February 9, 2017 Audio, Musicology No Comments

Explicit language and parental advisories on this one.

Beyonce is being sued in federal court in New Orleans because the estate of late YouTube notable Messy Mya claims her track “Formation” from the “Lemonade” album use the New Orleans bounce rapper’s voice without their consent.

And indeed, in”Formation” the voice of Messy Mya, whose legal name was Anthony Barre, is the very first thing you hear. It’s Mya who asks, “What happened at the New Orleans.”

The complaint evidently includes claims “willful copyright infringement, false endorsement, unfair trade practices and unjust enrichments.” But 20 million dollars?

Here’s a link to “Formation.”

And here’s a link to a Messy Mya’s video on YouTube. in which you’ll hear the “What happened at the New Orleans,” just a few moments in.

According to The Times-Picayune the lawsuit also says Messy Mya’s “B—- I’m back by popular demand” and “Oh yeah baby. I like that,” made it into the track as well and that these quotes, sometimes a recording of Messy Mya, and other times spoken by other performers, were a part of the tour’s performances. In other words, they were a part of the track and integral to the performances.

From a musicology standpoint the astounding thing here though is obviously the number. Well, no… actually the FIRST astounding thing is that they allegedly didn’t clear the sample. People, clear your samples! And wow, if you’re a deep pocket, individual or corporation, c’mon! Definitely clear your samples! But back to the musicology…

But the number, $20M, is astounding. Ordinarily forensic musicologists are called upon to analyze first whether copyright infringement has taken place, and then where it has, the next job is to what extent copyright infringement has taken place. Because this is the raw material from which damages are calculated.

Back of the napkin calculation would go something like, “How much has “Formation” earned for Beyoncé? And how much does “Formation” owe to the IP that it allegedly infringed upon.

And in this case?

This whole track is about 300 seconds long, less than two of which is this “What happened in the New Orleans” sample. One could argue it deserves some additional weight as the first thing you hear. It’s distinctive and heralding. On the other hand it’s not integral to the track at all. It’s standalone. Not musically foundational. (Not the “heart” as the Gaye lawsuit annoyingly says in their suit against Ed Sheeran, borrowing language from a landmark case of yor.)

I wonder if Skrillex got permission to sample that cup stacking girl on Scary Monsters. Gotta look into that just out of curiosity. That one is actually a part of the track. It’s arguably the only lyric!

But let’s keep it simple and just do a little basic math 1.5/300 is 4.5%. So this track is by some calculation 4.5% comprised of this sampled voice. Damages could be argued to be 4.5% of the track’s earnings.

I’ve seen the entire ticket sales of Beyonce’s Lemonade tour described as grossing 200 million or so. And I’ve seen Beyoncé’s 2016 earnings described as approaching but less than $100 million. And earnings from the record itself at a million and half sold?

That’s the whole tour, gross ticket sales, and the whole Lemonade album, not just this one track — miles away from just this one track. I’m not even going to bother trying to conjure up the 445 million dollars of Formation-related earnings that this suit implies.

This case has some extra weirdness around it besides. First in that Messy Mya was murdered

Let me say it again. If you’ve got deep pockets, clear your samples.


Written by Brian McBrearty