If you’ve been watching the American Idol spin-off show The Voice on NBC then you’ve seen some amazing renditions of popular songs, some across genre, and others creative tributes to someone else’s version (not necessarily the original). What you wont see – even in the live shows – is any discussion of copyright or performance rights.
The Voice has followed in the footsteps of every preceding show with both planned and “spontaneous” performances of pop songs by sidestepping any conspicuous legal barriers inherent in performing licensed music. You might hear the occasional “when clearing this song…” as an introduction to some anecdote, but only once that I can remember in Season Two.
Sure, no one wants to watch a show where they spend half of their time talking copyright, or where a singer wants to perform “When a man loves a woman” but can’t because they couldn’t clear the rights in time, but the consequence is that producing and performing any song at whim seems simple and feasible – as if one need only decide to perform it, and it is there for the taking. What we don’t see is that not a note is played without contractual say-so, certainly in-line not only with the perceived “value” of the song, but also in tandem with what the new version will glean in digital sales. The Voice songs have topped iTunes after each show.
And yet, the verbiage of the “coaches” contradicts this idea. They consistently tell the singers: “You OWNED that song” or “You made that song your own”. When – in reality – not only do the singers have no ownership of the song, they likely have few if any rights to the licensed performance of that song, despite the implicate popularity.
It’s more of the same: where inherently creative derivative works or performances seem naturally to “belong to” the person who did them, but this doesn’t happen. I suppose it’s only good practice for the singers on the show, since – if they go on to deal with people in the music industry thereafter – they had better get used to people getting rich of their talent while they receive little or nothing.
I’m certainly not claiming that The Voice (a very decent show if only because it lacks the infused drama of pretty much every other reality show), is unfair to the contestants. All will be able to cash in on their new popularity, and the winner will receive a record deal and $100,000.
I’m more concerned with how this and so many similar shows portray performances as seamless and natural. How worries over rights are never a factor when choosing a song, but rather the decision is based solely on creative direction. This does a poor job of reflecting the reality of the music industry, and instead showcases a parallel universe where creativity ignores copyright and where artistic license flouts a performance license.