The legal row between Leona Lewis and DJ Avicii has been settled, but it highlights the rough deal songwriters can get when ownership of a track is unclear
Last week week the DJ Avicii v Leona Lewis saga came to a happy ending, as they settled a legal dispute in which the 22-year-old Swedish DJ had attempted to get a high court injunction to block the release of Lewis's new single, Collide, alleging that the instrumental track for the single was copied from Avicii's forthcoming single, Fade Into Darkness.
So how did Lewis end up recording an almost identical track to Avicii's without realising their releases were going to, er, collide? It'sbecause of the common practice ? especially among DJ/producers and dance labels such as Avicii's label Ministry of Sound ? of sending out a track to a multitude of topline writers, asking them to come up with melody and lyrics (the topline) for the track. The writers then have to record said topline, so the DJ can have his pick of the bunch and select the one he/she likes best. In this case, one of the topline demos containing Avicii's backing track that was not picked found its way to Lewis, who recorded it, prompting the dispute.
This practice is not something favoured by most topline writers I know. If you're one of eight people writing to the same track chances are your melody will sound similar to the others, and so ? if your topline isn't picked ? it's likely that your work will have been for nothing, as you won't be able to use the topline for anything else (though, with any luck, you may be able to use the lyric). On top of the time you've spent, you may also have had to pay to record the vocal. You may also have had to hire a singer ? which can cost hundreds of pounds, unless you managed to convince them to do it for free, if there's a chance of them performing the track (most don't like working on spec, though).
There is a way, however, to prevent misunderstandings. If a songwriter doesn't want their co-writer using any of the song for another track they can commit their "intent to make a song", which prevents any of the parties ripping the song apart. Award-winning songwriter and record producer Bill Padley says he sends out a legal disclaimer making clear that if his melody isn't used after doing a topline, it reverts to him, and the track back to the track writer. "If they don't agree, I don't do it," he says.
That's not the only way songwriters can lose control of their song. It's common for artists to demand songwriting credits on a track ? jokingly called "change a word, get a third" by songwriters ? sometimes without having anything to do with the writing. An artist once demanded 70% of a song I had worked on, if she decided to record it. As the song was a three-way co-write, that would've left the three of us who actually had written it with 10% each. If an artist gets a co-writing credit like this, and then leaves the track off the album, they can prevent it being recorded by anyone else, as composers have the right to decide who will release the first recording of a song (they don't, however, have a right to deny anyone from covering it after the first release).
This right could also have been used by Avicii to stop the release of Collide. All he had to do was prove he wrote the track ? something no one seemed to dispute. According to Digital Spy, Radio 1 DJs Pete Tong and Annie Mac had been playing the instrumental of what's now called Fade Into Darkness (back then it was called Penguin). When Avicii accused the Leona Lewis camp of stealing it, Collide's producer, Sandy Vee (whose previous work includes David Guetta's Where Them Girls At, Rihanna's Only Girl), addressed the issue on Twitter: "Talk only if you know what u r talking about ? if not shut up. FYI, check the credits, u will find Tim Berg, Autumn and I." Tim Berg is Tim Bergling ? who is DJ Avicii.
Autumn is Autumn Rowe, who is credited as the topline writer on Collide. In an interview with Digital Spy, she talked about writing Collide. "She [Leona] wasn't involved in [writing] it, but what happened was, I was working with her and we were just about to go to Sweden," said Rowe. "I had three days in New York and I was going to go see her and I wrote the song then." Does that mean Rowe wrote it before she even heard DJ Avicii's track?
Meanwhile, Leona tweeted: "With regards to my song, avicii was aware & agreeing publishing splits for himself and his manager."
Avicii responded: "Thanks for accusing me of lying and speaking on my behalf. Since we never met or even spoke, please let me and my manager know who told you that and what confirmation they gave you." He insisted no permission had been given to use his track, and that he never even heard Collide before it went to radiio.
There's an irony in that dance music is notorious for borrowing from and using other tracks. It raises the questions: what makes an instrumental track unique? And what is more important ? the track or the topline? You can't copyright a chord progression, but a distinct hook line is a different matter (think the Abba hook used in Madonna's Hung Up). Even if someone replays a hook instead of sampling it they still have to ask permission and credit the person who came up with it ? as well as negotiating how big a piece of the publishing should go to the hook line writer.
And maybe that's where things went wrong between Avicii and the other writers of Collide. Maybe he didn't like the splits. Or, maybe, Ministry of Sound was piling on the pressure ? after all Avicii would get paid for both tracks, but MoS could lose out on sales as Collide may take some thunder away from their track. He has expressed his dismay that his label will get no reward for a track he recorded for MoS.
In the end, though, the whole ordeal has ended up promoting both artists and their new singles. There's one thing that puzzles me, though. Leona Lewis tweeted: "When Avicii sent his track out to have a song written over it I totally fell in love with this version and I think he's super talented." If the track was sent out as a track to be recorded for his album, how come Lewis heard it? And how come she decided to use it for her own album?