing board? Of course not! You get a soundalike. It’s done all the time.

At this point you can guess what a soundalike is — it’s pretty much what you’d think it is — a piece of music deliberately created to imitate and resemble an existing well-known song. It should achieve the goals of setting the same tone and evoking the same feelings. And it will cost a tiny fraction of what one would pay to license a popular song. Much of the time, a soundalike is the plan from the start.

But first, there’s the matter of legality. You are definitely walking a line. And that line is largely made up of a tricky concept called “significant similarity.” Your soundalike seeks to be similar without being “significantly similar” to the piece that inspired and informed it. And it can be done, but you should consider working with a musicologist.

Musicologists are asked to analyze and discern significant similarity from insignificant similarity all the time. That’s what we do.

Then secondarily there is for some a morality argument that mostly assumes it’s inherently wrong to intentionally write something that’s like something else. They take the approach that if you’re “trying get away with it,” and skirting somehow then you’re already in the wrong. But I think this is misplaced, at least in an absolute sense. All composers are inspired by other artistic expressions and certainly from pieces of music we admire. There’s nothing inherently wrong with writing a piece of music to be like another’s work in some ways. There’s a right way to do it and a wrong way to do it. Obviously there’s a line beyond which a song might be too specifically derivative to be original but most music is derivative of something. Does intent alone make the finished product a copy? Unless the composer intentionally infringed (which would be insane), no, the finished product stands on its own. If the new (albeit inspired) work is itself sufficiently original, then it doesn’t infringe. That intent is irrelevant.

So the task, and some composers can do it deftly, is to simply to achieve two goals, “similarity” and “originality.” It’s begging the argument to use phrases like “walking a line” or “getting as close as you can without getting TOO close.” It’s more even handed to say to write a piece that is effectively “insignificantly similar,” emulate some of the qualities of the original by employing elements not particularly unique to the original track, and thus not protected by its copyright. It can certainly be done both legally and morally.

But “how” can be mysterious so I try to use this analogy. Music is quite a bit like writing. Authors tell infinite unique stories while using shared language and common devices established and often well worn by past works. Music is a language too, and importantly it’s the common well-established musical devices from past works that help make make new original music, especially popular music, recognizable and enjoyable. If every song were a complete novelty, not connectable to anything we’d ever heard before, we’d have a whole lot harder time enjoying new stuff. Nobody wants that. Copyright law doesn’t want that. Or shouldn’t.

So go ahead and use a soundalike. Just know that it’s perilous. There are boundaries and parameters and it’s not always as well understood by composers as you’d expect. So consider getting a musicologist to clear it before you put yourself in harm’s way.

Written by Brian McBrearty