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Who owns a song?
In Western music there are 12 notes, a handful of note values (whole, half, quarter, et cetera) and only so many ways that they can be arranged and combined in different rhythms -- making something completely original virtually impossible. The use of samplers, which directly borrow from source music as much or as little as the operator desires, muddies the ownership question even further. For example: Was "U Can't Touch This" a new song, a different version of Rick James' "Super Freak," or a collaboration between James and M.C. Hammer?
Britain's Lo Fidelity Allstars present a new twist on this dilemma. Their breakthrough song, "Battleflag," from How to Operate With a Blown Mind (Skint/Columbia), is a remix of a song by Seattle duo Pigeonhed from the Sub Pop LP The Full Sentence. Pigeonhed's "Battleflag" was originally released in 1997 and stayed under the radar of most record buyers, which was good because Pigeonhed singer Shawn Smith copped a bit of a Prince lyric (from "Sexuality"). When the Lo Fis remixed the track for Pigeonhed's remix record, Flash Bulb Emergency Overflow Cavalcade of Remixes, they stripped everything but Smith's vocals and wrote entirely new music. The singing that they kept contained the Prince quote, though the Lo Fis were unaware that any of the lyrics came from Prince. "Battleflag" was later remixed a second time by the Lo Fis, with the lyrics of the short guy from Minnesota taken out; that is the version that appears on the Lo Fis record. (Lucky for Pigeonhed, who never paid Prince for the use, he never heard their version.)
So whose song is "Battleflag" now? If the Lo Fis had kept the Prince lyrics, the Purple One probably would have taken all of the publishing money, even though it was only a rehashing of his lyrics and not his voice. In Blown Mind's liner notes, a little p in a circle and the words "Sub Pop" appear just below "Battleflag feat. Pigeonhed" -- meaning that the song's copyright is held by Pigeonhed and its label.
Phil Ward (a.k.a. "the Albino Priest"), de facto leader-DJ of the Lo Fis, understands the game, but it doesn't make him any happier. Speaking during a break from recording the Allstars' next record, he halfheartedly complains about not seeing any of the dough from his band's first hit. "All the publishing [money] goes to [Pigeonhed]; we're not making a penny off of it," he explains. "It is a bit sickening because it looks like [it's going to be] the biggest thing that we're going to have."
Typically a band sees no profit from its records until it sells more than 500,000 copies. In contrast, publishing money is immediate and usually handled outside of the confines of the record company. Whoever owns the publishing has the ability to license the song, so when "Battleflag" was recently used in The Mod Squad and Forces of Nature, Pigeonhed probably garnered high five-figures from each. When a sample of a song is used, it must be licensed in the same way. Generally a sampled artist is listed as a cowriter for a song, receiving part of the publishing money or an up-front dollar amount.
"It's the nature of the music we make," he continues. "I was looking at our publishing statement, and I think we've paid out 50,000 pounds [approximately $81,000] for samples so far. It's quite silly. I don't mind paying people, especially if it's some old '50s or '60s soul singer who probably at the time didn't make a penny from the recording. I think it's fair enough that they get some money, get their dues. But it's when you sample the big acts, the ones that have their lawyers and the publishers -- they're the ones that take you to the cleaners. It gets a bit annoying when you've sampled one bar of a groove that you've reversed, cut in two, and chopped around so it hasn't gotten any resemblance to the original sample, but you have to pay anyway."
Ward's frustrated take on song ownership doesn't do much to clear up the debate. He loves Smith's vocals on "Battleflag" but insists that, because the Lo Fis created totally new music, they should be given partial credit. He didn't fight it out with the band or Sub Pop but is nonetheless concerned with the financial issues. "I know that we took off all the original music, but without his vocals the song wouldn't be the same song, we'd never deny that," Ward says. "The music we wrote is really catchy and suits the song, but his vocals are amazing," he gushes.
The Lo Fidelity Allstars were originally just DJs spinning records at parties. But shortly into their career they began creating music on their own as something to throw into their sets. Ward hooked up with singer Dave (a.k.a. "The Wrekked Train") in 1996, and the two did some home recording. It worked so well they put together a band (now including Andy "A One Man Crowd Called Gentile," Johnny "The Slammer," Martin "The Many Tentacles," and Dale, a.k.a. "Pelemaloney") and promptly got themselves signed to Skint, the British big-beat label and home of Fatboy Slim.
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