Why the Tom Petty/Sam Smith settlement matters

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Let me preface this by saying I’m a big Tom Petty fan. He’s one of those rare and precious artists that has honest and gritty lyrics that appeal to rock fans yet has catchy enough hooks to appeal to pop fans. He makes it possible for you and your parents to go on a road trip together. That’s a gift. I am however not a fan of Sam Smith, the first time I heard Stay With Me I thought Josh Groban had a head cold and someone had put his manhood in a vice.

That being said, I think this entire business of Stay With Me ripping off I Won’t Back Down a little absurd. Yes, I’ve seen the video where one track is sped up, while the other is slowed down and they are overlapped to reveal that the first two lines of the chorus match up. Great. The fact that altering the songs is necessary here should set off some alarms.

Let’s compare the two on a superficial level. One is a song about kicking ass in the face of adversity. The other is a guy whining to someone he doesn’t even seem to love to stay with him, because I can only imagine no-one else can bare to hear him whine. One is sung with conviction and machismo, big ol’ swinging brass danglers. The other is sung like he’s watching his cat die. One has a kickass bluesy guitar riff. The other sounds like before he died, his cat walked across a piano very slowly. One makes me want to go out and conquer something, parachute off a tall building. The other makes me want to jump off the same building without the aforementioned parachute.

See where I’m going here? The similarities really end at a slowed down melody. I really don’t think Sam Smith had I Won’t Back Down in mind when he wrote this song. Yet, true to his song, he didn’t even have the fortitude to defend himself in court.

Why do I care so much that Sam Smith now has to pay Tom Petty royalties? Because it sets a very dangerous precedent. There’s only a finite amount of melodies out there. All music at some point is ripping something else off, intentional or not. If we’re going to start comparing songs based on a melody being similar, we’re opening a Pandora’s Box that may never end. As if the music industry wasn’t deteriorating enough, now they’re going to have to worry about whether or not any part of their song may vaguely resemble any other of the billions of songs released before it? That’s not good for anybody.

Words – Richard Brunette

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