Let’s Get Litigious: This Just Happened!

Here are the basics: Car Seat Headrest is a group (mostly mastermind Will Toledo) that has produced 13 albums, most of which were distributed via Soundcloud and other Internet outlets. They were finally snatched up by the well-known indie label Matador and proceeded to release Teens of Style last year, which the author of this very sentence called the “ third best album of 2016.

The followup, Teens of Denial, was designed to catapult Car Seat Headrest into the stratosphere (within the parameters of indie rock). Matador is an established label with a great pedigree of artists (Pavement, Yo La Tengo, Guided by Voices, Neko Case, among others), and they certainly had the cash flow to promote this music properly.

One tiny snag, though. Toledo the songwriter is fond of jumping around between genres, grabbing bits he likes and incorporating them into the mix. He’s also not shy about his influences, which may have been the thing that got him into trouble. Initially (and you’ll find out why later), the first retail (physical and digital) copy of Teens of Denial included the track “Not What I Needed/Just What I Needed.” Though ultimately structured around an original track, this track contains several portions that are strongly reminiscent of (read: nearly identical to) the classic song “Just What I Needed” by the Cars. Everyone on earth knows that song. Kim Jong-un knows that song. Sure, he claims that he wrote it, but he’s aware of it! Anyway, here it is:

Sponsored link (story continues below)

And here’s the Car Seat Headrest Track.

I think it’s fairly obvious that the intro of the new track is designed to be reminiscent of the old. But there’s never any attempt to obscure this fact. Toledo is “sampling” the song as a diversion from the main melody, and he’s calling attention to it in an obvious manner. It’s a cheeky homage, at absolute worst a mere parody. My dubious legal judgment aside, the actual controversy comes from the fact that due to a miscommunication, Matador was under the impression that they had songwriter Ric Ocasek’s permission to use the song. As you may have surmised, they did not.

What’s that you say? “Good thing the record label found out about this situation before the album was formally released so they could make necessary arrangements!”

Yes, that would have been nice.

In fact, this all came to light after thousands of copies of the album were already released to the public on CD and vinyl. Any unsold copies now hasto be destroyed, and the album needed to be reissued with a replacement track in place of the offending song. All in all, Matador ate at least $50,000. This is small potatoes if you’re Warner Brothers, but presumably substantial even for an indie lynchpin like Matador.

Incidentally, the album Teens of Denial is pretty terrific in any incarnation, but that’s not super-relevant here. Ultimately, I’m not sure where I land on this controversy. One part of me wants to tell Ric Ocasek to quit being a baby and let the young kid use the damn song. It’s pretty clear that Toledo takes a page from Ocasek’s book (as well as many other songwriters) in some of his music. Why not take this homage for the flattery that it is?

But then I think, “Hey, they didn’t have permission.” These laws are here for a reason. For every well-meaning artist like Toledo, I have to presume there are song-grabbers out there, waiting to cash in on someone else’s idea.

Where does sampling fall in on the spectrum of “acceptable use?” Hip-hop music is largely based on a culture of sampling and referencing. It’s a way to nod toward the past in a respective way, while providing an artist with a jumping-off point. Why shouldn’t rock music work the same way? Or are the rules different?

I hope to get a spirited discussion going. Weigh in with your thoughts, gang!




2 comments to “Let’s Get Litigious: This Just Happened!”
  1. What a mess… It’s a hell of and song and a hell of an album.The funny thing about it too is that they had copies of the album in the mail before its destruction. I think that a few people I know received the original. I really respect The Cars but, I have to call Ocasek out for dickishness on this one. Also, whoever approved the production of the album has to be going through hell at Matador right now.

  2. Pingback: Mid-2016 Mix Tape | Rocknuts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *