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Lana Del Rey/Radiohead Dispute Shows Why Major Labels Fail

Del Rey’s team should have known “Get Free” sounds like “Creep.”

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Let’s talk about this Lana Del Rey/Radiohead mishegas.

By now you probably know that Ms. Del Rey has released a track called “Get Free,” which sounds strikingly like “Creep,” a song recorded by Radiohead back in the day when Radiohead actually wrote and recorded objects recognizable as actual songs.

How does a major recording artist who really ought to know better release a song that sounds exactly like another well-known song?

I know how this happened. I really do. It’s the same damn reason that you are force-fed soul-numbing Target-aisle pop music all day.

Before I explain further, let’s do a wee fact-check: Lest we forget, Radiohead themselves were (successfully) sued for “Creep” due to it’s pronounced resemblance to “The Air That I Breathe,” which was a big hit for the Hollies in 1974. By the way, the Hollies didn’t write “The Air That I Breathe.” It was a cover of a song written by Albert Hammond and Mike Hazelwood, and originally recorded (two years before the Hollies’ version) by Hammond.

Now let’s move on and explain how Lana Del Rey can co-write, demo, record, mix, and release a song that sounds virtually identical to another very popular song.

(By the way, Ms. Del Rey’s real name is Elizabeth Woolridge Grant, which sounds like the name of a recent Swarthmore grad who beat you out for that internship you wanted because her Dad went to Cornell with the guy who runs the company.)

“Get Free” was the product of three writers and three producers, not to mention a little village of people who work for the record company and the publishers. Probably around a thousand people heard “Get Free” before it was released (that’s not an exaggeration), and virtually all of ‘em knew the thing sounded exactly like “Creep” (these people are sniveling, arrogant, and cowardly, but not stupid). Yet not one of these check-cashing chimps who spend more on sushi in a single day then you make in a week raised a single wasabi-stained finger and said, “So, listen, Lana, how should I put this…well…I have heard that exact melody before.”

(Lana and her sushi-flinging shaven apes could have at least chosen to rip off a song that everyone didn’t know. I mean, people do that all the time. Heck, give a listen to “Airplane Song,” a fairly obscure ditty from 1967 by The Royal Guardsman. Really, listen to it. The Beatles did, and lifted it lock, stock, and barrel for “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.” The Fabs knew the first rule of plagiarism: When you steal, steal from someone who is less famous than you.)

Here’s the reason none of those people spoke up:

Each and every one of them imagined their boss phoning them and saying, “Lana’s manager just called. Did you really freaking accuse Lana Del Rey of stealing a song?!?”

Every single person in that whole chain of cretins played out the scenario in their head and thought, “Heck, I don’t want to be the guy/girl who gets that phone call. Nuh-uh, not me. I’m keeping my mouth shut. I’ll just wander out in the hallway and take a good look at that Keurig machine. They’ve got a really fancy one here. Oooh! Trader Joes Columbian French Roast!”

Everyone at a Major Label is terrified of losing their jobs. Utter f-cking terror. And the surest way to lose your job at a Major Label is to get noticed. I’m going to repeat this because it is an essential point: The surest way to lose your job at a Major Record Label is to get noticed. And the surest way to get noticed is to do something/anything proactive, and that includes pointing out an issue with a major artist (no matter how legitimate that matter is), because remember, dammit, major artists have big-time lawyers and managers, each of whom have your boss on speed dial.

This is how you keep your job at a Major Record Label:

* Never actually do anything, therefore never making yourselves a target of anyone’s ambition;

* Never actually do anything, therefore never risk linking your name to anything that might fail;

* Never actually do anything, and therefore never risk that the lawyer or manager of a popular artist will pick up a phone and complain about you to your boss.

If you don’t do a goddamn thing, you will likely keep your job. Ironically, that’s how you survive in an industry that should thrive on encouraging and nurturing creativity.

Seriously, man, I know people (very decent people, too, by the way — cowardice is not necessarily a reflection of character) who have been at labels for twenty-five years, and there’s not one single thing they can point to and say, “Hey, I did that. I am proud of that.”

Sometimes a 401(k) is more important than pride. 

There is a reason you are subjected to utterly crappy music that does not speak for you, to you, or with you, and which seems so distant from the anger and energy and activism and attitude you wished and dreamed rock music would be. Remember the music your older brothers and sisters told you about? Remember, you used to think, ‘That will be mine one day, too!’ But instead, you are utterly surrounded by pop designed only to be heard inside of H&M and rattle the tinted windows of the car in the lane next to you. Where, friends, is your rock’n’roll dream?

Today’s Major Label music is manufactured by the Agents of Fear. On the rare occasions when a Major Label employee does take action, they are seeking the absolute quickest line between their office and immediate success (which generally means throwing something insanely obvious out there that sounds just like the other insanely obvious things out there). The idea of taking even the slightest chance, expressing some foresight or imagination, or investing anything in the future of pop culture has been utterly discarded.

This is no longer the industry of dreams. It is the industry of terror and the lowest possible expectations.

This is exemplified by what you hear on the radio but it is also perfectly characterized by the fact that Lana Del Rey can, at rather enormous expense, record and mix and release a song that so clearly sounds exactly like someone else’s song, and no one, not one single person in the entire chain of frightened people, said, “Uh, I’ve heard that song before.”

Every artist you have ever loved, every artist that has warmed your heart, every artist who has given you inspiration or courage, every artist who provided a model for your own identity or stirred your quest for individuality, was signed to a record label by someone who took a risk. Really. Whether it’s R.E.M. or Metallica and everything in between, they got a record deal because someone stuck their neck out, either a little or a lot.

That culture is dead, I mean absolutely dead.

The chance of a major label signing an act that matters to you, your friends, or your children is less than zero. I said matters to you, not distracts you. The labels will continue to fling lots and lots of distracting monkey poo out there.

Every corrupt system is a circuit. It requires you – the consumer, the listener, the voter, etcetera – to complete it. This is a start: don’t just abandon it – it is very likely you already have – but abandon it loudly. Abandon it with dollars, even if it’s only a few. Spend actual money on independent music, on the CDs and vinyl and downloads and especially t-shirts of the bands you love. And remind people that music of volume, grace, passion, and attitude is alive, no matter what anyone else says.

Thank you to Jack Rabid for first alerting me to the Hammond/Hazlewood stuff, and for being a great inspiration and legendary champion of independent music.