Open Letter to Joe Satriani from a Former Fan

Dear Satch,

I’ve been a loyal fan since I was in high school — when I played the song Always With Me, Always With You so many times I wore out and broke my cassette tape (I realize I’m dating myself here) Surfing With the Alien album.

I have to admit, though, some of your albums (the new CD versions I bought as soon as CD’s became popular) had been gathering a little dust on the shelf. But when I heard the new Coldplay song Viva La Vida, and heard people saying Coldplay stole it from you, I dutifully took out Is There Love in Space, dusted it off, and listened to If I Could Fly again. I do admit, they have a lot of similarities. But mostly, I was just glad for an excuse to listen to you again–I even got on the web to see what you’re up to these days. In that sense, all the publicity around your song and Coldplay’s is a good thing.

But then I read that you were suing them. And that’s where you lost me, “Saint” Joe (suing your neighbor is equally as unsaintly as stealing from him). Because I’m not sure what suing another music group will ever accomplish, except for making you look bad. Here’s what I mean:

When Coldplay first landed on my radar, I heard their song Clocks on the radio and immediately thought it sounded almost exactly like a song I wrote and recorded years ago with my high school garage band, right down to the repeating triplet piano part (which in our version was voiced by background vocals). Now, in my case, it’s obvious that there’s no way Coldplay could have possibly copied the song from us, as we only made a handful of demo tapes of the recording for our family and friends. But it does show how two separate musicians can come up with remarkably similar chord progressions and even riffs independently. When I heard Clocks, my only reaction was “Yeah, they must have good musical sense, ’cause I did that, too!”

So unless you think they deliberately sat down and said “Hey, how can we turn this Joe Satriani song into our own song” (which I think is highly unlikely, given the originality of most of what they do) I’m left asking myself why on earth you would want to sue them? Is it for the publicity? Because you’d have that even without suing them. Is it the money? Because the best way to make money as a musician should always be by writing and performing great stuff, not worrying about what “other” people are doing, and certainly not worrying about songs you wrote five years ago. Or worse — are you one of those musicians who thinks you have sole, eternal ownership of a certain way some notes are arranged on a piece of paper? I hope not, because if those sorts of musicians are successful (and I count Lars Ulrich as foremost among these), it will signal the end of creativity and growth in the music industry, not a new beginning.

I really, really hope you’ll consider backing down from your lawsuit, and recognizing Coldplay’s song for what it is: a good song that owes a debt not to you, but to whatever inspirational muse you’re both in debt to. And I hope you realize that before you lose too many fans in a new generation that overwhelmingly and unstoppably has radically new views on copyright and music ownership.  If you want to be around and relevant in the future, take a page from Radiohead’s playbook — not Metallica’s.

Despite all this, I’ll still probably go see you in concert if you’re ever in the New Jersey area. But now I’ll probably be a lot more hesitant to take my son — a burgeoning 4-year-old musician in his own right — with me. I’ll still listen to your albums, but I’m not sure how much money I’ll want to spend on them, when you seem to want to collect money in a different way. And when someday my son asks me the inevitable question about who I think is the greatest guitar player of all time…I don’t know what I’ll tell him. Because to me, greatness is about more than just technical skill. Great musicians are the ones who, in addition to precision and creativity, acknowledge at the end of the day that we don’t own the music. It’s the music that owns us.

Sincerely, but no longer yours,

Neal Locke


Comments

Open Letter to Joe Satriani from a Former Fan — 5 Comments

  1. You’re most likely correct that ColdPlay did not steal the song from Satch, However; the song was copywritten in the USA and it does use more than 51 percent of the melody. There for; Coldplay will pay Joe Satriani royalties for the use of his COPYWRITTEN material wether it was intentional or not. They could just choose not to sell in the USA any longer to lessen the burden, but they have already piled a big check for Joe they just don’t know it yet. Even then International law would take hold. I don’t think they used it intentionally. You would have to lock a kid in basement for a lifetime to get original art from anyone that wasn’t the product of someone elses art, and so forth and so on goes the amazing wheel of growth. I wouldn’t be using an IPOD if inventors of the 1700’s didn’t electricuit themselves to death…repeatedly..lOL! We grow from those that have lay the foundation for us to grow on. With tech moving at the present pace information trading hands will make this growth exponentially infest itself to oblivian. Hang on – I’m gonna PUKE…Hold my hair back…would you?

