- Orange Sky
The idea of an mp3 blog, from what I can gather, is to post songs that are good. Or at least songs that you like. Or maybe just songs you think other people should hear. But what about a song you think people should hear (if they haven't already, which would probably be unlikely for reasons we'll get to in a moment) but you don't necessarily think is good? I'm not sure if Alexi Murdoch's "Orange Sky" is a "good" song or not, I'm on the fence as to whether I can say I like it or not without adding a caveat, but there's something intriguing about it, something that makes me think it's worth posting.
In last Sunday's LA Times Calendar section there was an article about the recent phenomenon of DVD TV binging, and I must admit that I seem to fit the profile of a TV binger. Naturally possessing something of an obsessive personality, if I find a TV show that I like (which is becoming less rare lately; either I'm getting dumber or television is getting better) I tend to consume everything I can about it in a short period of time. The first time I saw an episode of Oz
I devoured four seasons in as many weeks. It took a couple weeks to get through the first season of Numb3rs
, mostly because I kept each disc longer than usual as I tried to convince friends to watch the episodes with me and get on board with how fucking brilliant and subversive the show is. I watched the entire British Office
series in a few days, watched the first American season in one day and then spent another reading every season 2 script online (the DVD release date just seemed too far away at the time). Currently I'm 3 discs into the first season of Lost
. And recently I just finished season 1 of Prison Break
, which if I wasn't desperately trying to get out of this television digression and back to the subject of music I would tell you is the best show on TV and then I would get into all the reasons why. It was in an episode of Prison Break
that I first came across the song "Orange Sky".
But like I said before I can't tell you if I like the song or not, or even if I liked it that first time I heard it. Obviously I was interested enough to find out what the name of the song was, but I think that had more to do with my interest in songs used on television than in that particular song. I've always been fascinated by what's going on behind the curtain. I'm not just obsessed with pop songs themselves, I'm obsessed with everything about them: how they're written, how they're recorded, how they're used. I love learning the intricacies of copyright law, the finer points of publishing deals, everything that encompasses Industry Rule Number 4080. And perhaps at the heart of this fascination are the ethical dilemmas that inevitably arise when we're talking about a multi-billion dollar industry that revolves around an art form. What grabbed me about Alexi Murdoch's song wasn't the lyrics or the vocals or the chord progression - it was why was I even hearing this song? Why did the producers of Prison Break
decide to use this particular song? And why did Alexi Murdoch agree to give permission?
Just in case anyone is unclear, music used in film or television is licensed differently than music on record. To oversimplify it: I could record a cover of "Orange Sky" if I wanted to and I don't need anyone's permission. I'm issued a compulsory mechanical license and I can legally record and release a cover of any song I want as long as I pay the set license fee (currently 9.1 cents per record if the song is under 5 minutes long). But to use a song for film, television, video games or any other medium where music is synchronized with images, a different license, called a synchronization license, is required. And unlike a mechanical license, there is no set fee for a synch license - it's entirely negotiable. And it requires permission. So when you hear some horrific cover on the radio, say for example that Used/My Chemical Romance cover of "Under Pressure" from awhile back, you can sleep well at night knowing that David Bowie and the Freddie Mercury estate had no control over that. But if you heard that same song in a car commercial, when you hear Bloc Party shilling for Target, when you see The Spinto Band jumping from the pages of blogs to selling diamond rings in the blink of an eye, when you hear the latest cool "indie" band in an episode of The OC
, it means that somebody made a choice. Somebody said yes.The OC
is actually a perfect example to use when talking about the ethical choice of bands issuing synch licenses. It was an interview with The OC
's Josh Schwartz in Billboard
that launched a heated debate in my Music Publishing class about the responsibility of an artist letting their music be used on television. In the interview Schwartz revealed that the only band to ever say no to him was the Arcade Fire. I loved the Arcade Fire already, but this revelation shot my respect for them through the roof. However my teacher, a lawyer in his mid 60's who gave us constant lectures about how file-sharing was really file-stealing, immediately dismissed the band's decision as "stupid". He was of the opinion that the lucrative nature of licensing your songs for film and television was enough to completely dispel any notions of artistic integrity. He even admitted that as a lawyer for publishing companies he would frequently try to get songwriters to sign away they're rights of refusal and to let the publisher worry about when to give license permission. The only point that he would concede was that if an artist had a moral objection to the products being advertised - like tobacco or alcohol - then it was OK to say no. But what if the artist's moral objection is to the very idea of their art being used to sell products? When I asked this question he looked at me like I was Bill Maher and I'd just commented on the bravery of suicide bombers.
