Unpacking Ownership and Music

I recently read two great pieces about cultural appropriation that reminded me of a minor music news story from last year, Kenan Malik in the New York Times and Briahna Joy Gray’s response of sorts for Current Affairs. 2016’s second best DJ (according to Resident Advisor), Jackmaster, aired out some grievances about other DJs lazily basing their playlists off his sets in a since-deleted Facebook post. Jackmaster does not own any of the songs he feels have been stolen from him, his control over the music in question is as limited as the control you have over what’s in your iTunes library. Comparatively, the African American community do not own the original version of ‘Hound Dog’ that became Elvis’ biggest selling song, the central example of cultural appropriation employed in the articles mentioned above.

Jackmaster bases his claim off the hours spent trawling through unorganised crates of records, or visiting the darkest, loneliest corners of Discogs, following the trail of potential material left by labels of bygone eras. His work ethic derives from a deeply passionate and proud place, and the offence taken is understandable since those on his coat-tails are undermining his hours spent uncovering and curating. Similarly, Big Mama Thornton’s vocal performance in her 1952 original ‘Hound Dog’ is undermined when Elvis waters down the lyrics about not feeding the dog ‘no more’- a euphemism for her cheating boyfriend – to some nonsense about a rabbit, making the song about an actual dog, repurposed to appeal to a wider pop audience.

For Jackmaster, the ‘lazy’ DJs that walk the path he furrowed are exploiting his hard work and benefiting financially from it, while he himself has to stand idly by in frustration, gaining nothing. For Big Mama Thornton and the wider African-American community, a white artist took a non-white piece of art, repackaged it for a white audience and made millions, with none of the profits making their way into the hands of those responsible. As Gray alludes to in her Current Affairs piece, exploitation should be the focus of the discourse. Building on the work of influential artists is integral to the wider progression of music, an obvious example being sampling in hip-hop, but when the actual creators are demoted to the periphery time after time, future victims are entitled to object.

There exists a phenomenon in everyday music fandom that makes the gripes of DJs and disgruntled cultures a little more relatable. Picture the scene, you play your friend a song you discovered after falling down the ‘related artists’ rabbit hole, who subsequently has the audacity to then play it for someone else. You feel betrayed; this was done without your consent, without even crediting your contribution, it is your friend who is allowed to bask in the satisfaction of the third party’s approval. You can’t articulate your offence to the thief because you know you have no claim. It is a somewhat inexplicable, sunken feeling, because you do not own the song. There are no available means of legal recourse. Just as your work in uncovering that song has been exploited, so has Jackmaster’s to a greater extent, and a whole cohort of people when we talk about cultural appropriation, in a more systematic and unrelenting way.

Recently, the industry dominance of Spotify has almost severed the connection between music fans and artists. While a single figure monthly subscription clears our conscience, it goes very little way to ensuring music remains a viable way to earn a living. As of last year, an artist would only manage to earn $100 after 703,581 streams, according to a report published by Audiam. Major licensing deals between Spotify and Universal, as well as Warner Bros, means all of the industry’s biggest players are profiting from Spotify’s surging subscription figures, while those creating the product are actually getting paid less per stream than they did two years ago, in spite of Spotify’s huge revenue increases. To the artist, Spotify is essentially an advertising space, where they can showcase the material they will play live, as they tour relentlessly to maintain a modest living.

Which is why, now more than ever, the music fan needs to be a conscious consumer. The feeling of entitlement and attachment we have to the music we love is healthy. It is what ignites an artist’s career, opens new venues and fosters subcultures and scenes. However, when our quest is dictated by paywalls and algorithms, we not only lose our only justification for feeling protective, but we undermine the work done in the studio, leaving our favourite artists unsupported and exploited. What it means to ‘own’ music has never seemed so unclear and yet been so significant.


Niall O’Shaughnessy – Music Writer

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