  2. @Brian and Gregory — you both completely miss the point. It’s not about whether or not Joe Satriani has a “right” to sue Coldplay. He does. It’s not about whether or not Joe Satriani owns the copyright to his original work. He does. It’s not even about whether or not Coldplay intentionally or unintentionally copied his song. Because I don’t really care about that.

    What I’m saying (whether you like it or not, whether you agree or not) is that it sucks to sue fellow musicians on the basis of copyright, especially in a cultural climate where copyright itself is growing less and less relevant to emerging generations of fans and cutting edge musicians alike. Face it — The old system of music publishing is dying, and trying to “cash in” on it by suing for royalties is just refusing to accept the inevitable.

  3. Dont get me wrong…I’m a big fan of both. I worshipped Joe growing up and admit that he still is a major influence in my life. I will always love him for it. But Viva la Vida is a beautifully written and produced song. (As is the the rest of the Album-I sorta regard it as my musical highlight of 2008)
    As a theme it carries nothing of Joe’s character. The two songs evoke completely different feelings in me…
    I quite like Neils insight into the copyright evolution, but as a musician, if I wrote a song with a melody only, and somebody used 51% of it, then adds lyrics and turns it into a world wide hit. I would want some SUBTLE recognition for it sure, but mostly I would be proud!!!

    But to sue? No ways…Coldplay did wonders with the melody and deserve their success!!!

    Joe, I’m sorry.

  4. At the company I work for I’m friends with the lawyer that deals with intellectual property issues. We’re a creative company and ideas and inspiration go back and forth all the time. No one creates in a vacuum. Period. We all are actively looking for and are influenced by others, consciously and subconsciously. The whole topic is really quite interesting because it really is about judgement calls as to when someone is stealing or someone is just inspired. I know of actual cases where someone has sued us, claiming intellectual property theft, which is basically a copyright issue, and it really wasn’t the case that someone stole, but that certain similarities were present although purely accidental. Because we’re a big company a lot of times we just settle out of court even when we are in the right just because it’s not worth it to drag the case to court to fight. And people know this and they take advantage. So it’s not always the case that the big bad corporation with their corporate lawyers are just looking to squash the little guy.

    When a person creates something, they do it for one of three reasons. One, for their personal enjoyment. Two, to make money. And three, for their personal enjoyment and to make money. I don’t see anything wrong with wanting to make and/or receiving money for the work that you do in creating something, even if that work is ultimately fulfilling and enjoyable.
    In my own field I’ve had to be very careful to analyze everything I take in for stimulation to make sure that what I find inspiring doesn’t become interpreted too closely or literally. You can take the feel of something that moves you and make it into something that’s your own but you can’t take the pieces/parts and just rearrange them. Again, it’s not an exact science and judgement calls are made. But even if you only just take the feel of something purposely, you are not being original. Being original is something that’s hard to define. When Van Gogh and others moved into that period call Impressionism, they were also just putting paint on canvas, like thousands of others before them. But it’s HOW they put that paint on the canvas. They were the first, unbelievably, to do it in quite that way. I can do a reasonable facsimile of an impressionist painting today, but no one will take the least bit of note, because I wasn’t the first to do it, as good as it might be. If I write a song or paint an illustration or create something out of my head that is the first to be done in quite that way, and money (as filthy as it is) is involved, and someone else comes along and takes the credit for it with something that is probably stolen hard work, a law suit might be in order.

    Neal, you said: “What I’m saying (whether you like it or not, whether you agree or not) is that it sucks to sue fellow musicians on the basis of copyright, especially in a cultural climate where copyright itself is growing less and less relevant to emerging generations of fans and cutting edge musicians alike. Face it — The old system of music publishing is dying, and trying to “cash in” on it by suing for royalties is just refusing to accept the inevitable.”

    I just don’t see it. What you’re saying might be true in extremely small idealistic pockets of music. I also don’t think that copyright issues ever were relevant to fans. The fans just want to hear what they want to hear, and if they can get it for free and without retribution they will. The fans don’t much care if the artist ever gets compensated. Napster showed that. But as long as there is money to be made and people need and like money, and if it can be demonstrated that theft has occurred, law suits will continue. Should they? In a perfect world, probably not. But I don’t think we’ve reached that stage quite yet.

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