So let's talk about Alexi Murdoch. Here's an artist who appears to have absolutely no qualms about selling his songs to film and television. And he's selling to whoever's buying. Looking the song up after seeing it on Prison Break
, I found out that this is far from the first time it's been used. It was featured in the films Garden State
and Ladder 49
. It was used in the trailer for Paradise Now
. Besides Prison Break
it's been used on Dawson's Creek
and the aforementioned OC
. It's been used in commercials for Honda and Hallmark. This is a new kind of hit song. It's been used so ubiquitously that I'm sure Murdoch has made as much money off of it as any pop hit, and yet I've never heard it on the radio, I've never seen his name on any kind of pop chart. He retains the low profile of an indie artist but gets the royalty checks of a superstar. His Wikipedia page, despite rattling off the instances of "Orange Sky"'s appearance onscreen, stresses his indie pedigree with this story:"... when he took his music to a record company... the record company guy popped the disc into his computer rather than a stereo and then proceeded to stare at the counter on the screen waiting to see how long it took to get to the chorus, et cetera. This is when he supposedly knew he had to go the indie route."
It's a nice anecdote, but a little too perfect I think. Sounds more like something from a press savvy one-sheet on some Sprite "Image is Nothing" shit. The indie artist battling the big bad record company used as a marketing strategy. But maybe I'm just cynical, and maybe I'm wrong. Maybe Murdoch is a struggling independent artist who is a sparkling example of DIY spirit but just happens to drive a Honda and uses Hallmark greeting cards. He's simply a huge fan of all those movies and TV shows. And maybe that makes it OK. That was Bloc Party's excuse for being the center of the Target campaign. And even the bands who have said no to the OC
promotional behemoth have popped up elsewhere around the dial- Arcade Fire on Six Feet Under
, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah on The Office
. But there's something about "Orange Sky" that just doesn't sit right with me.
I think I've overanalyzed the song way too much to speak objectively about it now, but I want to at least attempt to decipher whether it's actually a good song or not. I have to confess that I was motivated enough to pay for and download it (albeit from allofmp3 so it only cost a few cents) and I have listened to it dozens of times now. But is it because I genuinely like it or because I knew I wanted to write about it? Observer bias like a motherfucker. I can say at least that I don't hate the song. It's not like I could ever write about something like "My Humps", because I wouldn't be able to bear listening to it over and over. But I can listen to "Orange Sky". Apparently, I've been able to listen to it 19 times over the last week or so. And that might be part of the problem. It's so completely unoffending that I can just tune it right out. It's a softly strummed acoustic song, with a mildly catchy refrain, Murdoch's voice is soothingly bland, and the lyrics are just meaningless enough that I can hang whatever importance I want on them. The lyrics in particular seem to be what makes the song so appropriate for cinematic moments. The song scores a scene in Prison Break
when it seems like all hope is lost for the series' protagonist, it appears he's not going to be able to save his brother's life after all, and Murdoch's hushed "Brother you know it's a long road we've been walking on" is given emotional weight. But taken out of context (or I guess, put back in it's original context) this line doesn't really mean anything, it doesn't go anywhere. In the next couplet he's singing about his sister and then about how weary and heartbroken he is and then at some point he finds salvation in somebody's love, although it's never quite clear whose love he's talking about. But it must be important since this is the chorus.
And in a way, this is what a good song is supposed to do. An old industry maxim is that no one cares what you have to say, they only care about how what you have to say relates to them. And I think this is true, the songs I really connect with are ones that I find my own meaning in. I've never been in love with anyone with pale blue eyes and yet when I listen to the Velvet Underground's "Pale Blue Eyes" I somehow find it completely relatable. But the difference is, I would rather invest my own meaning into lyrics as unique and complex and personal as "If I could make the world as pure and strange as what I see/I'd put you in the mirror I put in front of me." than the milque toast "My salvation lies in your love." "Orange Sky" is like the musical equivelant of the weekly horoscope. So vague and general that you can be tricked into thinking it was written just for you.
All this of course still doesn't answer the question of whether it's a good song or not. But to define exactly what makes a song good is probably beyond the scope of any mp3 blog, even one as wordy as ours. Does the fact that "Orange Sky" has been recycled for so many commercials and trailers and TV shows make it bad? Does it make Alexi Murdoch a bad person, or an unethical artist? Going back to the question I posed to my professor - should you have moral objections to other people using your art for commercial purposes? I don't have answers to any of these questions and I don't think it matters. But I do think, especially as artists and record companies trying to fight the onslaught of digital downloading are scrambling to make a buck wherever they can, in a time when it's no longer a shock to hear one of your favorite songs in a TV commercial, when 'sell out' no longer seems to be a dirty word... what is important is that, even if the answers don't come easily, we still ask the questions.
to buy Alexi Murdoch's Time Without Consequence
(Watch the second season of Prison Break
, Monday nights on Fox.)