A large part of the online music landscape consists of covers, as anyone who’s ever tried to find a a music video on YouTube can readily attest. Accordionist Jackson Parodi is one of those cover artists, an accordion player who specializes in arrangements and performances of video game music. He recently posted this brief thinkpiece on the role of arrangement in the world of video game music, and it served as a strong reminder of the undervaluation of arrangement in the world of modern music at large.
When Glee stole Jonathan Coulton’s acoustic arrangement of “Baby Got Back” note-for-note, they didn’t have to pay him one red cent, because arrangements aren’t really protected/respected/understood as intellectual property in the modern musical landscape. In conversation with non-musicians, I myself heard time and again, “But why do they owe him anything? He didn’t write the song.” Well, he didn’t write the lyrics, no. But he wrote a chord progression. He wrote a melody. He wrote string parts. He wrote most of the elements of the song that people think of as being a “song,” and he even made slight alterations to the lyrics. And yet, Glee wasn’t obligated to give him anything for it, because it was a “just a cover.”
(Here’s Coulton’s, by the way. It’s great fun.)
We use that word a lot, “cover.” It’s a short and easy to pull out, but it’s also reductive. Apart from the occasional breakout smash (like John Cale’s cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”) we don’t generally acknowledge them as an accomplishment. After all, somebody else did the “writing,” right?
Well, not really. Making decisions about how you want to present a piece of music is a huge thing. It’s why a lot of more successful/prolific film composers will generally hire other people to orchestrate for them – those decisions comprise a gargantuan task, one that requires diligence and thoughtfulness. John Williams, Tim Burton, and Hans Zimmer can get more gigs if they write the melodies out and let somebody else set them – for orchestra, for electronics, for whatever suits the occasion. Budding musicians who are aware of this tend to talk about it like it’s something sinister. It’s not, necessarily. It’s unfortunate that the work of those other people seldom gets recognized, but there’s nothing inherently wrong about it. (Just for fun, let’s listen to the Batman theme. Danny Elfman has at least always given credit to his Oingo Boingo bandmate Steve Bartek for doing his orchestration work.)
Back in the day, they called covers “arrangements” and they were widely recognized as their own thing. Consider Brahms’s “Variations on a Theme by Paganini,” which has inspired over 150 years’ worth of imitations and homages in its own right. Or, since Brahms wrote new material for that, perhaps a more apropos piece would be Ravel’s orchestral arrangement of Modest Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.” Note the shared credit in the title of the YouTube video. This version is so prevalent that some people haven’t even heard the original piano piece.
Personally, I use the word “cover” when talking about a more straightforward performance, and “arrangement” when deliberate choices about instrumentation have been made. But the word “arrangement” has sort of dropped out of the public lexicon entirely, and that’s a problem.
(Here, for no reason, have this lovely cover of Katamari Damacy’s “Lonely Rolling Star” by Steven Universe composers Aivi & Surrashu.)
We tend to romanticize the notion of the “lone genius,” sitting along at a desk somewhere, lit by lamplight, crafting masterpieces. (This is partially why people feel betrayed to learn that film composers hire orchestrators.) The truth, though, is that a lot of great art is collaborative, and using someone else’s work to springboard your own is an idea that’s lasted for eons. It’s only recently – thanks in part to some of the more draconian aspects of American copyright law – that’s it’s been something that’s thought of as “less than.”
And in the end, I guess, that’s the thing: Any attitude that diminishes part of the world out-of-hand automatically makes your own world smaller. And that’s kind of a tragedy. There’s a whole big world of beautiful stuff out there waiting for you. Go find the parts you like.