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

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